It's getting hard to review the Tony Hawk series. That's because there have been so many incarnations of these nearly identical games, that I've run out of ways to explain the same mechanics. Two years have passed since Tony Hawk's American Sk8land came out for the DS, and while I wasn't expecting a completely new direction for the series, I was hoping it would make better use of the DS's capabilities.
One feature I'm happy to see back is the custom characters. As always, there is an abundance of options in this area, from pants to funny hats and even the ability to draw anything you want on your skateboard. If only the graphics weren't so poor you'd probably be able to make a pretty bad-ass looking skater.
Once you've got your skater all decked out, you travel around cities and skate parks looking for missions. Skating is done with the d-pad as various combinations of other buttons allow you to speed-up, jump, flip, hold and spin in different ways. It is like learning a new language. At first it’s difficult to understand, but after a little practice you become fluent and you don't even have to think before you act the way you want. The biggest problem I have with the controls is that they haven't taken any chances in changing things up with the touch screen. This seems to be the perfect opportunity to make some really innovative changes to the franchise.
Chaining moves together build up your style bar. Once full, you can touch the bottom screen to do a special move that scores massive points. My only problem with this is that they are no harder to pull than regular moves. In fact, I would say they are easier since there are no complicated combinations of buttons involved. Since the meter doesn't deplete as you use these moves, the best way to score on any mission is to simply grind till the meter fills up, then just use the special tricks over and over – way to reward skills.
Missions come from a variety of characters located throughout each area. I never did quite understand why a budding skater has to follow the requests of people like “Bum” and “Street Vendor” to prove himself, but I guess that's why I'm no Tony Hawk. While there are some new reasons for doing missions, such as helping a guy make a video or showing off to impress a girl, the actual tasks involved (score a lot of points, knock over some garbage cans, score a lot of points using grinds) are the same as always.
Each mission is rated as either “hardcore” or “professional.” A meter at the top of the screen shows you how much lean towards one or the other based on how well you do these missions. Then again, if you just kick ass in every mission, your rating will be stuck firmly in between both.
While the locations you visit are always full of ramps, bowls and interesting places to grind, this game allows you to customize your own skate park. You can use money earned from missions to buy different setups to go in your skatepark. This sounds like a long needed addition to the series, but no, they held back and only gave us a taste of what we've hungered for! There are only a dozen locations throughout your park where you can place things your bought, and even there, you can only select between one of three different setups. Really, would it kill them so much to just let us make our own park how we wanted? OK, maybe it would, because then we wouldn't need to buy anymore games in the series.
The one area I really felt that this game innovated in is how your character advances in stats. Rather than give you points to spend on your character as you advance through stages, your skater develops naturally as you play based on what he does. If you want “mad ups,” just keep jumping of ramps. Trying to get better balance? Grind till you're a ninja. It forces you to experiment with everything in the game and allows you to customize your character in a meaningful manner.
I've come to like the Tony Hawk soundtracks in general, but not so much that I like hearing the same songs in every game. Even new songs are starting to all sound alike to me. Graphically, I usually go easy for handheld games, but too many games have shown me what the DS is capable of, and it's obvious this game isn't even trying. And I know that Tony himself is getting on in years, but this game makes him look well into his 50s. Come on, is it that hard to give the title character a digital face lift?
Activision has done a find job of releasing just enough new things to force people to buy over ten generations of Tony Hawk games, but I'm kind of sick of it. I believe this game could have been made with better graphics, more innovative controls and some real customization for your skate park. If you've bough all the other Tony Hawk games, you might as well get this one, but otherwise, you can probably get the comparable, Tony Hawk's American Sk8land on the cheap.