It's nice to be surprised, sometimes.
I honestly didn't expect too much out of Tony Hawk's American Sk8land. I was a modest fan of the games on the big consoles, but the past few revisions did little-to-nothing for me. American Sk8land, on the other hand, hit me like a ton of bricks.
Vicarious Visions is Activision's go-to crew for portable games and they did a bang-up job on this one. American Sk8land sports a surprisingly clear and crisp cel-shaded engine. The framerate never suffers, no matter what it is you're doing in-game, and the animation stays sharp. The draw distance and point of view are fine, though there's some slight problems that crop up. You'll sometimes launch yourself off a ramp and end up grinding on a rail or ledge you didn't know existed because it was flirting about the edges of the screen. Gaps in rails also tend to be problematic, as you really can't see them coming you're first time out, and you have to depend on memory to know when to jump the next time you grind that rail. It's really a minor problem, though, because trial-and-error has always played a large part in the Tony Hawk series.
The controls are extraordinarily tight. The DS's button layout is more of less the same as the Dual Shock's, though it's missing two shoulder buttons. This has caused no negative impact on the gameplay, however, as the game actually feels like a console Tony Hawk game. Tricks are performed with a combination of d-pad directions and button presses, as usual, with one new addition: touch-screen tricks. When you first start the game, you have the ability to activate context-sensitive tricks via hotkey on the touch screen. All you have to do is trick well and high enough to fill up your special meter. This makes it easy to bust out a specific trick in a combo and add more flash to your style. Later on, you can add more hotkeys to your touch screen to create combos with even more pizazz.
Filling your special meter also lets you activate another hotkey on the touch screen that kicks you into a Matrix-like slow-motion mode for a few seconds. This is good for dodging cars and such, but is great when there's a particularly tricky transfer or gap you need to trick over.
You still need that combination of timing, foresight, and luck to pull off the long trick combos that the Tony Hawk series is famous for. You can theoretically trick all the way around 90% of most levels if you knew what you're doing. I'd say 100% of the levels, but I'm nowhere near good enough to back that up.
There's a few spots that are so easy to trick in that they must've been added by the programmers on purpose. There's one spot within ten seconds of the entrance of the second stage where you can quite literally trick indefinitely through a series of spins, grinds, and wallplants. You can clear one million points in that one spot, easy. I'm sure that there are other spots in the game that are similar.
The game is separated into a few different modes. There's the story mode, in which you do trick quests for people to raise money to build the greatest skate park ever. It's the mode that you'll probably spend the most time in, as there's plenty of stuff to do. My only complaint is that the in-game map on the touch-screen can be a little vague about who you need to go to in order to unlock the next set of goals.
Another mode is a throwback to the old Tony Hawk games. You're given a stage and a time limit to complete a variety of goals. It is more or less identical to the older Tony Hawk games, but particularly suited to the Nintendo DS's portable gameplay. It's a nice thing to be able to conquer a few goals in-between classes, save, then come back to it later without having to worry about remembering which part of the story that you're on.
Free Skate mode is much appreciated. Sometimes you just want to get directly down to business without any mucking about and trying to do favors for people. Free skate is exactly as it sounds. It's the meat of the game without the potatoes that make up the story mode.
Overall, Tony Hawk's American Sk8land is a monster of a package. I was expecting a cheap tie-in game and ended up playing one of the best titles that the DS has to offer, and one of the better games in the Tony Hawk series. Marvelous. You'd do well to check this one out.