Ever since Vans SK8: Pool Service was released, the race has been on to deliver a Tony Hawk-quality skateboarding game for the iPhone. That game mimicked the look and feel of the skating legend’s signature game series, but with its tiny playing space and somewhat unrefined control scheme, it was bound to be overshadowed by a larger, full-fledged arcade skateboarding game. That game has finally come with the release of Skater Nation, the latest in Gameloft’s seemingly endless portfolio of top-tier iPhone apps.
This is not to say that there are no problems down at the skate park. While Skater Nation does everything right on the surface, it’s easy to see that a much larger concept has been shoehorned onto a platform that can only do so much. The great thing about Tony Hawk was the variety of control options to perform the multitude of tricks (traditionally that would be two to four shoulder buttons, four face buttons, and two analog sticks). This makes performing amazing tricks complicated for the beginner but rewards those who are looking to dedicate the time to stringing together insane combos.
It’s not a sleeveless shirt. It’s a shirtless sleeve.
Skater Nation, though, boils down to a virtual analog stick and two buttons, all virtual buttons. This also means that the camera is stationary and not within your control, which becomes problematic on angled jumps and wall transfers. Nothing is impossible, but it does make this game too often feel like it’s too big for the iPhone, or that it’s a concept that is not fully ready to bloom on the platform.
Despite these issues, we can’t deny that we’re excited to be playing something so complex on a device that is so simple. There are just over 30 tricks at your disposal, and there are plenty of challenges littering the career mode to help you learn them, even though we suspect that most players will probably be hitting these tricks at random due to the complex combos required to pull them off with so few buttons.
The camera, when it works in your advantage, is nicely positioned to provide a somewhat dramatic vantage point, slightly more akin to Skate than Tony Hawk, but maintaining the latter series’ sense of ridiculous cliches in lieu of realism or genuine skater culture. The characters are mostly forgettable, and once you customize your board with the best stats, you’re unlikely to feel the need to further experiment with that aspect of customization.
Save some air for the birds, man.
The game’s single greatest draw, other than being the first fully-featured 3D skateboarding game, is the large area for you to explore. There are 10 zones of this city to play in, each loading instantly as you teleport between them, which is vastly more terrain than Pool Service was offering with its one, endless loop of a pool. The areas are immensely varied in design, and the change of scenery is just what you’ll need after checking out every nook and cranny of a particular area to find the best spots for pulling off tricks. Still, all of the levels are quite flat (apart from the obvious ramps and half pipes), with little verticality in the terrain, which is a disappointment.
Should you become the Jedi master of skateboarding, the game’s built-in replay feature lets you view your replays and upload them directly to YouTube, a feature that worked with intermittent success among our editors, a problem that we’re not sure is attributable to the game or to YouTube. Nevertheless, when it does work, it provides a cool way to show off your skills to friends, with whom you can also chat and challenge via the Gameloft Live network.
Once the campaign is complete, Freeplay mode should still keep you interested for the foreseeable future, providing no time limits or annoying skaters to get in the way of pure skating enjoyment. Despite the game’s obvious limitations, just skating can still be a blast for those of you who aren’t absolutely burned out on the genre. This is a great looking game with a nice sense of speed and more than enough replay value for the price Gameloft is asking. Have some patience in learning all the moves, and this could last you a long time.