Kick-flipping its way onto yet another platform, Activision seeks to string its combo of Tony Hawk titles together with a second effort for boarders on the go. Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam on the DS, like its Wii counterpart, is a departure from the free-roaming skate parks and urban areas that Hawksters have come to love. Instead, players floor it down six sloping worldwide locales – grinding across Hong Kong's Great Wall or indy-grabbing through San Francisco's historic hills.
Vicarious Visions made the case for the DS as a solid platform for Tony Hawk titles with last fall's American Sk8land, which was received well as an open-ended conversion of American Wasteland. As a whole, they've done it again with Downhill Jam; even though this year's iteration takes some spills along the way, we can applaud Vicarious for not allowing the title's overall quality to take a similarly downhill turn for the worse.
Among the multiplayer, practice, Wi-Fi, and other modes the game features, "World Tour" guides us through a playfully simplistic story similar to the premise of recently released Project 8. Tony's looking to make a name for himself on the downhill circuit and is combing the globe to create a squad of speedy skaters – your created character being one of them, of course. After pushing your 'boarder through the fashion department and picking out a face, you'll be able to create a custom logo for your board using an interface similar to the emblem creator in Mario Kart DS.
Once you're suited up, you'll make stops in San Fran, Edinburgh, the peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro, China, Rio de Janeiro, and the Hoover Dam en route to gathering a downhill team. The courses are understandably more linear compared to American Sk8land and other Hawk games, but they're constructed with many chances to link moves together, and are very fun to take on. The developer did good work to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the separate settings; some levels are more winding (like the 'Cisco strip), while others boast airy jumps to send you flying. Either way, the environments allow for dynamic, flowing play that gives momentum to other features that lose their tempo, like the graphics.
A cel-shaded style sugar-coats your skating scenes, and though textures appear fairly stale and low-quality, they're dazzling compared to your pitiful character models. Blocky, awkward limbs mapped with uninteresting clothing make it difficult to create a skater you'll actually want to run with, and the avatar's lanky articulation doesn't help much, either. On the plus side, it's not like you'll be stopping much to catch a glimpse while you're flying downhill. Though it doesn't carry the same visual appeal of its predecessor, the range of colors Downhill employs generally shows off its core: the gameplay.
Control-wise, picking up the DS doesn't feel much different than an Xbox 360 controller or PS2 pad, as the basic setup remains consistent: X to grind, B to jump, A for grab tricks, and Y for flip tricks. The left and right triggers perform a "bert slide" (a rounding, sharp turn) in their respective directions, which come in handy when you're cutting corners, and context-sensitive (depending on if you're airborne, on a rail, or on the ground) touch-activated specials can be deployed by hitting the right corner of the bottom screen. The control template can also be customized through the settings menu, which is helpful.
The Y button also defaults as the turbo toggle, which you hold to gain speed. This is the main addition T-Hawk fans will have to adapt to, as Downhill Jam places as much emphasis on navigating courses quickly as it does on chaining together a line of dazzling tricks. Luckily, the game balances the two extremely well. Because you'll have to harvest ramps, poles, and other objects in the environment to gather boost, you can't simply blaze through stages to break the finish line tape. At the same time, you can't focus too hard on hitting that 720 Japan air backflip transfer to darkslide you've always wanted to land. You'll find yourself taking risks in each race, trying to rack up your multiplier with another kickflip to give yourself that extra bit of boost, but keeping a steady eye so your opponents don't grab the lead.
If there's anything non-gnarly about the gameplay, it's the frequency at which your character seems to land sloppy tricks. A "perfect" landing will grant you a 1,000-point bonus to your combo, but if you don't hit the pavement entirely straight, or you're still holding onto your grab as you land, your skater will wobble a bit. You're still awarded the points for your trick (along with a -500 penalty), but more detrimental is the fact that you won't receive boost if you land sloppy, and your boarder will lose speed as he shakes. While it's very rare that you'll actually fall off your board, the sensitivity at which you land sloppy tricks makes it difficult to advance in many stages, especially when colliding with other A.I. skaters produces the same effect. It seems a tad judgmental, and hampers early stages when you're still learning the ropes.
Shaky landings aside, Downhill Jam's level and mission structure itself is generally very well done, and is enhanced by the variety of tasks your skater will be called upon to perform. Each stage has three primary "medal" challenges, two of which you'll have to complete to advance to the next location. In order to unlock the medal challenges, you'll have to carry out mini-challenges first. These range from slow-mo photo tricks, to time trials, hitting a specific "grocery list" of tricks, grinding a certain distance in a set time, or following a set skate line through the level, to name a handful. Vicarious mixes things up as you progress, and the game avoids recycling too much of the individual challenges. You'll rarely feel stuck on a particular mission because there are other avenues for advancement, and the challenges themselves demand different skill sets.
Extreme sports culture and music have always held close ties, and this relationship is expressed well in Downhill Jam. Fifteen rock, metal, and punk tracks pump through the DS' speakers as you skate, and each are incredibly high quality – you'll be surprised that your little handheld is capable of such spectacular sound. Equally good are bits of voice-acting interspersed in cut scenes, tutorial sequences, and missions. Hearing a few hip-hop tunes would've added some diversity to the tracks, but overall, the game offers some of the most impressive audio on the DS to date.
Rounding out Downhill's options is Wi-Fi play. Where Sk8land was a small taste of DS online multiplayer for Tony Hawk fans, Downhill Jam offers double the match capacity to four, and integrates nearly every mode from the main game. Voice chat is also enabled while you're setting up challenges with competitors, and though it's a tad lagged, it's still functional, and a nice feature that is much preferred over using text messaging to communicate with friends and opponents.
Free skate mode and Wi-Fi boost Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam's replay value considerably, allowing players room to practice and experiment as well as compete. The single-player campaign alone is very competent and challenging, too. Expect a range of options and ways to attack Downhill Jam's very fun, fluid gameplay, as well as an experience that's sprinkled with entertaining presentation and audio. Overall, Downhill Jam is a great game for skaters on the go, or fans of tricky, point-based play.
More articles about Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam