As someone who has invested hundreds of hours into the Tony Hawk game franchise over the last seven years, I was more than a little apprehensive about Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam. Even with all of the initial previews and screenshots, I really had no idea what to expect from the game. Would it be a straight-up racing game, or would there still be room for the tricks and maneuvers that have made the series what it is today? As soon as the hands-on previews and early reviews started bandying around the SSX comparisons, I knew it had the potential to be one of the better Wii launch titles, if executed properly.
It's true – like those pre-release articles mentioned, Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is very similar to games like SSX and Downhill Domination. And just like those games, Downhill Jam is fast, frantic, and seriously enjoyable. While the presentation feels a bit dated (and not just the in-game graphics – the menu screens and characters are unimpressive, at best), Downhill Jam offers up enough gameplay variety and sheer fun to be worth a look.
Though Downhill Jam represents a significant change of scenery, many of the elements from the standard Tony Hawk games are incorporated into the gameplay. Hawk and his fictional competitors can ollie, grind, and execute flip and grab tricks, though the control scheme has been completely overhauled for the Wiimote. As in Excite Truck, the Wiimote is held like an NES controller, with the d-pad on the left and the 1 and 2 buttons on the right. Steering, balancing, and rotations are all done by using the Wiimote like a steering wheel, and despite an initially steep learning curve, it works pretty well. Steering is incredibly precise but becomes second nature after a few hours. Balancing on rails is thankfully very forgiving from the start.
With the movements mapped to the motion sensors, the d-pad serves the basic function of attacking competitors and bystanders. The 1 and 2 buttons take on multiple roles with a fair amount of success. The 2 button is held down to crouch and released to ollie (jump), but it also doubles as the go-to button for all grabs, as well as wallies and sticker slaps. Naturally, this can cause some issues when transitioning from a jump to a grab, or from a grab to landing (and back into a crouch), but it works reasonably well, considering the limited amount of buttons on the Wiimote. The 1 button also serves double duty, taking on the roles of both grinding and performing flip tricks.
As you pull off tricks and beat down your competitors, your absurdly named Zone Bone meter fills up, allowing you to activate a quick boost of speed by lightly shaking the controller (or pressing the B button). You can also fill up a Special meter, which lets you pull off fantastic tricks by using the A button. Back flips and front flips are activated by quickly tilting the Wiimote forward or backward, though I have often executed flips while attempting to boost – yet another instance of how the cramped controller can work against your intentions. If you happen to bail (and you will), you must vigorously shake the Wiimote to get back up in a reasonable amount of time. Giving it a hard shake is not terribly intuitive, especially when the rest of the controls are fairly easy-going, but I got used to it in time.
Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam presents itself as a racing game – which it is, in part – but the title features several other event types that keep the experience fresh and interesting. Races come as advertised, with five boarders doing anything and everything to reach the bottom of the hill. Eight courses are available in the game, which seems a bit low, but the full courses are lengthy and multi-layered, with several available lines that all eventually get you to the finish line. Each course is also broken down into segments, so some events may only have you traverse one-fourth of the total distance. As such, some of the events are over in a minute or less.
Trick events find your character trying to rack up huge points in an attempt to earn a gold medal. Several hoops are placed along the course near key jumps or grinds, and going through one makes everything slow down a bit, allowing you to pull off a number of big moves for mega points. Multiplier pick-ups are usually placed near these hoops as well, making your goals just a bit easier. Some of the more specific missions find you trying to grind for pre-determined lengths, while others task you with knocking down bystanders or causing a specific amount of property damage. These missions are few and far between, but can be a welcome reprieve from the other events.
Of the many event types in Downhill Jam, the two that were most maddening were Slalom and Elimirace, and for very different reasons. The Slalom courses can be extremely difficult, as they challenge you to make your way through several hoops before time runs out. Each hoop adds two to five seconds to your remaining time, so if you miss a few early on, you might as well restart the course. Despite using wide-open courses with a number of viable paths, the Slalom events do not evenly distribute the hoops along the entirety of the course. If you happen to take a different line than the one that has many of the hoops, you may find it difficult to cross that finish line.
Oh the other hand, Elimirace has significant issues, and does not feel like it was tweaked to perfection before release. In Elimirace events, the last-place skater is eliminated after a certain time interval, so your goal is to stay ahead of the pack and make it to the goal. The problem here is that the game does a poor job of determining who is in which position. At times, I have been ahead of the pack (with other skaters behind me), and my position will quickly shift from first to fifth, or whichever is the last place at that time. Clearly, this event type has trouble figuring out the distance of each rider in relation to the goal, and I lost several races because of it. It is incredibly frustrating to lose a race that you were technically winning. Thankfully, Elimirace is only a small part of the game, and these issues do not crop up in the standard Race events.
Downhill Jam uses both tier and leveling systems to chart your progress in the single-player mode. Each gold, silver, or bronze medal earned in the events nets you a number of points, and the accumulated points unlock higher character levels. Each time you level up, an additional tier of events is unlocked. The system is pretty loose at the beginning, so you will not need to get a gold or silver medal in each event to move on. However, the later events certainly pick up in difficulty, so you may need to go back and nab some of those missed points. Additional boards, costumes, and characters are also unlocked by beating events, and the entire single-player experience features a solid eight to 10 hours of play time.
Despite the network-ready nature of the Nintendo Wii, Downhill Jam is sadly lacking in online play, which could have been a major selling point for a fast, simple game of this sort. Instead, the game features four-player split-screen support and is comprised of many of the single-player event types, including Race, Slalom, Trick, and Elimirace. One exclusive multiplayer event, Steal the Head, is also included, and has players battling one another for possession of a floating head. He (or she) who has the most time logged with the head at the end of the course is the winner, making this a bizarre – but certainly enjoyable – experience.
One area where the game is unfortunately lacking is with its overall visual presentation. Much has been made about the in-game graphics, but I did not think them to be all that bad. Sure, the visuals are bland and make use of a limited color palette, but they are fast-moving and effective, and the framerate never buckles, despite the high speeds. It's everything else that underwhelms me, sadly. The menu screens use large, ugly fonts and layouts that remind one of the Nintendo 64 era, and the few included video sequences are of a low level of quality.
Tony Hawk is the only real-life person in the game, with the rest of the cast filled out by crudely designed characters. Tiffany (the blonde valley girl), Gunnar (the meathead idiot), and Jynx (the goth princess) are just some of the silly competitors you will encounter in the game. A brief "interview" with one of the characters is shown before each event, and it's hard to tell if Downhill Jam is perpetrating stereotypes or poking fun at them – maybe both. It appears to be an attempt to inject some personality into the game, but the character designs fall flat and are more obnoxious than interesting. Including a smattering of pro skaters would have probably been a better move, especially younger ones like Ryan Sheckler and Lyn-Z Adams Hawkins.
Considering the assumedly low production values (and the younger target audience), I did not expect the game to feature a very robust soundtrack. Sure enough, the game features 40 licensed tracks, with contributions from a wide range of artists, including Public Enemy, Anti-Flag, Thursday, and Lupe Fiasco, whose seminal hop-hop skate anthem "Kick, Push" made the cut. Because of the shortened event times, you may hear a lot of track beginnings, but not a lot of endings, as the tracks do not continue on through the loading and menu screens. Though I don't think much of the characters, their voice-overs are well executed, and Hawk himself provides quite a bit of commentary for the pre-race interviews.
While Downhill Jam is by no means brilliant, it works well as an extension of the Tony Hawk franchise. It may borrow liberally from both SSX and Downhill Domination, but it differs in execution, largely because of the unique nature of the Wiimote. It may not top either of its spiritual predecessors or Tony Hawk's Project 8, but fans of any game mentioned in this review would do well to toss Downhill Jam on their holiday wish lists.
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