I guess you could lump me in with the folks who think the Tony Hawk franchise has more than outlived itself. I started the series at the second game, and Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 and 3 were both nearly my game of the year for their respective releases, and I even enjoyed the fourth installment when it came out. By the time we got to the Underground portion of the series, it started to wear a little thin for me, and with Tony Hawk Downhill Jam, I have to say that I'm glad Activision is taking a step away from the series to put together something new and (hopefully) exciting.
Of course, complaining about things being too much of the same feels a little unfair for Downhill Jam. It eschews the former style of the series and opts to make it more of a racer model, where you simply go downhill, almost like a ski course, and attempt to hit the same types of tricks while constantly moving, taking away the various ramps and skate parks and using more grind lines and simple jump ramps to keep the forward momentum going. It's definitely a different type of game than the original, but that doesn't actually mean that it's better. I'd go as far as to say that it's my least favorite entry in the series so far.
The game goes for the somewhat exaggerated style that was introduced in THUG, with character designs that are borderline goofy, and the create-a-character function allows for some really random and weird design choices. The character creation is pretty solid, though, giving you a lot of unlocked stuff from the outset — including body types, gear, hair styles and skin color — so you're only limited by your imagination. If you'd prefer to play with a pre-existing character, then you can choose from a number of fictitious characters or Tony Hawk himself, each with its own career mode to keep track of completion percentages to give you an idea of how far you are from finishing the game.
Once you finished up your character creation, you can start up the single-player Downhill Jam experience by way of a tutorial. The tutorial isn't going to be necessary for Tony Hawk vets, but it does introduce the new play style of constantly moving downhill. However, the downhill stuff isn't all that different from the basic movement in the other games; you're still controlling the direction with the left analog stick and holding down the jump button (X) to gain more speed, so aside from the actual sense of speed, there's not a huge difference here. The rest of the controls are simple, with the Circle and Square buttons being used to perform tricks and the direction buttons or analog sticks being used to give you trick variants while in the air. There's also a power meter that can be built up, which gives you a pretty remarkable speed boost for a limited time, and you can only power this up by performing tricks or taking out civilians or other skaters.
For whatever reason, you can purposely knock down people to build up a speed meter. There's actually a "combat" mechanic to Downhill Jam, which has your skater flailing around to hit other skaters and random people you encounter, and it's about as lame as it sounds. It's pretty impossible to hit the other skaters since they're rarely next to you at the right moment, so you're left hitting other people on the street, but really, it's just a goofy mechanic to toss into the game, and it feels out of place for the series.
Also, taking the game away from its exploration style roots feels odd, and while I'm as eager as the next guy to see the game make some positive changes, the idea of downhill racing doesn't work that well here. It's difficult to see locations where you can perform tricks until you're either ready to pass them or you've crashed and have a few seconds to get back on your feet. When you get back up, chances are that the game has warped you ahead just enough to cause you to lose your bearings. While the game seems to be heavy on the grind rails, it's really hard to see in certain city locations because they blend in with surroundings, and I found a lot of the stages to be pretty dark, making it even more difficult to find spots where you could jump from and do tricks.
My other beef is that it isn't as fun to perform tricks in this title as it was in the previous Tony Hawk games. Give me a half-pipe any day over the random jump ramps found here, and I also like the idea of being able to do some traditional skating that allows me to get massive air. It's not that fun to pull off an impressive combination of moves in this game, and while you can get in some relatively cool jumps, I felt like I was constantly worried about my landing and what I was going to land on, so it was really distracting to finish up a set of tricks.
Visually, the game looks on par with other PS2 titles in the series, and it goes with a somewhat cartoon style as opposed to the realistic figures in titles like Skate. It works well for the series, and while it's not the most technically impressive game in the genre, it looks decent enough on the PS2. The city locations are all distinct, but I still think they're a bit of a mess in design, and it's sometimes difficult to find grind rails and ramps.
The music is in tune with other Tony Hawk releases and features a wide variety of artists that's sure to fit just about every taste. They've certainly come a long way since Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" played every few minutes in the previous games, and while not all the featured music suited me, I found the soundtrack to be enjoyable.
Unfortunately, I never felt that Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam was much fun to play. The switch in style from city exploration to racer doesn't work that well, and it never seemed like I had the time to pull off impressive tricks or combos. There are a variety of downhill race types, though, from your basic racing to slaloms, time trials and trick competitions, but none of these modes were fun to play. If you're a die-hard fan of the series, then chances are that you've already picked up the game, but for those of you who have been away for a while, this isn't the change you've been looking for. Here's hoping that the next game in the series manages to improve far more than this one did.
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