Reviewed: October 26, 2005
Released: October 24, 2006
Itís games like Tony Hawkís Downhill Jam that continually remind me that there has never been a better time to be a gamer. Ten years ago we would have been lucky to get a game this good on a major console, and now we have something this technically advanced, fun to play, and with complete online support on a handheld portable game system.
For those of you anxiously awaiting this gameís release on the Wii (and you should be anxious because the Wii is going to redefine the way you play Tony Hawk in ways you canít imagine), you might want to taste a sample of whatís to come with Vicarious Visions outstanding release on the NDS. These guys already proved they could put a killer 3D skate game on a handheld with last years award-winning SK8Land and now they are back doing it bigger and better than any of us dared to dream.
As the name implies, this release puts the ďdownhillĒ back in skating, and in many ways Downhill Jam resembles a portable version of SSX, and not just because you get to snowboard in a few levels. For this title the levels are much more vertical, the speeds are much faster, and the trick lines border on the edge of insanity.
With six massive worlds, numerous stages and challenge types, and plenty of game modes including solo and online, this is the biggest and best Tony Hawk portable game yet.
Downhill Jam offers several exciting modes starting with the World Tour where you travel the globe, earning medals and recruiting new skaters to join your team. Upgrade your stats and earn cash to buy new gear at the skate shop. Jam Session is targeted for the gamers who donít have a lot of time to dedicate to any given game session. Simply pick up and play and go for high score, best time, or complete various challenges.
Quick Race offers instant racing action as you challenge three other skaters to downhill races of various lengths. Free Skate is a great mode to leisurely explore the levels you have unlocked, practice you tricks, and discover new lines and faster shortcuts. But the first place youíll want to visit is the Lessons where you can learn the controls and earn special touch trick buttons.
Control is pretty spot-on to last years Tony Hawk on the NDS, so there wonít be much of a learning curve. The hardest thing for me was switching between Xbox and NDS and mixing up the button letter designations, but thatís Nintendoís fault Ė not the game. I think we need a universal standard for all button letters and positions.
The B button crouches and increases speed and when released causes you to jump (ollie). The longer you hold down B before release the higher the jump. The A button does various grabs when combined with a D-pad direction, and the Y button does flips for each direction on the D-pad. The triggers are used for bertslides, which really help you navigate those sharp turns.
You can jump to any suitable edge and press X to grind then mix that up with D-pad direction for grind tricks. Manuals are balancing tricks started with alternate tappings of up and down then feathering those controls to maintain your balance. This is great for linking key tricks together and creating high-scoring combos.
The list goes on; wallplants, wallrides, flips, rolls, flatland tricks, and even the Bertslide are all available plus many more. Tricks and combos fill your boost meter, which can be used to turbo your skater down the hill or released in the form of special touch screen tricks that earn massive points.
The game modes are a clever blend of racing and stunts and a few that mix the two in the same event. There are always more events available than you need to finish in order to advance to the next level so if there is something you arenít particularly good at you can work around it. Iím really good at racing and can pull off the camera tricks really well, but some of the combo challenges are quite difficult for me.
For each three sub-events you complete you are allowed to participate in a medal race. Complete this multi-event challenge to earn a medal. Earn two medals and you can move on to the next world location. At least thatís how the World Tour is setup. The rest of the game has a fairly loose menu-driven structure.
The game is setup so that you pretty much have to win to move on. There are a few multi-race events where you are awarded points (grand prix style), so you can come in second or third and possibly still have a shot at winning the overall event.
Six levels might sound short to some but keep in mind these are massive levels and most courses only use a fraction of the map. And when you finally do get a race that uses multiple parts, youíll wonder if the race is ever going to end. Youíll travel the globe starting in San Francisco and moving on to locations like the Hoover Dam, Edinburgh, and Rio de Janeiro.
Before the game you get to create your own skater using a fairly complex (for a handheld) character builder, then you go to the paint shop where you can design your own custom board, logos, and art. It might be more than most gamers care about but itís nice to have and one of the few features to actually use the touch screen. Once in the game, youíll only tap the screen to initiate special tricks.
There is also full support for up to four skaters, either through local wireless or Wi-Fi Internet, which is more fun than I can put into words. The first thing youíll want to do is create an online profile and get a game code then give that code to all your friends. They should do the same. This allows you to make up a friendís list making it easier to hook-up in the future.
For those of you without friends or the desire to seek them out online, you can opt for an auto-match, which basically looks for anyone out there also looking to hook-up. You pick the number of players and when you have that many ready to go the host player picks the mode and you are off and skating.
There are versus modes and team modes, and you can basically race on any of the solo levels in the game and play many of the same style events including racing and stunt challenges. And to make the multiplayer go even smoother, Downhill Jam is one of the first games to support VoIP so you can taunt your opponents and cheer your teammates, but only if they are on your friends list. Itís not real-time chat and itís not multiplex so only one person can send a voice packet at a time. Think of it as text messaging only with voice instead of text.
To further enhance the online elements, Downhill Jam also has a website that tracks all sorts of character data you generate while playing the game. You can track your progress and compare stats with other gamers, upload your custom clothing and board designs, and explore a wealth of possibilities unlike anything you have ever seen in a portable game.
Downhill Jam looks remarkably like SK8Land, no surprise since it uses the same enhanced engine, which offers great cel-shaded visuals that streak past at smooth framerates. Speed is much faster in this racing title so a clean framerate is even more important than before.
There is some great character design, slightly exaggerated, but expertly animated so all the tricks flow together and look great. You can actually ďfeelĒ the character balancing on grinds and manuals, almost without looking at the arc meter. There is also subtle use of color streaks and screen blurs to really enhance the sensation of speed, especially when boosting.
The cutscenes are fantastic and make excellent use of both screens to tell a fun story in a comic book style presentation with sliding windows and multiple panels. Once in the game, the lower screen becomes a functional and useful map with occasional touch icons for special tricks and your signal meter if you are playing online.
I really didnít appreciate the soundtrack until I realized how large it was. While waiting to hook-up with some online players I had the DS in ďsearchĒ mode and the soundtrack kept playing, songs kept switching, each one better than the last, awesome rock and grunge tunes perfectly matched to the skate culture, and then it hit me. Almost an hour had gone by and I hadnít heard a repeated song. Thatís right Ė 15 awesome songs will turn your NDS into a personal stereo for the skater on the go.
The rest of the game has the standard skateboard effects, wheels rolling, boards grinding, and swooshing sounds for turbo, etc. and the cutscenes are all fully voiced with humorous and professional acting. And yes, Tony Hawk does his own voice. One particularly funny event is this little dude (Chinese I think) who pops his head onto the screen and taunts you when you lose or reminds you to hit a button if you take too long in a menu.
The story (World Tour) mode can take a day or more of continuous play, which translates into about a week of normal casual play. Since you donít have to do everything to advance there is plenty of replay potential in going back and doing the events you didnít try the first time. You can also lose yourself in the free skate mode, just exploring the levels and plotting your strategies for online racing.
If you havenít taken your NDS online yet you now have the single most compelling reason to get yourself a wireless hook-up at home or at least go to a McDonalds and check out Downhill Jam online. As fun as this game is alone, itís a total blast online and much easier to find players online than locating three other people you know with a DS and copies of the game and getting them in the same room.
Tony Hawkís Downhill Jam really surprised me. I had played an earlier version several weeks ago, but it just didnít stand out as much, possibly because I had just been playing it on the Wii, but now that Iíve had the time to thoroughly invest myself in the title and explore all the cool modes and challenging events and especially the console-quality multiplayer features, I am hooked and so will you.
Downhill Jam might not make the most of the dual screens or the touch screen functionality, but I canít imagine a better system to enjoy this type of game on. The sheer level of customization, stat tracking, and online potential will keep you skating throughout the holidays and well into next year.