Reviewed: November 28, 2006
Released: November 19, 2006
Tony Hawk skating games have been around forÖwell, almost as long as I have been playing video games. My first was on the original PlayStation and I canít even count the number of sequels Iíve played on console and handheld systems in the past decade.
About a month ago I got to play the handheld version of Tony Hawkís Downhill Jam on the NDS and it was and still is one of my favorite DS titles, so I was pretty excited when my Nintendo Wii copy showed up for review. I could only imagine how cool the motion control input would translate into the physical sport of skateboarding.
But before all you trick-hounds and grunge-grinders rush out to grab your copy you should know that there are some significant design changes in Downhill Jam that take this title out of the sports genre and put it firmly in the racing category, right alongside previous greats like SSX and Downhill Domination.
You can leave the nunchuk lying on the floor for this game. Just turn the Wii-mote sideways and hold it like a classic NES controller and you are ready to skateÖalmost. Youíll certainly want to take a trip through the tutorial before diving into the full game.
While Downhill Jam is pure racing you will need to know how to grind and bust a few tricks if you want to stay competitive. Tilting the controller intuitively turns your skater or balances them during a grind. If you are in the air this same tilt will rotate or spin your skater.
Pushing and holding the 2 button will have the skater crouch and increase speed while releasing the button results in an ollie (jump) that can get you extra air off ramps or land you on a rail for a grind. If you are in the air the 2 button combines with the D-pad to pull off a number of grab moves to tweak whatever trick you are pulling off.
The 1 button is used for its own set of tricks including grind tricks and wall rides as well as double-tap flips and advanced grabs. The A button is used in conjunction with the tilting of the remote to initiate a powerslide to skid through sharp turns and perilous hairpins. Powersliding builds up a boost meter during the turn, so when you finally release the A button youíll get a burst of speed.
As you keep pulling off tricks you will slowly fill up the meter (or Zone Bone) and once that meter is flaming you can shake the remote (or push B) to trigger a speed boost either on the ground or while grinding. Youíll also need to shake the remote to get back up if you bail on a trick.
Hawk fans might distress over the lack of a manual or revert, which makes it impossible to pull of lengthy combos. You must now rely on trick gates and multipliers. Pass through these to slow down time (Matrix style) and sneak in a few more tricks or hit a multiplier to boost your overall point total for the current trick or combo.
Each character also has their own set of unique Special Tricks you call pull off with the combo of the A button and either the 1 or 2. Just wait for the Special meter to start flashing then pull off one of these extremely cool and insanely animated moves for major points.
But all of that is just the physicality of playing Downhill Jam; how about the strategy? Obviously, youíll want to keep that B button down for extra speed as much as possible. Tricks arenít as important in pure racing, but they do get you valuable boost power that can make the difference between a first and second place finish. Youíll want to mix up tricks and create unique combos for maximum points. Push pedestrians out of your way, jump over oncoming traffic, and backhand any opponents that get within striking range.
All of this exciting action comes at you in two primary modes of play, Downhill Challenge, and Multiplayer. Downhill Challenge is the main ďstoryĒ mode of the game, not that there is much of a story. You can create a unique skater or play as any of the colorful cast of characters provided including Tony Hawk himself. My personal favorite is Tiffany, but Iíve always had a thing for trendy Valley Girls. ďBad GirlĒ Jynx is also a favorite as well as the Arnold Schwarzenegger wannabe, Gunnar.
Actually, I love them all, and you even get to appreciate them in many between-race cutscenes, even if you arenít playing that particular character. There is a whole televised presentation element to the gameplay that features ESPN-style interviews with the various racers that reveals rivalries as well as interesting character traits for the entire cast.
Each character has their own skating style which translate into stats like speed, turning, balance, jump, and combat and you can develop these over the course of the game as you earn points you can assign to these abilities when you level-up. Youíll also unlock new characters, boards, tracks, and entire racing venues as you progress through the Downhill Challenge.
There are eight racing environments that span the globe. Youíll start off in San Francisco then move on to Hong Kong, Edinburgh, Rio, Machu Picchu, the Alps, and even a Mall. Each venue consists of an expanding tree of events that include pure racing or racing for the most trick points. If you arenít good at one aspect of the game chances are there is another branch you can follow until you unlock the required amount of events to move onto the next country.
The tracks are massive, so massive in fact that many events only include a part of the track. When you do race on an entire track, top to bottom, it can take several minutes of intense racing to reach the bottom. Along the way are numerous shortcuts and secret paths that youíll need to locate for the fastest finish times, and these often require advanced tricks like wall-rides or a slingshot from a powerslide to even reach.
Multiplayer is tight and certainly provides plenty of post-single-player racing entertainment for two, three or four racers using split-screen. You can choose between Quick Play or create a unique Event Series comprised of a variety of race modes like Race, Slalom, Trick, Steal the Head, and Elimirace. Pick your venue or let the game randomly do that for you.
After playing the photo-realistic Project 8 game on the 360 and PS3 itís certainly a shocking step back to play the cartoon-style graphics in Downhill Jam, but that doesnít mean the game looks bad. I was extremely impressed, not only with the stylish cutscenes and smoothly animated characters, but the levels were massive and the draw distance reaches to the horizon with little pop-up.
There is widescreen and progressive scan support that keeps the game fast and flicker-free with minimal jaggies, and the action is so fast I was amazed the framerate was able to keep up. I only saw a few instances of slowdown on a few of the more complex levels, and that was usually when I was smashing through something creating excess polygons for the game to deal with.
Considering your only other alternative to play this game is the NDS, Iíd have to say that the average graphics of the Wii donít really affect the gameplay, and even if they do, the motion-input controls and the pure fun you have playing the game more than make up for any visual deficiencies.
Where to start? In my NDS review I commented on the amazing soundtrack that had me using my DS as an impromptu MP3 player. Well, that musical library has been expanded to 40 licensed tracks that keep the energy flowing throughout the entire game. Iíve logged 30+ hours with Downhill Jam and havenít found a single song I didnít like or mind hearing again when it repeated. I canít remember any game where I could say that.
The only negative to the soundtrack system was that during the game you never knew the track being played (like the EA Trax system), and when you go to create your custom play list you cannot preview the music, so you have to know what you like by title or artist. I ended up not even using this feature since I liked all the music.
The voice acting is fantastic, in a campy, fun sort of way. Each character has a very unique personality that is enhanced through clever dialogue and specific accents and delivery styles. I loved listening to the pre-race interviews, something I would normally skip right through on other games.
Sound effects are admittedly a bit weak, but only because there isnít that much opportunity for a diverse array of sounds. There are plenty of breaking and smashing sounds as you skate through wood, glass, and other destructible objects. You have the constant sound of wheels on a variety of surfaces as well as the grinding sound.
You can make your way to the end of the Downhill Challenge without completing all the events and you certainly arenít required to get gold medals in all of them. A straight-through pass will take 10-12 hours but to get gold and complete everything will take upwards of 20-30 hours as you refine your skating skills and learn every last inch of each course.
The multiplayer adds infinite value to the title and Downhill Jam has become one of the party favorites around the GCM office. Youíll also want to check out the Ghost modes where you can play against your own best time or if you have already obtained a gold medal in an event you can race the Jewel Ghost for that race. If you beat that you will unlock the Super-Jewel Ghost. These are two extremely difficult challenges, as these ghosts are recorded by the actual developers, and no, they didnít cheat to get those insane times.
Tony Hawkís Downhill Jam is a fun racing title that probably didnít even need the Tony Hawk name to succeed, but it probably didnít hurt. With the focus shifting from tricks to speed, Downhill Jam should capture a whole new demographic. Hopefully it wonít alienate the existing fan base in the process.
For me, I loved the music, loved the visual style, and really got into the subtle nuances of balance and busting off tricks with my Wii-mote. The locations are unique, the tracks long and complex, and the fun factor and energy level is unparalleled with any other Wii title at this time.