IGN Review of Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam
After nearly a decade of the same ol' grinding, manualling, flip-tricking skateboarding gameplay, perhaps Tony Hawk needed a change of scenery for his next portable outing. While Neversoft focused on reinventing the skating wheel for Tony on next-generation consoles, Vicarious Visions went in a different direction for Nintendo DS gamers: downhill racing. And not just any sort of racing either -- racing that requires the familiar grinding, manualling, flip-tricking skateboarding gameplay that's been a part of the evolution of the core series. The combination of the two elements -- tricking and racing -- melds together extremely well in this DS design, and even though the familiar "explore anywhere" concept of the classic Tony Hawk design has been slightly rooted down into more limited course layouts, this spinoff still retains the feel of the classic action game that's wrapped around a core idea that works really well and is, ultimately, a hell of a lot of fun.
Last year's release of Tony Hawk's American Sk8land was the first true 3D Tony Hawk game on a Nintendo handheld -- Vicarious Visions has been working with the skateboarding property since the days of the Game Boy, but the DS allowed the development team to finally work pretty much all of the Tony Hawk design into a portable product. The game the team created for the DS last year -- a really solid and original title rooted down into the original Neversoft concept -- is the foundation for Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam. That same toon-shaded visual style and silky-smooth, speedy 3D engine's at work in this new product, and even though Downhill Jam shares a lot, the two games are completely different products. For Downhill Jam, the designers have constructed a product that's clearly inspired by EA's SSX brand, which, let's be honest, was clearly inspired by the success of the "extreme" Tony Hawk video game franchise.
The core mechanic of Downhill Jam is racing. There are six different locations in the game that players must progress through. Six course of racing action might not sound like a lot, and honestly that was clearly the biggest turn-off to the product. But it's the enormousness of each course, coupled with how the development team staggered its game progression across these six enormous courses that surprised us. The game isn't just about getting to the finish line as fast as you can. It's about getting there in style.
At the start of the game you're faced with the first course: San Francisco. It's a perfect city to really explore the whole concept of Downhill Jam: huge drop-offs, winding roads, tons of rails and cables to grind off of. It's like the city was made for skateboarding, and the level designers work a fantastic, but ultimately fictional downhill course that takes players down from Twin Peaks all the way through downtown ending at the tourist trap in Fisherman's Wharf.
This course teaches players the mechanics required to master the Downhill Jam racing gameplay: jumps, grabs, flips, grips and grinds aren't supplemental to the racing element. They're integral because how well you can string tricks together determines how much added boost you can give your skate racer. The player's boost meter fills up with every successful trick, and players can store four full boost meters into queue. Utilizing the boost is an absolutely necessity in skating across the finish line victoriously -- you can have the highest speed setting possible attached to your racer, find all the clever short cuts, and handle all the turns as tight and skillful as possible, but without managing and utilizing the boost you're nothing in the race.
The race brings up the game's new move. Every Tony Hawk game has one, and in Downhill Jam it's the "Burtslide." It's essentially the Tony Hawk version of the Mario Kart powerslide where racers can lean into the turn for a much tighter maneuver which definitely comes in handy if you need to cut a corner without losing any speed. In the case of Downhill Jam, this is also a move modifier that can keep a combo string going.
But six courses? It does sound like Downhill Jam is a short run but in reality the designers worked in the familiar Tony Hawk game progression into this spin-off to extend the product. In each course players have tasks to accomplish in specific locations all through the course. One task, for example, requires players to hit a specific trick across a specific bridge. Another is a short race through one portion of the course, that's then picked up at a different location on the track. Finish that one and it's a challenge to hit a string of garbage cans while in a combo. There are point challenges and combo challenges, straightforward races and elimination races...even races that require more trick points than a faster time. Don't think this game is just about racing. It's so much more.
The racing action is, ultimately, balanced really well and definitely keeps things exciting. Computer AI opponents may run on rubberband routines to keep challenges close, but, at the very least, the developers did their best keeping everything looking fair enough. Even though victory comes from boost management, it's not easy to truly dominate since tricking does slow players down...and you can't earn boost without tricking. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if players find a Mario Kart DS "snaking" like exploit later in its release. At least in the several days with the product, the only issue we've had with the game's balance is how it favors the players using Create-a-Skater -- there's no restriction to what character players can use in the races, and as long as they finish the World Tour at 100% they'll have a character that's completely maxed out on all stats.
This becomes painfully obvious in the game's multiplayer. When playing the game prior to review, I hopped online with players from Activision and Vicarious Visions, and since the game didn't restrict which characters players could use, I obviously used my Create-a-Skater who had all of his Speed, Trick, Air and Balance stats completely set at his maximum. Anyone who used an in-game character like Tony Hawk, or a character that hadn't finished the World Tour ended up dominated by my character's abilities.
That said, Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam has an enormous focus on multiplayer that just can't be missed. American Sk8land was a mere taste test of DS online play for Tony Hawk fans. Downhill Jam takes that environment further with four player match-ups instead of two, and offers pretty much the entire menu of gameplay options from straightforward racing all the way to the different score and combo challenges. We're still without a functional lobby system outside of a network, and players will still have to organize friends codes in order to take full advantage of online...including the voice chatting feature.
Yep, during online races you can voice chat with everyone linked up in the network, which comes in handy when you're setting up the next challenge. It's a little restrictive, and more so than even the "push to talk" lobby option of Metroid Prime Hunters voice-chat: here, players touch an icon to activate the microphone for a few seconds. After players speak their piece, it's sent as a packet to the other systems and played back through their speakers. The microphone will occasionally disappear from your touch screen, which is an indication that a player is recording and sending his voice packet. So, it's not really realtime, but it's still functional even with its limitations.
Most of the online depth is in the website portion. Activision's tracking everything you're doing in Downhill Jam, and though you can't pull up that data in-game, if you've connected your DS online at any point you can see your progress at
the game's website. Players can have multiple custom textures for shirts, boards, and wall art that can be created in the touch-screen art program, which can be uploaded to the website as well. On top of this, the Create-a-Skater option offers dozens upon dozens of head, body, and leg parts for an insane amount of combinations. Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam has an incredible focus on personal customization...Vicarious Visions offered the basics in American Sk8land, but it's "the works" in this racer.
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