IGN Review of Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam
When we first heard that Tony Hawk would be making its way to Wii for launch, we were definitely curious to see how the transition would work. After all, while the actual feel of skateboarding seems like a natural move to a motion controller, Hawk is often all about quick combos, fast reflexes, and total precision. When we got word that the title would be a spin-off of the regular Tony Hawk gameplay, focused on the downhill aspects of the original effort, we were both intrigued but also a bit skeptical. The Tony Hawk series has been around since the original PlayStation console and has only gone through very minor changes. After a ton of tricking through the final version of the game though, Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is definitely an entertaining title despite some glaring weaknesses it suffered during the transition.
Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is just that; a downhill skating game. Inspired by a few key levels in the original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Downhill Jam takes the core design of a Hawk game - tricking and competition - and adapts it to the downhill scene. Think of it as SSX on wheels. For general control, developer Toys for Bob has opted to use only the Wii-mote, held in the classic position as if it was an NES controller. Players will carve using the tilt function of the controller, grind and jump with the 1 and 2 buttons, and powerslide for quick cornering and added boost with the A button. The D-pad is used only in conjunction with the 1 and 2 buttons when in air, which will pull off a variety of kick and grab tricks just like every other Hawk title before it.
Where things get interesting is the change in gameplay, revolving entirely around downhill course design. Players will go head-to-head against either computer-controlled competitors or three other friends, participating in race, trick, slalom, elimination, or "steal the head" events. The different events are spread across eight different tracks, each inspired by real-world areas such as San Francisco, Hong Kong, Machu Picchu, Rome, Edinburgh, Rio, The Mall (a throwback to the original downhill Hawk level), and The Alps. When playing through the main "Downhill Challenge" mode, players will select their character, choose a board, and begin climbing tiers of an event bracket. The more you win, the more you unlock. Also, while eight locales may seem like a small amount, keep in mind that these areas are often chopped up into sub-levels, and very rarely will you actually make use of an entire area - which takes around three to four minutes from start to finish - for the events.
While the idea of tilt control for a downhill racer seems like a no-brainer, Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam has a few oddities that start to add up. For starters, the controller's analog sensitivity is a bit low for our liking keeping the skater from engaging in a strong carve until about the 15-20 degree mark. Slight tilts in the controller will begin shallow movements on your skater, but initiating significant movement takes a more decisive tilt on the controller, and it's very easy to then overcompensate once the strong turning kicks in. Granted this slight movement comes in handy when trying to line up a mid-air spin, but on the ground it felt just a bit too loose. Since the racer is all about hitting ramps or nailing grind rails with nearly pixel-perfect precision, skate control can make or break the experience for gamers.
It was originally an intention to include a sensitivity option in the menu to tweak the controller's tilt, but that apparently had to be cut out. The result isn't unplayable by any means, but it does take a few minutes to get used to, and the control never really feels as precise as a regular analog stick does. Tilt is also used in air for doing spins and flips, and again the tilt is a bit on the loose side to initiate the spin rather than being as tight and precise as we'd like.
Even still, the game has a ton going for it in the gameplay department. When holding A around a corner the skater will go into a powerslide. If released at the right time, a boost is awarded, instantly making Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam a game that's relatively easy to get into, but has multiple skill planes to break through. When we first started playing we were avoiding the powerslide almost entirely. By the end, we could carve in an S pattern all over the levels, constantly boosting from perfectly timed slides. Factor in moves like these along with shortcut routes and speed boosts for huge point combos and you've got a game with a ton of potential speed.
When it comes to tricking, Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is again a different experience form the traditional game. Classic moves such as the manual and revert ability have been taken out, so tricking goes back to essentially one jump for each score. To link tricks together, you'll have to grind; plain and simple. To counterbalance the lack of huge combos, trick gates have been added, shoving the screen into bullet time to rack up huge strings of moves. Also included in the trick attack mode is the ability to grab double and triple point modifiers, which instantly add a ton of points to the trick total. As a bit of a downside, however, trick gates aren't available for multiplayer since they utilize a slowdown effect, making overall point totals much higher in the single player mode.
The special moves have been revamped as well, having the A button combined with either 1 or 2 in mid-air to perform an over-the-top animation specific to your character. These moves seem to be inspired directly from SSX Tricky, having characters flipping and spinning with no regard to realistic physics. The style may be hit or miss depending on the player, but there's something awesome about seeing Tony Hawk torpedo forward like Superman over rooftops in Hong Kong. It is, of course, amazingly over the top, but it seems to work well within the context of the game.
All things considered, Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam plays pretty well as a freshman effort on Wii. Newcomers should get used to the main controls in the first few runthroughs, and will learn to wall-ride, wallplant (ideal for shortcuts), grind, and pull off insane special moves quickly, and be able to provide adequate challenge to other players in no time at all.
Coming up Short
Unfortunately, not everything about Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is all that impressive. For starters, the presentation of the game is very iffy, including everything from low-res cut-scenes and a rough menu interface to an overall lackluster graphical engine. The game runs in both 480p and 16:9, but the general look is pretty low poly and last gen. For some reason, all the videos within the game are compressed in quality as well, a few of them worse than the exact same video we've got in our media section below.
And while the main audio in the game is decent, offering a ton of oddball commentary and an impressive 40 music tracks, there are still a few strange issues. The ability to create a custom soundtrack from the game's song list has been included, letting you select which songs to listen to and which ones to pass up while skating. Oddly enough though, there's no way to listen to a sample of the songs while building the list, so you'll either know the song by title and artist, or you're out of luck. In addition, band and song names are never shown on-screen aside from the actual play list menu. When a kick-ass tune starts up, we want to know who it is we're listening to, and with music from Motorhead, Iron Maiden, White Zombie, and Anti-flag we're surprised the game doesn't show off its above average track list. It may seem like a minor gripe, but part of what makes Hawk games so awesome is thrashing to your favorite tunes, and Downhill Jam makes working with the music a hassle. We'd like to see the audio interface improved on for a potential sequel, as well as the ability to add our own custom music via SD card.
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