IGN Review of Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam
With eight games already released in his namesake skating franchise and with another eight years left on his very lengthy contract, Activision decided it was time for Tony Hawk to branch out a bit. Straying from the goal-based Pro Skater/Underground/American Wasteland/Project 8 series, Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam was released late last year as a Wii launch title and is now hitting the PlayStation 2. It's been pitched as a racing title first and foremost, one designed for a wider audience than the now-complicated core skating series. The downside to this is that while the series does need a bit of a revamp as it isn't nearly as fresh as it used to be, the change loses most of what was originally fun about the franchise in the first place.
Downhill Jam made sense as a title for the Wii as its skating mechanics were directly tied to using the Wii remote as your steering mechanism. It may not have been the most accurate input mechanic ever seen, but it also lent itself well to the game's chaotic nature. Once the control was moved to the Dual Shock 2 however, the game lost its unique sense of control style and winds up simply feeling like a kid's version of the series.
For example, one problem is that while tricks are an important part of the game as they earn you boost, it doesn't matter which specific tricks you perform at any given time. You spit them out so quickly and with such abandon that you can score just as many points mashing on Square while pressing different directions as you can while trying to make sure you mix things up. Grab tricks aren't worth enough points, so you're much better off solely sticking to flip tricks so that you can earn multipliers. And special moves? Just hold L1 and press Square or Circle.
Indeed, the trick system has devolved into pure button mashing. You also needn't worry about being able to land after trying too many tricks as you perform them so quickly, even with the weakest equipment, that you'll land 99.9% of the tricks you attempt. You don't even need to really land straight, though doing so does give you more points. So, from a trick perspective, the game is a far, far cry from what the core series has presented us thus far.
But the main point of the game is its racing, which sadly isn't much more skill-dependent than the tricks. You can punch and kick at other racers to knock them from their boards, but you aren't really penalized for repeatedly tapping the attack buttons and they don't really ever fight back, so this is a rather one-sided mechanic with little to no downside.
The racing itself works much like an arcade title, what with the main mechanics simply being steering, boosting and jumping. You're able to powerslide around corners, but you don't really need to master this to win any of the races. Really though, there isn't a whole lot that needs to be mastered here, and therefore it doesn't feel like there's really any depth to be found.
Rather than mastering the mechanics of steering and such, your "skill" is reliant solely on how well you know the tracks and where the shortcuts are. If you can manage to take enough shortcuts then you're almost guaranteed to win. You have a good chance of winning without them, but they'll practically seal the deal if you do.
Indeed, Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is quite an easy game. There are a few tracks and race types that you may need to practice a couple times in order to snag a gold medal, like some of the coin collection events, but most races are fairly simple and the trick events are laughable.
While much of the game is, quite frankly, boring, there is a small bit of fun to be had in that you're constantly switching between event types and race locations. Tracks are broken into a number of sections, so while some events may use the first part of a track, another may use only the end while another may use the whole thing. This can help keep races short so that you're constantly winning medals and earning new unlockable content, like boards and such, and this can be a little addicting as you earn stuff all the time. Most of it is just new gloves or shoes to put on your skater, but it is cool to get so much stuff.
Downhill Jam's course design is mostly interesting and it is quite varied, though their mix of part skate park, part race track leaves them feeling a little lacking. That is, as race tracks, there aren't many turns that you need to worry about negotiating perfectly while as skate areas you don't do much other than hit rails or take jumps. You won't ever hit a half-pipe and session for a bit for points, while on the other hand you won't ever need to worry about cutting down your lap time by perfecting a certain s-turn. Again, Downhill Jam has a very arcadey feel and therefore doesn't ever really tax your skills in any one area, which in this case is unfortunate and leaves it without much challenge.
On the side of presentation, Downhill Jam is almost a completely opposite of every other Tony Hawk game released to this point. While the other titles have great videos, Downhill Jam's are absolutely terrible. There are a half-dozen or so videos of a group of skaters (including Tony) skating down a hill while using hand pads to spin and such, but each video is almost exactly the same. It's okay the first time, but very, very quickly becomes old and boring as they're recycled and shown before every event. There aren't even location changes, which is pitiful.
The actual quality of these videos is also abhorrent. Pixelation rears its ugly head everywhere due to piss-poor compression, and the sky has so much banding that you figure it could be boxed up and sold with the Band-Aid name slapped on the case. Really, there's absolutely no reason for such terrible video quality.
We also experienced a number of technical issues with the game. After the initial tutorial session, the game prompted us to press X to continue, except that X nor any other button allowed us to continue. Resetting and starting over let us get into the bulk of the game, but that wasn't the end. Textures that load late mean you sometimes see transparent areas for a few seconds. Respawning points can be wacky, what with us once appearing between a couple of cars and even once in the Matrix (below the level where textures blend and bleed).
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