When Activision first announced that the Wii version of Tony Hawk was going to be a racing game I was skeptical. Being a long-time fan of the series it was a hard pill to swallow. Then again if done right it could easily become the next Downhill Domination or even SSX, so my hopes were high. Add all of this to the innovative motion control of the Wii-mote and you could easily have one of the biggest surprises of the 2006 holiday season. Thankfully the developers managed to pull of a truly fun game, but there is still some work to be done before labeling this one as a classic franchise.
Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam is exactly what the title suggests; a downhill racing game. The developers at Toys for Bob have taken the traditional formula of the franchise and tweaked it for the Wii-specific controls. You use only the Wii-mote held in the classic NES position and use the d-pad in conjunction with the 1 & 2 buttons to perform tricks. You tilt the remote to steer your character and use the A button for boosting and power sliding.
For the most part the controls work extremely well due to the simplicity of their nature. Having only two buttons to perform tricks limits the amount of options, but it also makes the game more streamlined and allows you to concentrate more on racing. The tilt sensitivity of the controller takes some time getting used to, but it isn’t unplayable by any stretch of the imagination.
Like I mentioned earlier the trick system has been “dumbed down” to make the game more accessible using the Wii-mote. Advanced tactics such as manuals have been stripped which leaves only grinding if you hope to string combos together. To compensate for this the developers have added trick gates that cause the game to enter a sort of bullet time effect that allows you to string together large combos. Sadly this has been eliminated from multi-player, but you still have double and triple point modifiers to rack up some serious score.
Getting used to the movement can take some practice; and learning the subtle nuances of how the game works will go a long way in expanding your enjoyment of the title. For instance the power sliding is almost hindering at first, you will find yourself avoiding it at all costs until you master the science of it. However by the end of the game you will be pulling S turns all over the place and simply leaving your competition in the dust. This adds a nice plateau to the game’s skill, awarding players that take the time to learn the controls. Thankfully though you can still pick up the game right from the get go and have plenty of fun so it balances itself out nicely.
The single-player experience is a nice romp that takes you through several tracks spanning areas such as Rome, Machu Picchu, and even a revamped version of the mall from the original TH game. As you travel to these locales you will face off against computer controller AI in a series of events that include race, trick, slalom, elimination, or “steal the head” modes. When you start up the main attraction called “Downhill Challenge” you will pick a rider from a very animated cast of clichés and stereotypes, pick a board, and begin your trip up the competition bracket.
While only eight locales may seem like slim pickings you have to realize the scope of each section. Most races only contain a portion of each location and still manage to clock in at an impressive 3-4 minutes to complete. There are also plenty of shortcuts and alternate routes to discover that can mean the difference between first and last place; so needless to say you never feel cheated for only having eight areas to explore.
The multi-player is a nice addition if not a tad disappointing. You can have up to four players on the same screen, but with the size and scope of the levels the action can get a bit clogged up. There are also no trick gates in this mode as it does slow down time, which keeps multi-player score from ever reaching those that are obtainable within the single player experience. It is sad that there is no online mode to speak of, but we have come to expect it from the launch Wii titles. Perhaps a sequel will be warranted and we can then exchange Wii friend codes and race downhill on a glorious WiFi network. Until then Multi-player remains a nice addition that ultimately feels tacked on.
Visually I can’t say that I am overly thrilled with Downhill Jam. The Wii has been criticized more than enough for its lack of hardware muscle, but even so THDJ fails to impress in most areas. The cut scenes are poorly done and extremely low res and while the game does support 480p and 16×9 widescreen most of the in-game activity is marred by poor textures and low polygon counts reminiscent of recent PS2 games.
The audio on the other hand is extremely well done featuring the usual great selection of music that the franchise is known for. While you can create a custom playlist with the songs featured on the disc, you cannot sample any of them while you are doing so. This means if you don’t know what the song is simply by title you will end up playing the guessing game with your soundtrack. The voices are cheesy and overly done, but they do fit the cartoony cast of characters.
In the end Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam is a nice diversion from the traditional formula, but it does have some issues that keep if from being great. The new take on the game has tons of potential to be fantastic and with a few tweaks to the overall engine and trick system this could easily be a nice compliment to the already great franchise. While not the prettiest game you will play this year I guarantee you will find plenty to love here and if you are a fan of the series like myself you owe it to yourself to check out this game.