When Activision released Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam for the Nintendo Wii last November it garnered mixed reactions from both fans and journalists alike. While the simplified controls and linear gameplay were extremely different from the past games, it seemed like a perfect fit for Nintendo’s casual oriented console. The biggest problem facing the Wii iteration was that most Tony Hawk titles require precision control; a method that waggle would most likely not handle very well, but at the end of the day the game managed to retain a certain appeal that made it one of the better titles available at launch for the Nintendo Wii.
Now almost exactly six months later Activision has decided to port this quirky entry in the series to Sony’s last-gen machine, and for good reason. It is hard to deny the install base for the PS2 and considering that most Wii owners probably passed on the idea of a downhill racing game starring the Birdman; it seemed like a perfect opportunity to port the game to the machine that really put the series on the map.
Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam for the PS2 is almost a carbon copy of the Wii version with a few extra features thrown into the mix. The biggest change to this version though is obviously the lack of the waggle controls found in the aforementioned adaptation. Porting these rather simplistic controls to the Dual Shock 2 has generated a scheme that, for the most part, feels rather archaic when compared to the other games in the series.
For example, performing tricks during a race is crucial as it earns you boost. The problem lies in the fact that it really doesn’t matter which trick you perform as they all garner you the same results. This really takes some of the strategy out of the game as you can simply mash on one button and achieve the same outcome as a really diverse combination.
Grab tricks are also pretty much worthless when it comes to points, and as anyone who has played previous TH games knows, performing flip tricks is a breeze which further accents a real lack of depth. The specials have also been toned down significantly; no longer are you required to input “Fatality” like combinations on the d-pad to pull of these flashy moves. Now you simply hold down the L1 button and tap Circle or Square; most disappointing.
Of course all of this reigns moot as the focus of the game isn’t about tricks, it’s about racing. Downhill Jam reminds me a lot of an older PS2 title by the name of Downhill Domination. All of the tracks have a vertical incline that has you racing through city streets and crowded areas. Just like in the aforementioned title you can also punch and kick your way to victory ala Road Rash; sadly though the AI never really sports much of a challenge and a lack of online guarantees you won’t see as much multi-player action outside of the living room.
The racing itself is far from broken but does suffer from variety. Most races are not dependant on skill so much as simply knowing each track and where the shortcuts are located. While it is entirely possible to win just about any race without using them, knowing where they all are simply guarantees victory 99% of the time. Couple this with the extremely forgiving AI and you will find yourself taking home more gold medals than you can count.
The saving grace of the single-player though is the variety of events that you partake in. Each race is divided up into smaller versions of the main course keeping them short and sweet. There are also trick attack modes that will help you unlock more boards and gear, which is definitely a nice touch and greatly improves replay value.
Visually the game is a far stretch from other titles in the series. Instead of the realistic look that you would find in Project 8, Downhill Jam takes a more light-hearted approach with exaggerated characters ranging from all the general stereotypes. The course design is also a highlight here as they range from typical city streets to snow-filled downhill jaunts. The frame rate is pretty solid and for the most the visuals fit the style of this quirky title.
In the end Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam is a great addition to the PS2 library and personally much more enjoyable on Sony’s console. While the simplistic controls and lack of any real challenge ultimately hurt the game, it still manages to be fun if only in small doses. The lack of any kind of online mode really dampens the overall appeal, but for a title originally built with waggle in mind the game translates very well to the traditional control pad. Downhill Jam is worth checking out if you are tired of the standard Hawk formula and are just looking for a quick fix game to have fun with; if you are searching for the next great chapter in the franchise you will have to wait until Proving Ground launches this fall.