It’s hard to believe that we have been shredding with Tony Hawk for over ten years now. It is almost as hard to believe that the franchise has lasted this long; I guess it just goes to show you that when you get something right you shouldn’t toy around with it. Well, for the second DS outing of the franchise developer, Vicarious Vision, has done just that. Taking the normal style of the game and gearing it more towards racing is certainly a bold move, but one that has paid off for DS owners in Activision’s latest touch-screen Tony Hawk adventure, Downhill Jam.
Last year, Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land was the first truly 3D title for Nintendo’s handheld. It was also the first title in the portable version to bring the entire flavor of the franchise into the handheld market. This year Vicarious has kept the cartoon-like visuals, but added a whole new layer to the game play. You will still be tricking and grinding in familiar Tony Hawk fashion, but this time it will all be done while participating in a giant downhill style race. Fans of the SSX series will be instantly familiar with this formula and personally, I think it’s a nice diversion from the past iterations.
When you first boot up the cartridge, you will be required to create a custom avatar to represent your skater. You can choose from male or female as well as a laundry list of other options such as clothing and board styles. More options can be purchased as you progress through the game, which is nice, but almost standard in this age of gaming. My main problem with the character models is that they look almost like paper dolls cut straight out of an issue of Highlights magazine. Their proportion leaves much to be desired, but for a DS game the animations are really impressive which almost makes up for their stagnate appearance.
Once you have created your character, the game dumps you into the first of six courses and allows you to learn the fundamentals of the game mechanics. There is a nice selection of tutorials you can blast through that give you the basics of how to earn special tricks and speed boosts. Remember the race is only half of the battle, getting there with style is also required if you hope to win every race.
The trick system will be familiar to anyone who has ever played a Tony Hawk game in the past. You have your standard kick flips and grinds, as well as wall plants and manuals. This time around though, it will earn you more than just special combos, it will also give you speed boosts that you can utilize on the course to get an ante up on the competition. Vicarious Visions has also added a new move called the “Burtslide”, which is similar to the Mario Kart slide in that it allows you to take corners at a much sharper angle.
The biggest downfall of the single-player though, is a lack of courses. You will only find six areas to venture throughout the game. While this may seem limited, the developers have done an excellent job of pacing the game’s activities to make up for the short list of courses. There are several different challenges on each map that can range from simple tasks such as races to grinding specific objects in specific areas in order to progress. Some of the races are also divided up in each area and thankfully the levels are enormous in scale, so traversing them is just as much fun, especially with all the shortcuts and areas to perform tricks on.
The biggest addition to Downhill Jam on the DS though is the multi-player aspect. American Sk8land was simply a building block for this year’s game. Vicarious has expanded the amount of players from two to four and even thrown in voice chat for good measure. Logging in via the WiFi connection is simple, but you will still have to wrestle with lobbies and obtaining friend codes in order to play with your buddies on the network.
All of the standard modes are included in this expansive multi-player set and being able to chat, even with its obvious limitations, is a nice way to keep the games going with organization. The best part about playing online though is that every single thing you do online is tracked and stored so you can view all of your game progress via the website. The downside is that you can’t bring your custom character online, so if you plan on hopping into a game as soon as you pop in the cartridge, prepare to be schooled by others with incredibly boosted stats. Overall, this is some of the best implementation of online play currently available on Nintendo’s portable wonder.
While not as deep or engaging as the other titles in this franchise, Downhill Jam finally takes the series in a new direction. I can really see this becoming a nice offset from the traditional game and even enjoying some real success. Vicarious Visions has done an amazing job considering the limitations of the Nintendo DS; this is one game you will definitely want to have in your library. This makes me all the more excited for the upcoming Wii version of the same title, but I will miss the online aspect, which the DS has pulled off quite nicely here. Definitely recommended for fans of the series that are looking for something fresh in their skateboarding games.