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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam
Activision for Nintendo Wii

In an effort to utilize the unique functionality of the Wii controller and its abilities, Activision and Neversoft have released Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam, a spin-off from the popular skating franchise. This isn't a traditional Hawk title, instead it offers players a chance to compete in a number of downhill races through a variety of environments. You can use the Wii controller to steer your racers, perform some basic tricks and unlock additional items. There are also some multiplayer modes and other extras. This an interesting idea, so look inside and see if the end result of this experiment is successful or falls flat on its face.

While a number of developers to this point have tried and failed to bring a standard console-type game to the Wii with limited success, Activision has developed a unique approach to the Tony Hawk franchise. Instead of releasing a full-bodied version of Project 8 on the Wii, they have instead developed an entirely original IP called Downhill Jam that supposedly has been tuned to take advantage of the console's unique Wii-mote controller. Unfortunately, the game itself doesn't deliver what Hawk players have come to expect from the franchise. While the approach sounds admirable on paper, Downhill Jam's execution leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of a complete skating simulation with deep moves lists, multiple challenges and non-linear worlds to explore, Downhill Jam is a fairly standard racing game with a few Hawk-like flourishes and stunts. This is probably one of the biggest disappointments Wii owners will have and this simplistic approach feels like a dumbed-down version of the franchise. It doesn't help that instead of facing off against pro skaters as you would in a standard Hawk title, you are instead battling generic, stereotypes that offer little motivation to beat. While you can create your own skater, the options are limited and not that interesting over the long haul. This shallow approach is somewhat patronizing and gives Downhill Jam much less depth and challenge than has been expected of the series, making it feel more like a long series of mini-games than the deep title players have come to expect. The lack of originality extends to the structures as well and Tony Hawk's Dowhill Jam is structured exactly like you'd expect a standard racing title and offers little in the way of innovation from this standpoint.

The game includes several racing modes to compete in. There's the standard racing mode where you have to finish first in a race, slalom mode where you have to race through gates to extend your time and a trick mode where you need to perform tricks and reach a target point total. You need to compete in these types of races to progress, which at least gives you some variety. Downhill Jam's controls are fairly easy to understand, you tilt the Wii-mote to steer your character down the course and use the cross-bar to perform tricks while the face buttons allow you to crouch down for increased speed. When your skater crashes, you can shake the controller to get up and return to the race. The system is fairly intuitive to use and the steering and responsiveness can be a little off sometimes which can lead to frustration when you find yourself stuck in an area or go slamming against a wall when you're turning the Wii-mote. This approach is a bit disorienting as well, since the inconsistent feel of its controls makes playing Downhill Jam difficult. It's hard to get into the flow of the races until you get the hang of its somewhat quirky controls. Once you do get the controls down, much of the difficulty evaporates, and Downhill Jam quickly loses its luster, becoming just another bland racing game. 

One you get beyond the novelty, DJ's gameplay offers only a fairly average level of difficulty and the rival racers can knock you down. However, you can fight back as well by pressing the cross bar to punch or kick them and other nearby pedestrians. The course layouts are fairly straightforward, but you can find numerous secret areas and short-cuts to shave seconds off your time. As you race down the course, you can perform a basic set of tricks such as grinds, grabs and ollies. When you do this, you earn points and fills up your power-up bar. When this is filled up, you can perform a special move or gain a speed boost by shaking the controller. Along the way, you'll also find special icons that will multiply your score or give you a brief moment of slow motion where you can perform additional tricks and moves for a bigger score. As you progress through the game and win races, you'll unlock additional courses and challenges while earning points that you can use to purchase additional skaters and boards during the course of the game, which makes your character go down the courses quicker.

From a visual standpoint, the game offers a serviceable graphics engine, that while moving fast lacks detail and resolution. The character models are bland and animate poorly while the surrounding areas lack the detail to be convincing. You can skate on some objects in certain areas which is pretty interesting, but the game offers very little that hasn't been done much better in other titles. Some humor tries to inject itself with the between race interviews with the skaters, but these jokes lack any edge because its hard to laugh at cliché ridden characters you don't care about. The game's music tracks offer the same old, same old mix of hard rock and metal that every extreme sports game from the past decade has - even that ever-present Rob Zombie track "More Human than Human" makes its umpteenth appearance in a video game. This only serves to highlight the game's lack of originality and innovation. 

It underlines what a disappointing release this is - which is doubly true given the opportunities the Wii-mote could open up for a skating game. Instead of mapping more complex moves to the controller, you are instead limited in the number and style to the most basic moves you can imagine. Once you get past the fact that the game's controls are somewhat novel, there really isn't that much new or interesting underneath expect yet another bland extreme racing game populated by bad music and boring characters without personalities. While most Hawk titles generally offer something new, Downhill Jam feels like a massive step back for the series. It's unimaginative approach to racing makes for a pretty bland experience that makes it seem less impressive than it could have been. You've played a hundred games like this over the past few years, and this one offers little that hasn't already been done. Ironically enough, while Tony Hawk's titles brought the skating genre to life and spawned dozens of cheap imitators, Downhill Jam itself feels like an imitation of better games like SSX and Amped, which makes this title doubly disappointing. In the end, releasing a watered down, simplified game doesn't do either the Wii or Hawk any favors and makes the experience feel shallow and empty.

Grade: C-

> Related Reviews

Tony Hawk's Project 8 (Activision for Playstation 3)
Excitetruck (Nintendo for Wii)
Metal Slug Anthology (SNK for Wii)

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