When it was released last year for the Nintendo Wii, Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam was celebrated as a brand new take on the tried and true skating sim formula. While it wasn't perfect, the game did allow you to use the motion-sensing control in unique ways and offered a challenge that was completely different from what we got in Project 8 (or any of the other Tony Hawk games for that matter). Six months later Activision has decided to port Downhill Jam to the PlayStation 2, and while it doesn't offer any of the Wii remote functionality it does manage to do just about everything else.
Although it shares the name, Downhill Jam is actually quite a departure for the Tony Hawk brand. In past games you have been asked to skate around large levels hunting for the best objects to trick off of, hoping to figure out ways of linking all of your moves together for the maximum points. Those levels are often spread out and flat, giving you the opportunity to really learn the layout and become a real pro at whatever location you are stuck in.
But that's not what Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is all about. Instead of leisurely searching for things to trick off of, in this game you are constantly being pushed down a steep hill while you attempt to do tricks over jumps, grind on whatever you can and, most importantly, get to the bottom in one piece. If anything this Tony Hawk is more like Electronic Arts' popular SSX series, it's an intriguing combination of traditional Tony Hawk game play and a fast-paced racing mechanic. Unfortunately developer Toys For Bob can't quite get either of those parts right and Downhill Jam proves to be more of an interesting concept than a solid Tony Hawk game.
From the very moment you turn on Downhill Jam you'll know that this is not your traditional Tony Hawk game, the graphics are more over-the-top, there's significantly less accuracy involved with the control, and the character roster is made up of a lot of cartoon-like skateboarders. Instead of offering likenesses of your favorite skaters, Downhill Jam allows you to play as a number of new characters that all seem to be based on some sort of stereotype. You get characters like Tiffany (the blonde bimbo), Gunner (the aggressive muscleman), MacKenzie (the British punker), Skyler (the emo kid), and (Crash the daredevil). About the only "normal" character of the bunch is Tony Hawk himself, even if he looks more like an action figure than an actual person.
Once you've decided on what kind of stereotype you want to be you're whisked away to a grid that shows you all of the available events. Because every event in Downhill Jam is, well, downhill there's no room for you to explore on your own or find new objects to trick off of. Instead you have to select the level and then do exactly what it says, usually while barreling down the course at record speeds.
The good news is that every course has multiple hidden paths and plenty of rails to grind to let you pick up speed. This means that while you may miss some shortcuts the first few times through the level, the more you play the courses the better chance you'll have of actually discovering all of the secrets hidden in these locations. Unfortunately the bad news is that you'll be playing on these courses so many times that you'll start to lose interest in actually finding the shortcuts and just want the race to be over with.
In total there are about a dozen different locations in Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam, including the steep hills of San Francisco, the snowy peaks of the Alps, the ancient architecture in Rome, and so on so forth. Some of the locations even have more than one course, such as Chicago which has you racing through the city and through a shopping mall. At first it may seem like there's a lot of variety in Downhill Jam, but before long you'll be asked to play the same course for the tenth, eleventh and twelfth time. It's not that any of these courses are particularly bad; they just get old after a short amount of time.
While racing other opponents is a large part of what you do in Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam, it's certainly not the only thing you'll be doing. Some events will want you to perform tricks and earn a certain score before you pass over the finish line (something else SSX fans will no doubt recognize). Another popular event is the Slalom, which gives you very little time to get through the course and expects that you'll hit the various gates (floating circles) to add more time. Other events include a level that wants you to grind as long as you can, pick up as many of the coins scattered around the level as you can, and knock down as many innocent spectators as humanly possible. Some of these events are fun, but you'll find that the game tends to rely a little too heavily on the tried and true race, trick and slalom modes.
On paper a Tony Hawk racing game sounds like a lot of fun, but there are some flaws in the execution of Downhill Jam that keep this from being all it can be. The game itself feels a lot like the other Tony Hawk games, for the most part all of the buttons do the same things and it's easy to turn and do tricks. What sets this game apart from Project 8, American Wasteland or any other Tony Hawk game is that everything here is very forgiving. It took me over three hours before I actually fell off my board for the first time, the game's frenetic pace seems to want you to go all out with almost no repercussions.
One of the biggest problems has to do with the trick system. Since this game moves so much faster than other Tony Hawk titles you'll only have a chance to do stunts when you're making large jumps or grinding. This means that when you actually do have a major jump you have to pull off as many tricks as you can in order to receive a good score and a multiplier. That's all fine and dandy, but there's a serious lack of tricks to pull off in this game, and it all happens so fast that it's difficult to see what you were able to do. All you know is that you want to pull off as many of these tricks while jumping so that you can fill your turbo meter and hopefully gain an advantage on the other players.
That brings up my other complaint; the other characters in this game are cutthroat from the very beginning. Because the races are so short (usually only a couple minutes in length) you won't have a lot of time to get away from the pack and cement your lead. Instead you'll be fighting for first the entire time, which sounds like it would lead to some exciting races but in actuality it only makes the last few seconds more stressful and frustrating. It's not that the game is hard, but if you're the type of person that wants to get gold on everything then you better prepare for a lot of heartache. Your competition has a funny way of jumping to first place out of nowhere and winning a race you were leading the entire time.
The graphics in Downhill Jam are a mixed bag; on the one hand the character models are solid and interesting looking, but at the same time the levels aren't always very interesting and there are a lot of repeating textures. Worse yet is the frame rate, which tends to drop to the single digits for no reason at all. Oddly enough it's not always when there are a lot of people on the screen, I've had the game slow down at the most mundane times. For the most part the frame rate won't mess you up, but considering the PlayStation 2's age and the small amount of resources the game appears to take, it seems odd that there would be any problems at all.
The good news is that Downhill Jam offers you a lot of incentive to keep on playing, long after you've grown bored of playing the same levels. As you progress through the game you will earn new characters, new boards, new clothing and some bonus videos. While this is cool and all, you'll quickly learn to hate the videos that accompany these rewards, since it's the exact same 30 second clip played over and over again. Every time you win a new skateboard you get that one clip. Every time you rank your character up you get that one clip. The videos don't even look very good, which means that it fits in well with the rest of the motif.
When you're sick of the single player mode (which will only take you a few hours to complete) you can move on to the wholly unspectacular multiplayer mode. Perhaps it's a sign of the times or because this is just a port, but for whatever reason Downhill Jam only comes with a bare bones two-player mode. No online support and no four-player support, which not only limits what you can do with the game, but also keeps this mode from even being fun. I suppose racing against one friend is better than racing against the computer ... but not by much.
As I sat here playing Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam I couldn't help but feel like everything in this game was done better by the SSX series. If you can ignore the difference between a snowboard and a skateboard you'll find that these two games are practically identical. And while that should be a good thing, I couldn't help but feel like SSX has done a better job of combining tricks, racing and an open world. Downhill Jam is a fine game with plenty of exciting moments, but if you're going to play this then why not just go all the way and pick up SSX3 for a fraction of the price? As a spin-off series Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam has a lot of potential, too bad most of it is wasted on this ultimately forgettable PlayStation 2 game.