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» GH Review: Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam (Wii)

Introduction
Since the series debuted on the original PlayStation with the aptly named title Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, it was pretty clear that Activision knew how to make one fine skateboarding game. After being placed in one of many skater paradises, you had the ability to rip and shred all day long without a care in the world. Now, the Tony Hawk series is moving away from traditional skate parks and into downhill race environments in Downhill Jam. Not to be confused with the also recently released Project 8, Downhill Jam significantly changes the style of this famed game, and it does an alright job with the newly implemented formula.
     

A New Target Audience?

 Every release in the series up until now has tried to keep up with the latest visual technologies, and Activision has managed to be successful in this respect. Because of this, it might come as a surprise to see that the whole presentation of Downhill Jam seems to be geared toward a younger audience. Instead of trying to see what the Wii is capable of, it looks as if the developers weren’t too concerned about making this game comparable to similar next-gen releases. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however; while it certainly carries a cartoon-like feel, the environments still look great when your racing down streets and mountainsides, and the non-licensed characters possess a great deal of personality. Rather than having the same group of professional skaters, here you can find a varied crew including the gothic Jynx, the spoiled bratty white girl Tiffany, and even the burn-out hippie Budd. What this game lacks in sheer power it makes up for in personality, and considering how limited the Wii is compared to other consoles this will probably be a common trend for future titles.

The soundtrack consists of several genres that stereotypical skaters will enjoy. There’s plenty of “screamo”, hardcore punk, rock, and even some rap can be heard from time to time. If you aren’t a huge fan of any of these categories then the selection here definitely won’t change your mind, but the soundtrack usually goes unnoticed aside from when you scroll through menus. The in-game sound effects, including your skateboard grinding, flipping, or just speeding across pavement, work well to really make it feel like you’re going fast. There’s also a fair amount of commentary between fighters, and it can be fun to punch a nearby racer just to see the reaction. It’s obvious that there’s an overall less serious attitude here, but by no means does that suggest that the gameplay should be taken lightly.
     

A Daring Change

Considering how well the series has done so far, it was a bit of a daring move to alter an already renowned game’s formula. Considering that the Wii itself is all about innovation, the same Tony Hawk we’ve grown to love simply wouldn’t cut it this time around, so now he’s back in an adventure like never before.

As the name suggests, the levels in Downhill Jam all take you from atop a massive hill and finish with you crossing the line at the bottom. You couldn’t be more mistaken if you think this level design would grow old because any given level hardly bears any resemblances to the others. There are tons of hidden paths, breakable objects, and death defying gaps that reward you for learning the ins and outs of each setting, and over time you’ll really start to appreciate how much work went in to designing these intricate courses.

Right off the bat, you shouldn’t be discouraged if you find Downhill Jam difficult to control. A seven lesson tutorial introduces the basics before you being your career, but the only real way to gain control of your skater is to practice. To play, you need to hold the Wiimote in a horizontal position. In order to turn, you have to tilt the Wiimote either left or right, and it can take a great deal of time to get used to the high sensitivity. Tilting the controller will also allow you spin while in mid-air and balance out your grinds. Holding down the ‘2’ button will increase your speed, and releasing it will cause your skater to Ollie. In the air, all sorts of flip tricks can be performed by using the D-pad in conjunction with the ‘1’ button, and if you press and hold ‘2’ you will perform grab tricks. Furthermore, you can punch or kick other skaters by hitting ‘1’ or left/right on the D-pad only if you are on the ground.

Check out the game play video:

Once you learn the basics, there are still plenty of other advanced controls to be mastered. For example, double-tap flips and grabs can be performed if you hit ‘1’ or ‘2’ twice, and if you utilize these properly with rotations to boost your multiplier you can score tons of points. If you really catch a lot of air, you can shake the Wiimote up or down to perform a front flip or back flip. Powerslides are an essential part to skating because without them your character is likely to lose his or her balance on sharp turns. When you’re coming in to a turn, holding the ‘A’ button will show a charge meter above your skater. As you maneuver your way through the turn the meter will fill up, and if you release the meter when it’s green coming right out of the turn you will receive a powerful boost. Lastly, tricks like wall rides and sticker slaps by pressing or holding the ‘1’ or ‘2’ button while coming into a wall, sign, or other object at the right angle. Mastering wallrides can help keep your combo going and the results will really pay off in the long run.

Towards the beginning of the game, it’s extremely easy to be discouraged by the unfamiliar control scheme. There aren’t any slow paced levels, so you’re expected to jump right into the action following the brief tutorial. As such, it can daunting to compete in a high speed downhill race in an unfamiliar and crowded level, but if you take the time to get a feel for the controls it’s hard not to enjoy Downhill Jam in the long run.

The career mode simply consists of a series of challenge for each skater. The most basic game type is the race, in which your goal is to cross the finish line before everybody else. Contrary to what you may think, this does not mean you’ll be participating in a Point A to Point B race. Although you all start from the same spot and have the same goal in mind, how you get there is entirely up to you. For instance, in the first Hong Kong race you can choose to grind across light fixtures, speed down train tracks, or if you’re just getting started you’ll probably end up stuck behind a wooden post. If you keep your eyes peeled, hidden shortcuts will be indicated by a red arrow pointing to exactly where you need to go, and even if it seems like the arrow is leading you to destruction this is never the case. Traditional races are very common towards the beginning because they let you focus on the basics of controlling your skater, and if you pay attention you’ll learn what you need to do to go fast. For instance, at first it seems easy to grind your way through every level because the steering is automatic for the most part, but if you decide to hold down ‘2’ and steer through the races for yourself your times should be much faster.
  

Other speed-based game modes include head-to-head, elimination, and slalom. Head-to-head is simply a one on one battle between you and a juiced up skater, while elimination will knock out the skater in last place after a certain period of time. Slalom is a challenging game mode that requires you to race at breakneck speeds while also maintaining a sufficient amount of control. Blue gates will be lined up all throughout the course, and passing through these gates will increase your time. If time runs out before you cross the finish line you fail, and your ultimate goal is to cross the line will plenty of time to spare. This mode is particularly interesting because sometimes following the gates will lead you on to alternate routes you wouldn’t normally discover, and this mode will really teach how to open your eyes more so you can familiarize yourself with the game’s design.

Trick challenges have gold, silver, and bronze medals awarded to different point brackets, so your goal is to basically score as much as humanly possible. To help liven things up, power-ups are placed all throughout the course. The occasional 2x or 3x combo multiplier is always welcome, but your best friend here will ultimately be the time-warp gates. When passing through these, a Matrix-like effect will come into place, allowing you to perform tons of tricks without any worry of gravity. For as long as you remain in the air, you will be able to perform tons of tricks and spins that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise, so at these moments you need to take advantage of your ability to reach your goal.


Check out the game play video:

Even in normal races it is essential to do tricks because they are the main source of energy for the Zone Bone. The Zone Bone is a meter on the right side of the screen that fills up as you skate with style. When flames begin to appear around the skull at the top of the meter, shaking the Wiimote up and down will activate a boost that can easily allow you to overtake pesky rivals. This feature also works while grinding rails, so if you happen to come upon a curvy location you can just grind and boost your way through.

If you’ve had one gripe about this series, it probably involves the fact that every character has the exact same career, and unfortunately this hasn’t changed. Even though each skater has their own set of stats, the goals are identical regardless of who you pick. Luckily, all of the boards and locations can be unlocked by playing through the career just one time, so you aren’t forced to go back and unlock everything for each skater. Still, in the future it would be nice to at least see some character-specific rival events.

Multiplayer Madness
As if the lengthy campaign wasn’t enough, multiplayer support for up to four players split-screen is also available. Events such as races, slalom, trick, and elimination are all selectable as expected, but the surprise here comes with the addition of the game mode known as Steal the Head. In this mode, your goal is to spend the most time as the keeper of the head. You can earn the head by being in first place or by attacking the skater that’s holding onto the head, and as ridiculous as this sounds there’s no doubt that it does allow for a lot of competition between friends. The multiplayer doesn’t offer anything new aside from this, but we’re glad to see that a straightforwardly fun gameplay experience can be had with your buddies.
     

Conclusion

At first it was shocking to see that we would no longer be taking trips to skate parks all over the world, but Downhill Jam manages to bring new life to one of the best franchises to date. Even though it might not be of the same caliber as Project 8, this game carries a unique charm that demonstrates an entirely different style of skating. This title undoubtedly has a steep learning curve because it isn’t easy to grasp the control scheme and fast paced gameplay at the same time, but gamers willing to stick with it and progress past the initial frustration will find Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam to be a valuable asset to their Wii collection.             


Check out the game play video:


Gameplay
15/20
Graphics
16/20
Sound
16/20
Value
16/20
Preference
15/20
Overall
78/100




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