Activision's Tony Hawk skateboarding games have undergone some pretty serious changes over the years, but this latest offshoot of the main series is taking things in a new direction: down. Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam takes the trick-oriented gameplay of the Tony Hawk series, streamlines it a great deal, and attempts to cram it all into a racing game. The result is a spasmodic game that's good at making you feel like you're moving fast, but not much else.
In Downhill Jam you can race as one of several skaters. Tony Hawk is the only real-world guy in there, and many of the rest fall into an easily classified stereotype, such as the goth chick, the perpetually stoned guy, or the self-proclaimed "rich white girl." Each character has different starting stats in five different categories, but more importantly, each race starts off with a little interview clip with one of the skaters, in which they show off a little personality. While these clips start to repeat fairly early on, some of them are pretty funny in a subversive sort of way. The game offers you a few different types of events, but the gameplay primarily revolves around racing, so that's what you'll spend most of your time doing. Downhill Jam simplifies the trick control system of the previous Tony Hawk games quite a bit, but most of the tricks are still in there.
Like the other Wii games that feature steering as a major component, Downhill Jam uses only the Wii Remote and has you hold it sideways, with the D pad under your left thumb and the 1 and 2 buttons under your right thumb. Tilting the controller directs your steering. The 2 button acts as your jump button, but it does double-duty as a grab trick button when you're in the air. The 1 button is used to do flip tricks and grinds. Hitting directions on the D pad when you're on the ground lets you attack to your sides, knocking down opponents or random pedestrians who happen to get in your way, but when you're in the air, it lets you do different tricks. Downhill Jam's scoring system is strict about trick repetition, so you'll want to vary things as much as possible to get higher trick multipliers. Doing tricks fills the giggle-worthy "zone bone," which is a fancy name for "turbo meter." It can hold multiple charges, and you bust out a boost by shaking the controller. If you happen to fall off your board, you also shake the controller to get up, but the way the game handles landings and wrecks is fairly forgiving. It seems impossible to blow a landing and wreck completely, but the game slows you down a lot if you don't land at least somewhat properly. So your wrecks instead come from slamming into solid objects, like walls, cable cars, and so on. The steering control feels pretty good, but the trick system has been oversimplified, which leads to some problems. When you're skating, you want to hold down the 2 button to crouch, so whenever you're getting ready to land, you naturally start holding that button down again. Since that button now also does grab tricks, hitting it early means that your skater's going to start doing a trick and land poorly as a result. Taken as a whole, the control feels a little sloppy.
The racing is pretty straightforward, but the level design definitely isn't. Each downhill course is filled with different ways to get down. So you might turn your way around and down a parking garage, or you might just want to skip all that and hop through a window to get down to the street below. There are plenty of grind lines that wind their way through turns, making them very handy, since balancing your skater on a rail is much easier (and faster) than steering down is. Between the high speed and the cavalcade of rails and paths, Downhill Jam can get pretty confusing. This adds to the frenzied feel, but it doesn't make the game much fun, either. The confusion also has a nasty side effect. It's possible to get turned completely around and start skating in the wrong direction. The game has a "wrong way" message that pops up, but it doesn't pop up immediately, so you might skate for a couple of seconds before realizing what the heck is even going on. Some sort of "the track continues this way" arrow would have made more sense, but once you learn the fastest route through the level, this isn't as much of an issue.
Some events don't focus quite as much on the racing, but they'll usually have a time limit. Slalom events give you a tight time clock, but each gate you pass through gives you more time. Score events require you to finish before time expires, but you're judged by how many points you score. In these events, gates appear that slow down time when you launch through them, giving you more time for spins and big tricks. The game also has multiplayer support for up to four players via split-screen, and you can play the single-player race types, like race, slalom, trick, and elimirace. You can also play "steal the head," which combines king of the hill with a downhill race. The leader gets the head, while the other skaters roll around headless. You can get the head by getting into first place or by knocking down the leader. The player who has the head for the longest at the end of the course is declared the winner. You can select all of this yourself or just pick random and let the game feed you different events. Like most games, this one is more interesting when played against other players. But playing in a quarter of the screen can make things like rails and shortcuts harder to notice. Considering that the Wii does have built-in network support, it's too bad the game doesn't offer any sort of online racing.
Graphically, the models and environments in Downhill Jam are muddy and sort of ugly, but at least everything moves quickly and usually maintains a smooth frame rate. Like in most other racing games, conveying a good sense of speed is key, and Downhill Jam at least does this pretty well. The trick animations appear to have been taken from previous Tony Hawk games, and they look OK, but considering the pace of the action, you won't have much time to sit back and appreciate how a Christ air or a benihana looks. The soundtrack contains a healthy variety of licensed music from acts like Iron Maiden, Sahara Hotnights, White Zombie, Public Enemy, and Lupe Fiasco. Most of the sound effects sound like they came right out of the older Tony Hawk games, and some of those sounds also come out of the Wii Remote's speaker. This comes as a bit of a surprise but doesn't add much to the experience.
Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam starts with a time-tested trick system and an interesting idea on how to reinvent it, but the concept doesn't come through clearly at all. There aren't enough different tracks to keep the action fun for long, and while tilting the Wii Remote to steer works well enough, the rest of the control isn't very good. If you're absolutely dying to check out a downhill take on Tony Hawk, you might want to try the DS version of the game instead, which offers multiple goals for each level and, yes, online play.