Activision's Tony Hawk skateboarding games have undergone some 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 and strips it a great deal, and attempts to cram it all into a racing game. The result is a spasmodic game that's OK 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 for one of the skaters in which they show off some 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, and there's now a new combat button that lets you strike other racers.
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 hitting the L2 button. If you happen to fall off your board, you have to pound the X button 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. Instead, your wrecks come from slamming into solid objects, like walls, cable cars, and so on.
The racing is 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. 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 is going on. Some sort of "the track continues this way" arrow would have made more sense when you're left staring at a wall and wondering which way to turn, 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 two 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 on half of the screen can make things like rails and shortcuts harder to notice. Online racing would have been a useful addition.
This game originally appeared on the Wii, and while the PlayStation 2 version has some additional multiplayer modes, it's essentially the same game, only with more conventional controls. Graphically, the models and environments in Downhill Jam are muddy and sort of ugly. Everything usually moves quickly, but an occasionally dodgy frame rate gets in the way of the game's sense of speed. 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. The music is sort of all over the place and cuts out during load screens, so none of it is used particularly well, but if you like the bands that are included, you probably won't mind the music. Most of the sound effects sound like they came right out of the older Tony Hawk games.
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 you're sort of left thinking that the game should have just stayed on the Wii, where its unique control scheme at least helps set it apart from the other Tony Hawk games. If you're absolutely dying to check out a downhill take on Tony Hawk, you might want to try the Nintendo DS version of the game instead, which offers multiple goals for each level and, yes, online play.