Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam Review (PS2)
Even the greatest gaming franchises of all time have taken small side-steps in genre to increase their mass market appeal. Take that chubby little Italian pipe cleaner with the way-out-of-his-league little blonde honey. While the bread and butter of the franchise has always been the adventure games that we’ve been playing since the NES, Nintendo has taken Mario and his entire posse in multiple directions over the years. We’ve taken the plumber racing, golfing, fighting, partying and so many other directions over the years with no end in site.
One of the most popular franchises in gaming history, arguably second to only Madden in the sports genre, is the series based around skateboarding legend Tony Hawk. Since the very first Tony Hawk Pro Skater, we’ve been graced with sequel after sequel, each with the core gameplay based around a man and his board. Each new iteration seems to get deeper and more realistic while growing increasingly grandiose at the same time. That’s why many were surprised to see the latest Tony Hawk game, Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam, actually make a move to a more casual, arcade style.
Don’t be fooled by the name inside the name. Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam is not a sequel to the last release – Tony Hawk’s Project 8. For that, you’ll have to wait till the winter and Tony Hawk’s Proving Grounds. Downhill Jam is a pick-up-and-play game that won't be confused with any other game in the franchise. There’s no goal-based story mode found here. While performing tricks is still part of the game, it’s more about completing a number of tricks than trying special or more difficult tricks. This game is a racer at heart, and tricks provide the boost that you need. So, if you find a single trick that you can pull off simply and consistently, there’s no real benefit in deviating from that gameplan. This works in the game's fun arcade style, but it’s not classic Tony Hawk.
Originally released on the Nintendo Wii, the game feels almost wrong being played on PS2. The speed of the game and how the levels unfold do not lend themselves to the use of a controller as well as they do the "WiiMote". To compensate for the loss of the complex motion controls of the Wii, for the PS2 release, the developers added additional single and multiplayer modes; an impressive step that more companies should look into to avoid the dreaded “port” tag.
In the center of it all, the game will either make it or break it in your PS2 based on you enjoyment of the main mode, simply called Downhill Challenge. You can create a skater or choose from the list of available premade thrashers. I have to say, the developers did a nice job in this area; casting a group of colorful characters, each with his or her own unique style and personality. From there, you will travel around the globe, competing in race after race in a handful of unique locales and environments. If you think it’s starting to sound a little bit more like SSX than Tony Hawk, you’re getting the point.
Multiplayer modes are pretty fun as well. But be warned, there is no online functionality in Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam, so you’re looking at split-screen at best for your buddy-on-buddy gaming. This is an area where they should spend a heavy focus if they plan to continue this franchise, and especially if they make the move to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
The look and sound of the game is a little old and a little new as well. While the game boasts a similar style to its soundtrack, you’ll find a real lack of tracks when compared to the jukebox that you usually find in Hawk’s games.
While that difference was, most likely, unintentional, the change in graphics was not. Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam uses a style far more cartoon-like than the current franchise and it really fits with the style of the game. I’d stop short of calling it cel-shaded, but it is definitely going for that bright, colorful, animated look. I think it works here. In fact, I think some games today make that mistake of making their graphics too realistic, losing the fun factor to the visuals. The game's designers did a nice job here making it both fresh and fun.
I’m a huge fan of the Tony Hawk series. My first reaction out of the box was that I was going to put in my time with this title, write this review, and forget it ever happened. To my shock and confusion, I really liked the game. Why? Because I stopped thinking that I was supposed to be playing “a Tony Hawk game” and started realizing that I was playing a fun arcade racer that happens to have Tony’s name on the box.
While I still believe the game is better suited for the Wii, I think it has potential as a series on any console. I would love to see a dedication to online modes in a future release and a benefit from the type of tricks you do versus simply doing a number tricks. And while you’re there, we’ll need the manual and revert for those combos too. Till then, I’m just having fun.