I've lost my head over this game. I want to play it again. Now.
I was completely surprised by how much fun I had with Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam on Wii at Activision last week. I played four-player for at least an hour, and after everyone else moved on or went home, I spent fifteen minutes or so in single player and only stopped because I was running out of time.
The first thing that anyone needs to know is that this is not a standard Tony Hawk game. So whether you love Tony Hawk games, you can't stand them, or you just feel helpless when you try to compete, step back and approach this racer like you've never heard of Tony Hawk before.
Downhill Jam is a four-player racing title in which you hold the Wii remote sideways, rocking it back and forth to steer your character to mimic how a skater balances on his board. You hold the 2 button throughout most of the race to crouch and pick up speed, releasing it to ollie and catch air. You press the 1 button to grind on countless lines on the way to the finish. While grinding, a balance meter appears above your character's head and you must tilt the remote to keep your mark in the center so you don't fall off the line. To perform tricks you use combinations of both buttons and the cross pad, usually when catching air. Performing tricks fills a meter to give you speed boosts that are activated by either shaking the controller or hitting the B trigger. And when you're near opponents you can slap or kick them off their boards with the cross pad.
Like my experience with Excite Truck at E3, I find that using the remote to steer and balance just comes naturally. There was a slight tendency to over steer when I first started out, but after I got a feel for it, I had no trouble zipping back and forth across the course to reach goals or avoid being hit by traffic. With more focus on racing, the trick system has been simplified a little, but there is still a wide range of tricks that you can do and trick-based game modes.
Speaking of game modes, there are about five different modes available in the multiplayer game, which kept it from getting stale even though only three areas were unlocked in the build we played. There is a standard race mode in which the first person to the bottom wins and a strange companion mode called Elimirace that crowns the last person as the winner.
In trick mode, you'll try to gain as many trick points as possible before reaching the bottom. However, it does seem like crossing the finish line first puts you at a disadvantage since other players can see your final score and linger to do more tricks before they end the race.
Slalom can be a lot of fun. In this mode there are hoops, called gates, strung throughout the course and a timer ticking down. Going through the hoops will increase your time by a few seconds; run out of time and you'll be disqualified. Whoever passes through the most gates and makes it to the bottom wins.
The most competitive (and most bizarre) mode is called Steal the Head. It doesn't matter who gets to the bottom first, but similar to king of the hill modes in shooters, the person who keeps the head longest throughout the race wins. What is the head you ask? Well, it's your character's head, actually. You see, in this mode, when your characters jump off the starting line, all of their heads fall off except for the player in the lead. The rest of you are controlling headless skaters, trying to catch up to him, and "steal the head". So you're trying to get ahead to get a head. Get it? Then you want to hang on to the head as long as possible so that even if the others pass you at the end, you'll still win because you've had the head longer than anyone else.
In single player there are some additional goals available for courses, including destroying specific objects or knocking over pedestrians. The trick mode is a little more robust in single player too, with special trick rings that put you into slow-motion, allowing you to get more tricks while in the air.
The course designs I've seen are all pretty complex with multiple paths to take and lines to grind on. There are some particularly fun lines to grind in the Hong Kong level which have you popping strings of lanterns and sliding from one fishing boat to the next in the harbor. The courses are set up so that you can race on short sections of a slope or take the whole thing from top to bottom, and as you progress through the game the slopes tend to grow longer. On some sections of the courses, a red arrow will show up in the distance, pointing out a shortcut. Usually it takes a bit more skill to access shortcuts or to get through them without falling somewhere along the way, but they can help you shave off a lot of time if you don't mess up.
Graphically, Downhill Jam is the most impressive of Activision's line up. There is a lot of detail throughout the game, and characters look smooth and polished. The style is more fantasy based, and at this point no real life skaters have been revealed besides Tony Hawk. Instead there's an assortment of more cartoon style characters like a goth chick and a guy with dreadlocks.
Overall, Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam has really hooked me, especially with its multiplayer modes. While it may not satisfy fans craving a more traditional Tony Hawk game, it's definitely worth checking out no matter how much experience you've had with the series. I'll be picking it up at the Wii launch for sure.