Hopefully, it's not all downhill from here.
Tony Hawk games have something of a reputation on Nintendo's handhelds. Pro Skater 2 was an excellent GBA launch title, and American Sk8Land paired cel-shaded graphics with the best early implementation of Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection for the DS. Now the series is taking a new direction –literally– with Downhill Jam. Unfortunately, the racing aspects don't always get along with Tony's trick-heavy roots.
In many respects, the game is similar to EA's popular SSX snowboarding franchise. You race in mostly urban environments on linear tracks with ample shortcuts, all the while performing tricks to build up a boost meter that helps you zoom into the lead. At least, that's how it should be. The few racing missions are quite enjoyable, even challenging, but additional goals like "Knock over eight trash cans" or "Grind 2000 feet" are boring, moronic, and easy. And since there are only six levels, the last of which is a short remake from the original Pro Skater game, these non-racing missions are used to pad out the bulk of the game. Whether you're playing in the World Tour mode, which is laced with a thin, weakly humorous story, or the old-school Jam Session mode, which asks you to complete classic Tony Hawk goals like finding the secret tape, Downhill Jam is rarely about the racing. It's absurd because the actual racing gameplay already incorporates speed, tricks, and exploration. There's no reason to dissect these elements and make us play them again in isolation, where they aren't nearly as much fun.
The impressively robust online options should provide some relief from the single-player game's structural problems. I wouldn't know, because after days of trying, I could never get a three- or four-player match going, not even during an online meet-up officially sanctioned by the game's community administrators. The lonely online experience could be due to technical problems with the matching service, but judging from the leaderboards, which feature only about 300 names more than two weeks after the game's release, I think it's more likely that players simply aren't participating. Perhaps that isn't the game's fault, but it should be taken into consideration if you are enticed by the Wi-Fi features. Two-player matches are usually easy to enter, and they work fine, but head to head races and trick competitions on such large courses aren't very exciting, especially since you are rarely matched with someone of your own skill level. There is only minor interaction between players (you can interrupt an opponent's manual or grind by boosting into him), but it's enough if you have a full field of racers, which again is unlikely.
One aspect of the game that really shines is its interaction with the community website. This feature is much easier to sign up for in Downhill Jam than its predecessor, and the new website offers even more interactive features. With the new and improved art editor, you can upload customized clothes and board designs to your online profile, share them with others, or download new designs into the game. The same goes for Jam Session replays, which let you show off your skills even if you can't find an opponent.
Downhill Jam inherits a still-impressive graphics engine from American Sk8Land, now bolstered with a great sense of speed when boosting along the tracks. The sound quality is also ambitious for the DS, with real, full-length punk songs that sound great through headphones (not so much from the built-in speakers). The soundtrack is short, though, and there is precious little variety. Despite the technical achievements, there are also some significant bugs which caused the game to freeze on me three times: once just prior to the start of an online match and twice during gameplay.
If I seem down on the game, it's mainly because I was eager for this series to take a new direction, and the results are uneven. There is a moderately fun, addictive quality to the single-player game as you churn through the objectives and gain familiarity with the expansive levels. The online features hold immense potential but so far seem crippled by sheer lack of participation. I would not recommend Downhill Jam as a multiplayer title unless you already have a group of friends who play, either locally or online. As a single-player experience, it's rather brief and feels, surprisingly, like more of the same from this very tired game franchise.