Hey, you got your SSX in my skateboarding game!
Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is not what you would expect from a Tony Hawk game. Yes, you ride a skateboard, and you do tricks, but that's where the similarities end. In fact, Downhill Jam shares much more in common with EA's SSX snowboard racing series than it does with a traditional Tony Hawk game.
Downhill Jam is all about racing. The career mode has you taking a character through a series of events to prove his worth as a professional skater. Though not all the events are straight races, they all have you riding down hills around the globe. The locales are varied, from the traffic packed streets of San Francisco to the mountainous ruins of Machu Picchu, which is a good thing considering how much time you'll spend in them. There are eight different locations to skate, and each is broken up into multiple sections. Most of the events, excluding the top-to-bottom races, use only portions of the locations. In effect, the number of locations is increased because each area contains a few different sub-areas. This may sound great on paper, as it increases the variety in the game's levels, but each of these sub-areas is far too small.
The average event in Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam lasts between 45 seconds and one minute. The few exceptions to this rule are the previously mentioned top-to-bottom races, which make it up to two and a half or three minutes. This is the biggest problem with the game, and if it were not for such amazingly short levels, the game might actually be a lot of fun. However, the events are over before they start, and there is not enough time for much to happen during them.
Apart from this fatal flaw, Downhill Jam is quite a fun game. Good usage of the Wii controller's motion sensing technology makes riding down the hills pretty fun. The remote is held sideways and tilted left or right to steer. Much like SSX, tucking for speed and jumping are controlled by the same button (in this case the 2 button). Holding down 2 will tuck your racer, a very useful maneuver you'll be using almost all the time to squeeze a little more speed out. Releasing the button will launch you into the air. Once you're airborne, the 1 and 2 buttons can be used to perform tricks, and if you're close to a rail, to start a grind. Tricks give you boost, and boost gives you speed. SSX fans will be very familiar with this mechanic. However, the trick system isn't nearly as deep or fun as it is in the venerable snowboard racer. Unlike SSX, boost cannot be used whenever you see fit. Instead, it can only be used when the boost meter is full. Once full, flames will shoot out of the meter, indicating that you have earned a boost (you can earn up to four). To fire it off, all you have to do is give the remote a little shake up and down. The boosts are short and only useful for passing a close opponent or getting some extra air off a ramp.
Grinds are often the best way through a level, and they usually take you through some secret short-cuts. Balancing on grinds is done with the Wii remote, in the exact same way you steer. While grinding, a balance meter appears above your head, and tilting the remote left or right will help you keep your balance in the center of the meter. The grind mechanic is way too forgiving, and the balance meter can stay all the way to one side for a few moments before you fall off the rail, giving you plenty of time to correct yourself on even the craziest of grinds.
You won't ever feel like you're dominating the competition in Downhill Jam, thanks to the game's gratuitous use of rubber band AI. I don't have any fundamental problem with rubber band AI, but it is poorly implemented in Downhill Jam. The other racers are always right on top of each other, and if you're in front, they're always right on your tail. I appreciate the competition, but when you can never get more than a few feet in front of your foes, it feels really cheap. On the flip-side, you'll also never be more than a few feet behind when in last place, as they all slow down to the point where you can catch up really quickly, even after picking yourself back up from a fall. The AI is just too tight in this game, and it makes the entire experience seem kind of like a waste, as if you're not really racing against them.
It's not all racing, though. Downhill Jam features a few other event types as well. Trick events are quite prevalent in the game, and they challenge you to get as many points as possible by the end of the levels. Slalom races are the most fun. In these, blue circular gates have been scattered around a level, and you've got to pass through them to add time to the clock. Many of these events challenge you to find the best route through a level and preform some crazy maneuvers to stay on the gate trail. There are also one-on-one rival races and some other oddball events that challenge you to do things like grind on rails for a certain distance.
Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is a good attempt a making a solid racing title on the Wii. The core mechanics are all there, and they are all fun, but it's just not enough to make Downhill Jam great. If the location sub-areas were each as large as a full location, this game would be a blast, even with its other blemishes. In the end though, Downhill Jam is too short, and with the recent announcement of a full-fledged SSX game coming to the Wii in 2007, anybody looking to pick up Downhill Jam might want to think twice.