By Keith C. Smith
When it comes to skateboarding games, I've never felt like I'm in my element. I always thought the trick system was arbitrary and that each new version of the Tony Hawk series was pretty much the same thing with ramps now in a differently themed location. That opinion stayed with me until I got my hands on Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam. Finally, something different than the sandbox model of the last zillion games. Downhill Jam takes Tony Hawk and adds real head-to-head competition. Previously, you spent half the time setting yourself up to go up ramps just to do tricks and come back down. In Downhill Jam, all the upward movement has been done in advance. So you can just let gravity take you off cliffs and short ramps and spend all your time concentrating on tricks and speed.The premise of the game is a series of races between five skaters. You start atop a hill or building and then glide downward, punching and grinding your way to the finish line. You can attack other skaters from the side by using the L or R buttons. You can also come from behind to knock your competition out of the way. Though you only have the opportunity to do these things occasionally as the tracks are wide with multiple paths to follow, so you often feel like you're the only one racing.
The trick system is like any other skateboarding game: Direction + Another button = Some arbitrary trick. Pull off a chain of tricks without falling to get a multiplier to your score and to build up your boost meter quickly. The boost meter is how the game keeps tricks relevant to racing. When it reaches maximum, you can unleash a burst of speed that lets you soar off of ramps where you can pull off more trick combos and keep your momentum going. At first I found switching my concentration from racing to pulling off tricks to be counterintuitive, I quickly adapted and the tricks, while still not very interesting to see, came naturally as I found grind rails and trick ramps in abunance hidden throughout each track. Despite the abundance of secrets, there is a lack of track on each track. Just as I felt I was getting into the groove of a race, it was already over.
Though many of the tracks are repeats from the DS version of the game, I liked them then, and I like them even better with real speakers. Your usual assortment of punk and rock songs adorn this title. The sound effects aren't exactly realistic, but the game is clearly shooting for a less serious feel as its predecessors.
That feel is most exemplified by its characters. Take any stereotype you can think of, from the Austrian accented bodybuilder to the prissy diva, and it's probably in this game. Each character gets a mini-interview before a race where they make some quick joke that occasionally is funny. And though you can pick to play as any of these characters, most people will want to make their own custom character. The game offers a good supply of options even without having unlocked any. Though the lack of being able to customize your character's stats is disappointing. The game makes up for this somewhat by giving you new skateboards occasionally that boost certain stats.
There are a lot of different settings for the races, but they are almost exclusively set in urban areas that don't look terribly different. I think it would nice if they gave us some new theme locations, like a jungle or a snow capped mountain…oh wait, then this game would just be SSX Tricky.
If you look at this as a racing game that uses skateboarding, you probably won't want to buy Downhill Jam. But if you like skateboarding games and want something new from the Tony Hawk franchise, then jam on over to the game story and pick up a copy of this game.