Vicarious Visions have invariably done a stellar job of recreating Tony Hawk games for the Nintendo consoles. The GBA games were surprisingly effective, and last year's American Sk8land for the DS managed the enviable feat of being better than its console big brother. Their versions have always stuck to the purer Hawk game of the early Pro Skater series, while the NeverSoft versions deviated further and further. Until now, that is.
Of course, Downhill Jam isn't partnered with the excellent Tony Hawk's Project 8, but rather the forthcoming Wii title of the same name. Goodness knows how effectively the Wii game will work, with the Wiimote mystically transforming into a skateboard - it sounds potentially splendid. However, with such a neat gimmick removed, the DS incarnation feels a bit lacking.
It's important to say from the off that, when it comes to the skating, DJ gets it right. It's as smooth and instinctive as ever before, gravity feeling real, the grinds providing texture, the controls simple and effective. It's just, this doesn't seem like the right way to be using it all.
Replacing the usual roaming nature of the Hawk games are a series of downhill races on improbably high hills. Reminiscent of Snowboard Kids (but don't get too excited), these downhill charges feature most of the usual Hawk tricks and flips, but this time with a race incentive thrown in. And most of the exploratory fun thrown out. The result is something that's mediocre, where something approaching greatness was expected.
There are two main modes - the World Tour, and the Jam Session - as well as a Quick Race, Free Skate, and nice online gubbins we'll get to in a bit. Jam Session uses the meme of the earlier games, plopping you at the top of a slope and setting you a list of tasks to achieve in multiple runs. Tick off enough, and you'll unlock the next location, and repeat. Unfortunately, these tasks are too few, and at Normal difficulty, too easily achieved. Even on Hard, most the requirements will take no more than two or three runs. It feels a little perfunctory, the gentler tone of the earlier games replaced with the constant downhill rush. The format just doesn't fit this mode.
World Tour offers the greater bulk of the game, much more involved and including the daft story. You and Tony are flying around the world, recruiting a team to take part in these downhill races, proving yourself in nine challenges, and three medal competitions per location. It's an odd narrative, since the only person who ever wins any of the challenges is you. Quite why you need to gather this gang of cartoon characters is unclear. Rather than the pros of the main series, DJ only includes Mr. Hawk, and then a series of ludicrous national stereotypes. Worst of these is Edinburgh's Lachlan MacDuff, inexplicably wearing a horned helmet, who speaks with an accent that's closest to Irish, but only just.
This mode works a lot more effectively, the tasks taking place mostly on shorter sections of the complete run, mixing up the nature of your goals. There are the obvious requests of achieving high scores, putting together combos, or pulling off specific tricks as dictated by the screen. There are the more silly goals like smashing barrels, or achieving a score within 5000 of a certain number without going over. And then there are the more competitive aims, racing against AI players to win with points, speed, or judge-rated style. Finishing enough of these unlocks the medal challenges, which are more of the same, but on a larger scale. Completing two of the medals opens the next location. On Normal mode these are generally breezed through, but numerous enough to make that not a problem. It's nice to have constant progression, rather than frustrated repetition. On Hard, especially at the start with low stats, these are a fair old challenge and should keep you going for a while.
Combos have been adjusted slightly for the downhill theme. Rather than having to land every trick in a manual, you're given three seconds after each move to begin another. This makes stringing together high scores much simpler, but oddly enough it's somewhat unnecessary. Nothing about the one-way nature makes entering a manual any trickier, and it seems to lower the skill requirement quite significantly.
More problematic is the race AI. Obviously race games have long used the trick of having the AI competitors adjust their abilities to match your own in order to keep races interesting. But getting this right is a fine art. Constantly feeling that someone's on your tail, or pushing harder to prevent your taking the lead, can create tension and challenge. But when you can see the workings, it just feels like cheating. They'll be nearby no matter how fine your run, and in the end, it comes down to the last few seconds of each race, ensuring you've got enough Boost to go super-fast over the finish line. The rest of the run feels superfluous.
All said, it's not bad. It's just not what we've come to expect of Vicarious. The graphical theme is similar to Sk8land, sensibly emphasising cartoons over realism, but sometimes going a bit too far with world detail, meaning it can look scrappy. Still, it's impressive considering the medium. The skating feels smooth and natural, the jumps and tricks instinctive, the grinds rewarding. With the controls once more on the buttons, the screen's only used for tapping specials. But in light of Project 8's wondrous Nail The Trick mode, tapping on a special move and watching the most idiotically impossible tricks happen automatically feels a bit flat. You're not doing that, you're simply balancing things while it does it for you. Surely the touch-screen could be used in an innovative way, especially considering the game does feature slo-mo.
Talking of the slo-mo, here things go very wrong. By double-tapping tricks, you can do swirly-wirly moves which let out blue lines of, um, magic behind you. But oh dear me, they have arsed up the camera. Your character can shrink to about two pixels wide approaching a vanishing point somewhere down the hill, making landing utterly impossible. And that's not the only bug. I've fallen through the ground, ridden through fences, and mysteriously aligned my molecules with the spaces between those of the buildings. It's a touch glitchy.
Far better is the online play. For some reason the Tony Hawk DS games are in the few to make decent use of the Wi-Fi, beyond simply providing multiplayer. As I connected, I read a message congratulating the winner of a recent competition, and was offered new goals to download and attempt. This is the sort of simple content that broadens a game's potential, and gives you the impression that the developers are interested in you. And of course, it also offers the multiplayer, which removes so many of the niggles mentioned above. When racing against a friend, there's no cheating, no magic catching up or lagging. It's about being better than your stupid rubbish buddies and effectively proving it to them. And you can play against anyone in the world, the game matching you up to others looking for a challenge.
It's certainly a good thing that the Hawk games are being pushed in new directions, but the DS version doesn't convince that this choice is ideal. It flips and grinds like a skateboarding game should, and the multiplayer offers lots more potential. Later on there's snowboarding and mountain boarding on offer too (although they are just graphical changes, playing identically). It does lots, and it does things reasonably well. It's just, well, it's doing the wrong things reasonably well.