The potential of the Wiimote, as I will forever insist on calling it, is enormous, and for many excited developer puppies it will be overwhelming. While the new Monkey Ball wasted some opportunities with the crappy party games, the natural and instinctive use of a motion sensitive controller for the regular levels feels like this is how the series was always designed to be played. A skateboarding sim, however, does not.
Skateboards are long and thin, and point forward. Wii controllers are long and thin, and point forward. We have synergy. So the first surprise comes, in this first console Hawk game not to come from Neversoft, as you are instructed to turn the Wii controller sideways and hold on with both hands. The second surprise comes when the menus require you to scroll through with the d-pad, including when entering your name from the on-screen keyboard. It's only been a week, and this already feels like the antiquated way your grandmother entered her initials into videogames when she was young and the war was on. You've got a pointer in your hands, and it won't let you point.
So this is downhill skating, like the recent DS game of the same name, in a variety of competitive formats, in locations around the world. Think SSX on skateboards. The designers certainly were.
There's a cast of cartoon stereotypes - a goth, a jock, a bimbo, a Brit, a stoner, etc. These, in a bid to mimic SSX, are sassy and full of asides and remarks, each interviewed before a race to voice some inane drivel you'll quickly learn to skip past. Tony is there too, but in this crowd and context he's only showing up to give the game the shop-friendly boost of his name. This has little to do with the Tony Hawk games we love, and as such his involvement is reflectively perfunctory. As one character declares, "Why does this get to be called Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam? Why can't it be Armondo Ootbagh's Downhill Jam?" He makes a good point.
You'll have noticed by now that the Wiimote doesn't have very many buttons. Tony Hawk games have traditionally used forty-seven buttons. Oddly, rather than streamline it for a racing game, the choice here has been to stack things up. The 2 button, on the right side of the controller, is for crouch and ollie. The 1 button for grind. Makes sense. Then there's grab tricks, which are on the, um, 2 button. And flip tricks on the - is this right? - 1 button. And then there's the combat. (Combat?!). Which is on the... hang on... yes, which is on the 1 button. And manual? They've taken that out. Why?! So if you're the sort who holds down the ollie before landing, to ensure speed is maintained, you'll be grab tricking your descent like a loony, or punching a passer-by in the face.
But no, you don't bail as a result. Bailing a trick in Downhill Jam is very difficult indeed. It requires hitting an object to have any good chance, somersaults always miraculously completed before you meet concrete. In fact, falling off your board, in a deviation with every Hawk game before, involves crashing into walls, cars, poles, etc. This to the uninitiated may appear to make sense, but for a Hawk game fan, it will be a striking difference. Objects are traditionally bounced off, meaning you can enjoy high speeds without constantly stopping your game. So in Downhill Jam - a game all about high speeds - it's the strangest design decision imaginable. In levels that are mostly blind corners, putting massive objects in the middle of the course, and indeed in the path of grinds, causes far too many unfair stoppages. Shake the controller to get back up, and it will place you back on the course, too often facing the wall. Or even more often, half a mile from where you fell over, even on a different route. It just doesn't make sense to have done this.
(Those replacing moments aren't all bad, however. Fall off a cliff in the more exotic locations and the game will often generously plonk you into first place, leagues ahead of your opponents. Thanks game! Are you sure?)
The Wii-based innovation is the steering. You steer by tipping the Wiimote left and right, and you accelerate or decelerate with forward and backward. But try telling my left thumb that. No matter how long I play, my digit is all too aware that it would all work a lot more effectively if I could only steer with the d-pad. There's nothing horrifically wrong with the leaning control, but it just doesn't feel instinctive in the same way as tipping a Monkey Ball track might, or reaching for a backhand in Wii Tennis does. It works, although struggles on the tightest bends, but it's not quite a revolution in skateboard gaming.
Rather than the traditional requirement to finish a number of challenges in a location to unlock the next, Downhill Jam has random tasks in random places, presented in higgledy-piggledy pyramids. It's enormously disjointed, and seems to offer nothing beneficial. But it sure won't make you feel bad at the game for a while! It was 19 challenges before I failed one. And another 15 before I failed another.
However, once you're past this first couple of hours, the difficulty does rise enough, and on the longer challenges (the majority are exceptionally brief, as quick as 30 seconds), discovering the shortcuts and mastering the routes to reach them becomes occasionally entertaining. The opponents get tough, and will use every sneaky route available. And there's an awful lot to do. Dozens and dozens of challenges, and a big bunch of characters with which to complete them. There's constant ranking up, new boards, and new costumes for the Barbie fans. Grinds become the key to success, and perhaps the most distinguishing feature between this and SSX. You can discover the best shortcuts, and the most interesting routes this way, and each level is crammed with secrets.
The trouble is, it's just too flaky. I've crossed the finish line with "1st" at the top of the screen and been declared 2nd on the scoreboard at least three times now, and even more confusing is midway through a race when the indicator starts flashing manically between "1st" and "Last", or announcing you in last place after you've just overtaken a group of skaters. It's possibly struggling to keep up, especially with the multiple routes, but in the elimination rounds most of all, this is just rubbish. Then there's getting stuck on scenery, cars screeching to a halt in front of you for no reason and taking you out of a race, or the crazed track-replacing after the game knocks you over. It stops feeling fair.
Spins and tricks are a bit of a fiddle to pull off with the Wiimote, when simply letting us add in the nunchuck would have provided the necessary analogue stick. The plastic bar is rolled around in your hands to do somersaults, waved back and forth for spinning, etc. You can see that steering in driving games has potential with the side-on controller, but not for those that require three times as many buttons as are on offer. This is everything Project 8 did something about - replacing button-mashing with a trick system of sheer, undiluted majesty. DJ is a mash-fest of the highest order, and as such (and especially without manuals) feels like a giant backward step.
But worse, far worse, Downhill Jam makes me feel clumsy. I am clumsy, but Tony Hawk games have always made me feel svelte and nimble. That's absent here. I want to feel nimble! The awkwardness of the controls combined with the idiotic collision punishment removes the fluidity that makes the series so pleasant.
And so what we have here is an average SSX copy, which wouldn't receive half the disappointment it deserves if it had just called itself Super Wii Downhill Ultra Skateboard Mega Challenge, and left Tony out of it. Despite the ploppy nature of some of the post Pro Skater games, the series still deserves a strong reputation, underlined by last month's completely stunning Tony Hawk's Project 8. Downhill Jam fails to meet those standards, and so, while a middling gnarly-o-tricks-a-thon, should have been so much more.
There's multiplayer for up to four players at least, but you're going to need a giant TV. Anything less than widescreen and it's very hard to make out the course once the screen's split in two. Unfortunately, the same clumsy feel and lack of fairness hinders this too, and it won't be the party game to push Wii Sports out of your machine.
Well then, it took lots of complaining to get here, didn't it? In the end (this is the end), Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is a mild downhill racer with too many glitches, and beyond the grinding, nothing to do with its licence. The Wiimote controls don't ruin it, despite the madness of the button use, but they don't add anything a regular analogue stick couldn't have made easier. I'd say stick to Project 8 on the Xbox 360 if you can. If you can't, just know that this isn't the Wii equivalent, and it doesn't feel like a proper member of the franchise.
P.S. I owe the people at Vicarious Visions an apology. In reviewing their DS version, I was very surprised by the drop in quality after their sequence of excellent handheld ports. Having seen the materials with which they began, I've now a lot more respect for the game (although of course it still earns the same mediocre mark). They had the good sense to undo a lot of the mistakes Toys For Bob have made. They put manuals back in, made bails related to tricks, and made many of the modes more interesting. Kudos guys.