Although truly pumped and then impressed with the next-generation Project 8, the Downhill Jam line-up is starting to dirty Tony's water, possibly even drying it up a little. The THPS series has always brought about hours of enjoyment, piles of innovation, and stacks of new tricks or other features. Downhill Jam lacks the replay value and the innovation, but does retain the original goal-based style of game play which bodes well for a handheld.
Those levelled scores, random collectables, skate and combo letters, special gaps and tricks are all back, and irresistible to those with Hawk fever, but Downhill Jam offers so much more. Race, eliminate, compete, and dominate A.I. and friends. Online modes offer a whole new world, and all of the above is enjoyed as a custom created character, down to your board and team logo. The plot proves to offer nothing new, with Hawk wanting to start a downhill racing team. Once established, you get shipped off to San Francisco, given the aforementioned list of goals, and told to go nuts. Each of these goals will be attempted one at a time, since there is no free roaming as in the later Pro Skater's. The only other difference is the fact that you will always be flying, well, downhill. The SSX style created here by Vicarious Visions is definitely a new direction, but will be embraced... eventually. The goals themselves are the most familiar thing, and shouldn't feel too out of place to veterans of the series. Most are quite forgiving, giving plenty of time for scores that seem quite low. Offering say, six garbage cans to tip over, when the required goal is only three or four. Trick or photo goals can be tricky, as you can't simply skate back and try again. Luckily the menu system is easy and the loading is instant, meaning you'll be able to fly to that retry button fast, and start from scratch before you're blasted in the ear with: "Your crew doesn't stand a chance!" Sadly, this is the only comment to be heard when any goals are not completed as required. Not all of the goals are simply completed and forgotten either. A few will just aggravate certain players, building a vein-popping tirade that will keep a strong flow of business for those in the DS repair market; or medicine for that matter (vein popping isn't pleasant).
As you cross the goals off the list, you will open up other levels and earn stat points that you can then, as in the originals, put towards your speed, balance, et cetera. The quantity of levels is minimal, thus the same routes are used in both single-player and multiplayer. Quality is in place of lesser quantity, as you will always have plenty to grind, fly off or over, wallride, or carve between. As stated, Downhill Jam's controls don't stray from the standard Hawk style, so finding those shortcuts and grind lines will be easy as pie. Six different locations is not a lot, but Hoover Dam is back, and it's so good, it's the final level. That being said, Downhill Jams are obviously not about how fast you can cross the finish line, but about who can get there with the most style.
The lessons you learn in San Francisco will be used throughout the game. Stringing tricks together determines how much added boost your "skacer" has to their disposal (skater/racer if you didn't catch it). The boost meter will fill up just like your special. Every successful trick clocks in some boost, which in turn will top out at four full meters. Boost is an absolute necessity in races, and all the shortcuts in the world will never have anything on proper utilization of it.
Of course, while Downhill Jam's main stay is its world tour story mode, you can always jump into a quick race or simply free skate any area. Competing against others locally or even over the Interweb proves to offer decent replay value. There are plenty of challenges whilst playing against others, such as elimiskate, which cuts the last-place skater at set way-points down the course. Reportedly, online servers are frequently emulating a patchy wheat field that hosts plenty of crickets, so make sure to buy a buddy a second copy for a birthday present just in case.
Okay, so its still a little on the cel-shaded side, and it still sports the same style as last year's American Sk8land. But Jam's got its own features to toot about too. Outfitting your skater with a ninja mask is just one, adding custom recorded sounds as your bail sound makes two, and "Burtslides" just top off the cake. Essentially being the Dog-Town addition, "Burtslides" are simply a Powerslide on a skateboard, much like you would in Mario Kart. Custom logos created on the touch screen show up on shirts, boards, and ads if you want them to. While in game, the touch screen only acts as a map of the course, with points of interest such as goals dotted for recognition. It also displays your "touch specials" when appropriate, offering you a custom array of special grinds, manuals, grabs, and flips at the touch of a screen. The traditional button combination is still executable if preferred.
The sound effects themselves are the same as they've been for awhile now, but they still do the action justice. The soundtrack is an impressive line up of typical Hawk music, from Motorhead to In Effigy. They are quite compressed, but the quality is still decent for DS and they are licensed songs, and fifteen of them at that, so there are no complaints here. Voice acting ranged in quality, but it's mostly Tony, who is in fact a professional skateboarder and not a professional voice-over actor. Other than that it's typical Hawk sounds.
American Sk8land must have been a mere test of DS online play, as this time around, Downhill Jam offers a proper amount of multiplayer content. Two to four player match-ups, and a strong line-up of classic multiplayer Hawk games is plenty to pull from. You've got your racing all the way down to score and combo markers. A lobby is nowhere to be found, so its still quite informal, so again, its best to organize friend codes provided in your options. To really take advantage of the online play, including the voice chatting feature, this is a must. The website portion located at ds.downhill-jam.com is where the neat online content is located, allowing you to track everything you're doing in Downhill Jam, something you can't even do in-game. Players can also upload the logos they created to the website as well. The only issue with Downhill Jam's balance is how it tends to add an advantage to those using a Create-a-Skater character. There are no restrictions on what a character can and can't use in a race. As long as a player finishes the World Tour, they'll have max stats, which in turn means that anybody jumping online with a standard pro character, such as Tony himself, is S.O.L. as far as the gold medal is concerned.
Overall the game plays like a Hawk game, looks like a Hawk game, and sounds like a Hawk game, but the idea behind the gameplay itself will have to grow on veterans. It's not an easy one to put down as it still focuses on the goal based list that made the originals as popular as they were. On that note, the game will come to a close quickly, as do many handheld titles and ports these days, but it's still worth checking out to anyone remotely addicted to the action sports games like Pro Skater. The multiplayer has some reported bugs and its online play is still the opposite of frumpy, but the SSX style of fast gameplay and customization of character like this is a first on the DS, at least in somewhat of a successful manner. Downhill Jam will stay in my skate pack for some time to come, and all I can hope for now is that others start picking it up too.