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Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam Hands-On Preview

Ever since Nintendo first showed the unique controller for its upcoming Wii console, one of the biggest questions surrounding the machine has been how existing game genres will be translated to the new control scheme. Though that question still applies to quite a few types of games, the last few months have provided some creative solutions from developers. At a recent Activision press event, I got the opportunity to check out how Star Control developer Toys for Bob is bringing Neversoft's incredibly successful Tony Hawk skateboarding franchise over to Wii. In addition to getting plenty of hands on time with the game, I spoke a bit with lead designer Toby Schadt and designer Nat Loh about some of the game's features as well as what it's like developing for Wii.

Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam takes the skating and trick mechanics of past Tony Hawk games and puts each in very different contexts from the rest of the series. This time around, the game is not about achieving a certain number of independent goals within a given level. Rather, the whole thing is structured around downhill racing, with various other objectives layered on top. As a result, the game is much faster paced than other Tony Hawk entries; it also means that the game is necessarily somewhat more forgiving with landing tricks and with how much time is wasted after wiping out. The most fundamental change, however, is how the game controls. The Wii remote is held horizontally like a traditional game controller; tilting the controller left or right steers the on-screen character, while the d-pad and face buttons are used to perform tricks much like in other Tony Hawk games.

As a long time Tony Hawk player, I expected the disassociation of directional control from trick control to be disorienting and confusing, but it was surprisingly intuitive and took me no more than about a minute to internalize. All directional input is handled with the tilt sensor, which includes not just turning left and right, but also balancing while grinding. One nice thing about the control method is that while grinding, you can continue performing tricks with the d-pad without having to put less attention on balancing, since the two systems are independent. The rest of the trick system will be familiar to past Tony Hawk players. You hold down a button to crouch and speed up on a straightaway, then release to ollie or perform other aerial maneuvres. To tack on additional tricks and create combos, use the face buttons in conjunction with the d-pad. At several moments, generally following a failed trick or getting passed by another character, my years of old school Tony Hawk instincts would kick in and I would start attempting to use the d-pad to move around. Considering how quickly I picked up the basic mechanics, I suspect that those moments would become less and less frequent fairly soon.

Just about every trick from past Tony games has been included in Downhill Jam. The one notable exception is manuals. Loh explained that manuals have been added and removed from the game several times over the course of development, but ultimately they decided that the slower nature of manuals didn't quite fit into the game. The company has added in new unique specials for each character, as well as character-specific animations for idling and boosting. There is now also powersliding, somewhat similar to the bert slides that have been a part of recent Tony Hawk titles. These are achieved by holding down the A button while sharply turning left or right, and are very useful given some of the levels' hairpin curves.

I asked Schadt to speak a bit on the company's experiences in developing Downhill Jam for the Wii controller, and he explained some of Toys for Bob's goals in taking an already popular franchise to a completely different environment. "The biggest thing was just figuring out how to use it so that we preserved what everyone likes about the Tony Hawk control scheme," he said. "After trying a bunch of different methods for turning, I think we found the one that really works. None of us here, I don't think, would go back to any other way of turning. You get a much finer degree of control with the Wii controller than you have with just a d-pad. We experimented with tons of different gestures, but our overarching goal was [not to] mess anything up about how the Tony Hawk trick system works, because it works so well. We want to use the controller and push it as far as possible while making it easier to use, so you don't have to think about it at all."

In line with the faster paced nature of the game, Downhill Jam features a boost meter on the right side of the screen that, when filled as a result of successfully performing enough tricks, allows the player to gain a quick burst of speed. This is activated either by giving a controller a firm jolt, or by simply pressing the B trigger (which, when the controller is held horizontally, essentially becomes a left shoulder button), depending on how enthusiastic you happen to be feeling. Shaking the controller also serves to accelerate the recovery process after a failed trick. It's a humorously appropriate gesture; Tony players are no doubt all too familiar with the sometimes physical frustration that comes with wiping out after an otherwise excellent combo.

As a result of the race-oriented nature of the game, the level design is extremely different from that of past Tony games. Rather than being sandboxes with various goals scattered throughout, the levels are long and winding, with various alternate routes and hidden paths that can potentially shave seconds off of the level completion time. However, the game is not just limited to straight racing. There are three main modes--Race, Slalom, and Trick for Points--whose objectives are fairly obvious. Race has each player attempting to reach the end of the level the fastest, Slalom adds in checkpoints that confer extra time when hit, and Trick for Points is a competition of who can build up the most points by the end of the level.

There are also several Special modes with less traditional goals. Grind for Distance has players attempting to rack up the longest grind in a given level. Elimination Mode is a race that, upon each passing of a given time interval, knocks out the player currently in last place, until only one remains. Pedestrian Knock is a competition to see who can punch, kick, or run over the highest number of pedestrians before the end of the level. Destruction assigns dollar values to all destructible objects in a level (windows, fruit stands, boxes, etc.) and has players compete for the highest aggregate dollar amount; when playing Destruction, the number of destructible objects in a level is ratched up to an appropriately high level, one that would be annoying in a normal race. All of the various gametypes are playable both in the game's single-player story mode as well as in four-player split-screen multiplayer. Unfortunately, the game will not include an online mode. Schadt stated that, given the game's Wii launch target, Toys for Bob was unable to fit the feature into its development schedule.

The single-player mode is split up into tiers of difficulty, with the player completing one tier in order to move onto the next. Each tier consists of various locations, each of which is further split up into specific levels. After completing each individual level within a location location, a new larger level will open up that combines all of the smaller areas into one combined level. Receiving medals by placing high in races confers points to the player; the more points accrued, the quicker one can unlock more levels and progress to the next tier. During my hands on time, only the game's earlier levels were available. In many cases, the games's difficulty level seemed to skew a bit too much on the easy side. Hopefully, later levels will provide an increased challenge, particularly for those who are already very familiar with Tony Hawk.

Graphically, the game does not reflect an extraordinary leap over past Tony Hawk games; it is likely that Downhill Jam is based on former GameCube code and updated for Wii. It is worth mentioning, however, that it has been noticeably improved since its E3 showing. Everything looks crisper overall, and character models look much better. The game is also promised to run at a constant 60fps when it launches, which is always nice. Unfortunately, Downhill Jam features neither widescreen nor progressive scan modes, despite Wii supporting both of those options. I made a point to mention to Schadt that many gamers will be looking for progressive scan and widescreen support in Wii games, and he seemed receptive. Hopefully, this will be something that is addressed by the time the game launches.

The general concept of Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam can be somewhat vaguely described as a Tony Hawk version of the SSX snowboarding series. While those games have very different control methods, the general gameplay structure, which combines long combo strings with constant speed and motion, is quite similar. Combined with the time-hallowed Tony Hawk trick system and a surprisingly effective motion-based control scheme, Downhill Jam seems to be shaping up to be a fun addition to Wii's launch lineup.

FileShack has a video interview with Toys for Bob president Paul Reiche.

Toys for Bob's Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is set to launch alongside Wii this fall. A Nintendo DS version is currently in development by Vicarious Visions.

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