There has been one overriding problem with the Wii launch titles. Other than a few excellent releases, the majority of games have simply been ported over from other systems, and have suffered from poor controls as a result. Shoe-horning motion controls into a traditional game was never likely to be that successful, and even big-name titles have taken that easy route. Activision's Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is one of the few Wii titles to be made with the Wii in mind, but for some reason it's still a game that would be better played with a conventional controller.
Developed by Toys for Bob, not Tony Hawk creators Neversoft, Downhill Jam ditches the traditional trick-based gameplay in favour of downhill skateboard racing. It's a crude comparison, but think SSX on a skateboard and you'll have a rough idea of how it works. Set over eight environments, you'll work through a series of single events, elevating your rank, unlocking new skaters and boards along the way.
Your first, and pretty much only, port of call will be the Downhill Challenge mode. Here you'll start off with a rank of zero and be presented with a series of low tier events. Finishing in the top three is classed as a success and you're given ranking points, with a new tier of events unlocked once you've reached a certain rank. It's pretty simple stuff, and although finishing first isn't always that easy, finishing in the top three isn't too much trouble, and you'll breeze through a large portion of the game before you have to retry an event for the first time.
It seems that every Wii game will live or die on its controls, and sadly Downhill Jam is in urgent need of medical attention. Played using the Wii's standard racing set-up (Wii-mote turned on its side) you steer your skater as they career down a hill, and do your best to avoid walls, cars, bottomless pits and everything else that wants to stop you in your tracks. To say the controls aren't up to the job is putting it lightly, as for a game that requires such twitch control, the lack of precision in the Wii-mote steering makes the game unplayable at times - especially for the moment after you use a speed boost.
There's definitely a learning curve, but even once the initial awkwardness has been worked past the controls don't feel up to the task. To make matters worse, the buttons on the Wii-mote are each used for numerous things, depending on what you're doing at the time. For example, the '2' button on the Wii-mote is mainly used for crouching, and it makes your skater jump when it's released. But '2' is also used in combination with the d-pad to perform grab tricks, to wallie and to sticker slap walls and signs. The '1' button is used for a similar number of moves, and it makes the whole thing rather complex.
The trick system isn't terribly advanced, lacking moves like the Revert and Manual that are now staple in the Tony Hawk series, but trick challenges aren't the focus of the game. The one trick that you will use a lot is the grind, if only because it means you simply have to keep your balance rather than steer on the ground. To be fair, at times you can complete an event having jumped and grinded from rail to rail as if you're some kind of specially engineered skate racer, but these moments feel lucky; something that's proven to the be the case when you crash every ten seconds during your next race.
When you're not simply racing against rival skaters you're competing for the highest trick score, smashing objects, hitting people (yes, you can kick and punch innocent people for no real reason), passing through gates and pulling off tricks to gain time in checkpoint races, or even racing with up to three other players via split-screen. It's certainly not a boring game to play, and there's plenty to work through, but it's just not a game that feels suited to the Wii.
The eight environments in Downhill Jam are nicely diverse and each location has its own distinct look, but that's really where the complements on the visuals end. The game supports widescreen and 480p Progressive Scan, but it simply doesn't look as impressive as even last-gen Tony Hawk games. It's a different style of game, and has to deal with streaming in course data as you hurtle down a mountain side, but I don't think it's unfair to have expected slightly more polished visuals. Audio is typical Tony Hawk stuff, so unless you're a fan of Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Public Enemy and the like, the volume control might be your new best friend.
As I mentioned above, Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam isn't an awful game; it's just a game that uses the Wii's new controller in completely the wrong way. Games that would work better on a standard controller have no reason to exist on the Wii, and when they're released with awkward controls and unimpressive presentation you have to wonder what the publisher and developer involved were thinking. Tony Hawk's Project 8 breathed new life into a franchise that had been stumbling for a while, but Downhill Jam tries something new and fails to be anything but mediocre.