Review: Downhill Domination (PS2)

For all of the ire I’ve given racing games in the past, it should be restated that I actually love racing games. They’re simple to pick up and hard to put down when done correctly, and are one of the few game genres that do well in party situations.

I like to break the racing genre down even further, into Realistic and Fun type racers. Your Realistic racers are things like Colin McRae Rally, Gran Turismo, and F1 Career Challenge. That’s not to say that they themselves aren’t “fun” (although regular readers already know my opinions of two of those games) but that their main goals are more simulation than slamming into each other at high speeds. The Fun category includes most everything that isn’t a car racer (SSX:Tricky) and even a few that are (Burnout 2: Director’s Cut). I’m a big fan of Fun racers, and more importantly, so is my wife.

Game: Downhill Domination
Developer: Incog Inc.
Distributor: Sony
Similarity to the commercial: Quit a bit, actually.

GAMEPLAY

It’s your basic fun-time racing game, right? It’s the summertime version of SSX. You go downhill, you hit some jumps, you do some tricks, you mess with your competitors, yadda yadda yadda. Well”¦..yes. That’s exactly what it is. Except with bikes. And there are three different types of courses per location instead of two. And the environments are slightly more realistic than the SSX cartoonland. And you have weapons to use against your competitors. And there are powerups. Exact same game otherwise.

I kid, somewhat. It is the same genre, so you would expect similarity in gameplay, but Downhill Domination isn’t an SSX ripoff. It has a dynamic very much its own.

First off, there are more options. There are three basic course types. Free ride is your basic “go-in-this-general-direction-and-trick-as-desired” race; MotoCross is a pretty good approximation of dirtbike racing courses; and Technical Race is another “general-direction” type race, but with narrower paths and more critical decisions to be made to successfully stay on your bike.

For being developed by a completely different company, the similarity in control to SSX is uncanny; but then again, how different can racing controls be. Steer with the left; do stuff with the right, right? The similarities are actually in the tricking controls, which require the pressing of the shoulder buttons and the triangle button, which is used to “supersize” a particular trick. Actually, the controls here are a bit more complicated than in SSX, but just enough to give you more tricks to do and not enough to make the user terribly confused (there’s a training mode that helps immensely with this, BTW). My favorite difference is the ability to do dedicated snap back and front flips. Doing back and front flips in SSX wasn’t so much an acrobatic feat as it was finding enough hangtime to let orbital precession do it’s thing.

As for the other controls, X is your pedal button, but it’s not just hold down and forget; oh no. You see, you hold it down to go, yes; but you also have the option to sprint, by quickly double-tapping the button. You can sprint as long as your green stamina bar (on the right side of the screen) isn’t empty. After that, you’re relegated to normal pedaling until it starts filling again. It will fill by itself while going at normal pedal, but it does it slowly. To fill the bar up quickly you can either pick up a stamina powerup, or “¦.. that’s right”¦.you trick. If you want to win races, especially technical races, proper management of the stamina bar is a must.

As for the circle and square buttons, they’re your combat buttons. Square swings to the left, circle to the right. You start out only able to punch left or right. You can upgrade from this by either picking up powerups, by successfully hitting someone, or by tricking (tricking”¦.gooooood). You progress from punches to kicks, then to back wheel checks (for us hockey fans out there), to whacking them with a stick, to the penultimate Downhill Domination weapon, the water bottle. Yes, you can throw water bottles at your competitors. Don’t worry about aiming, the game does that for you; and does it so well that hitting someone who’s in midair while you yourself are in midair is no problem (if a bit unbelievable).

In the career modes, there are opportunities to upgrade hardware on the bikes, plus there is a bunch of other stuff you can unlock if you earn the cash to buy it (videos, parts, etc.). These upgrades carry over to other game modes, a la SSX, so you can kind of handicap yourself in multiplayer races if need be (and given the chaos that is the normal multiplayer race, you shouldn’t have to anyway).

There are some other game modes you can unlock, most notably a mode where you and your buddies pedal around in a large bowl-shaped arena, picking up powerups and trying to beat the crap out of each other for either a set amount of time or a set amount of hits. Get a bunch of friends and some drinks, and you’ve got hours of fun right there.

GRAPHICS

With so many different venues and three distinct courses at each one, the environmental graphics are wonderfully done. From rocks to plants to lava to incidental characters to buildings to everything else, the graphics are wonderfully rich and detailed; and they’re detailed EVERYWHERE, on course, or off. Moreover, I didn’t notice any appreciable clipping problems playing this game, and collision detection was very good (more on that in the Fun Factor section). Seriously, you found yourself peering THROUGH foliage to try and see the path. You had to dodge individual trees because the collision detection was so good. It was an absolute beauty to play.

That is, until you start playing multiplayer. Then everything still looks wonderful, but you just see a lot less of it as the frame rate drops through the floor. Maybe the single worst instance of frame drop I’ve ever seen on the PS2. When Veronica makes comment about frame rate, it’s a real problem.

Now, to be fair, it only seems to happen during multiplayer races, and not even all the time then. It is bearable to play, especially to those of us who grew up with lesser systems and got accustomed to that sort of thing. It is a knock, but it’s not a knockout problem; it’s just that most PS2 games that I’ve seen are really good at avoiding that sort of thing, so this one really stood out for me.

Otherwise, I loved the graphics. Jaggies were kept to a minimum, and there were a ton of nice little extras thrown into each course to give it even more of a specific flavor. One course had a lightning storm. Another had lava flows. One had SUVs driving toward you for part of the course. Another had Russian military transports to dodge. And one had, and I’m not kidding here, a moving herd of cattle you needed to avoid to complete a certain race. Cows. Even the cows looked great in this game.

SOUND

When I first thought about this, I had to admit that I was underwhelmed by the sound in this game. Each of the racing characters has it’s own speech, but with the default sound settings, it’s difficult to hear what they’re saying; and when you actually do hear it, it’s not all that entertaining anyway.

Game noises were largely unremarkable, so unremarkable that I have trouble remembering what any of them were here. There were bicycle chain and pedal-type noises which were nice, and the music was okay. Probably the best part of the sound was the specialized sound they had for the special parts of the courses I described in the Graphics section. Lightning strikes were audible, as were the cattle hooves, and the moos of the cows. It was nice, but in my opinion they could’ve done more here, especially with the character speech. I suppose I’m spoiled from SSX:Tricky, which has some big-name voice talent, but that’s my perception and I’m sticking with it.

FUN FACTOR

Even with the video and sound knocks, this was still one of the most fun games I’ve rented in a good long time; and the first game since SSX:Tricky that my wife actually wanted to play. The game modes were deep, there were lots and lots of unlockables (always a plus in my book), and the combat was a blast, whether we were slamming on each other during a race or in the arena-thingy.

One remarkable thing that I have to mention here was the crashes. They went out of their way to make crashes look as realistic as possible. Now, by that I don’t mean it’s gory. There is the occasional spurt of blood but not bones or entrails that I could see. What I mean is that you came off the bike in a way consistent with how you crashed, and by keeping the motion realistic, it just looks that much more brutal. The crashes were so entertaining to us that we got to the point where we didn’t even care if we won or lost, we were so busy laughing at each other’s crashes. My personal favorites were the time when I would pick up a super-speed boost powerup, and as a result launch my bike right into a rock or tree and it would stop but my rider wouldn’t. Absolutely hilarious.

The single modes are deep enough to keep you busy for quite some time (example: FOUR rentals) and the multiplayer modes, if you can stomach the frame drop, are flat-out fun for your party crowd right out of the box.

Ratings
Gameplay: 8.0
Graphics: 7.0
Sound: 6.5
Fun Factor: 8.5