Test the mettle of the pedals.
The folks at Incog aren’t fooling anyone with their mysterious name – we all know
these are the maniacs behind the critically and commercially successful Twisted
Metal franchise. Any gamer worth his Pitfall
patch has experienced their particular brand of vehicular mayhem, and by and
large, we all trust that these guys won’t deliver a stinker.
But when Downhill Domination wheelied into the office, the GR staff
was skeptical. Why would the brains behind some of the best auto-based action
take a stab at the odd pseudo-sport of downhill mountain bike racing? War
of the Monsters made sense. Why not just spit out Twisted Metal: Blacker
or something? Who made a deal with the devil, and why weren’t we in on it? So
with the pungent odor of sulfur choking the code monkeys, I popped Downhill
Domination into the PS2 to investigate.
our initial instincts were accurate – these guys know how to make games. Even
if this one isn’t quite on par with their storied history, it’s real fast,
I’ll give ’em that.
Downhill Domination is mountain biking cranked up to mach 10. It’s
as much a racing game as an extreme sports game; you start at the top of a mountain
and have to make it to the bottom in one piece, but that’s much, much easier
said than done.
Set on nine different mountains, the game is very similar to what you’ll find
in SSX. You select one of 14 riders, including
a handful of real-worlders like Eric Carter, Tara Llanes and Brian Lopes. I
have no idea who these people are, though I’m betting they’re kickass on bikes.
But like EA’s wunderkind, the real stars of the game are the tracks
themselves. Downhill Domination drops you into lush, mountainous terrain
overflowing with multiple routes, shortcuts and insane drops. Each one is absolutely
enormous and littered with all sorts of bike-unfriendly obstacles, from trees
and rocks to fences, buildings, SUVs, backpackers and even the occasional grizzly
When things get going – and they get going really quickly – Downhill Domination
is fast and insane. You scream down the mountain at blistering speed, constantly
trying to avoid plowing into something while concurrently keeping an eye out
for jumps, shortcuts and, in some cases, the actual track itself. You can get
lost very quickly, though you’ll find that so long as you’re letting gravity
drag you to your inevitable doom, you’re going the right way. The track design
is terrific, clearly the standout feature of the game.
Tricking is key to maintaining your “boost meter,” so style often plays as important
a role as speed. Unfortunately, the trick system is a little awkward, partly due to the control layout. Anyone familiar with the plethora of Tony Hawk-style
games will find the R2 button an unsuitable bunnyhop choice. You rely on the
other three shoulder buttons to perform tricks and use Triangle to modify, which
works fine, but it’s hard getting used to the R2 jump. The X button is reserved
for pedaling and sprinting (though you can also use the right-analog stick for
this), which confounds things a bit since in similar games you can usually just
release X to jump. The result is tough to get used to, though when you do,
you’ll find that the movement is tight and the controls pretty responsive.
In most game modes, really the only reason to trick at all is to gain some boost power, and often you can do pretty well just hauling ass down the hill without going too big too often. Plus, the tracks get very, very cluttered, making excessive jumping and tricking really dangerous. While it ups the tension, the placement of boulders and trees at times seems designed to screw up what you thought was a good path. Rarely will you find wide-open spaces. Get used to eating dirt.
Domination can be played in a ton of ways. There are three main career types
– Freeride, Mountain Cross and Technical Downhill. Freeride just lets you plow
down the hill any way you like, while Mountain Cross is a much shorter track
race with tighter boundaries. Technical Downhill is the hardest, featuring plenty
of narrow paths, fallen logs and tricky jumps. You can play each one separately
or try them all in the Super Career.
Unfortunately, there’s not much in the way of depth here. Though the Career modes let you visit a Bike Shop to upgrade bikes, wheels and forks, the selection is pretty thin and terribly spaced out. You’ll upgrade like a madman for a few races, then have nothing interesting to buy until much, much later. In a strange error, they don’t let you compare your current gear with potential purchases side by side, making it hard to gauge whether or not a new part is really helpful. The whole upgrade system is clearly an afterthought.
More modes abound, though. You can hack at the Arcade mode, go for the classic trick objectives in Freeride, hook up some basic split screen Multiplayer and even unlock a Super Jump for big air and a Moshbowl for pure fighting.
Yep, fighting. No matter which mode you play, Downhill Domination lets
you whack at other riders pretty ruthlessly and lets you upgrade your attacks
by performing well or snatching pickups. Really need first place? Then hurl
your water bottle at the guy ahead of you and let him know who owns the Gatorade
Speaking of which, the game has more sponsors in it than the Super Bowl. Posters from all sorts of real-life companies dot the tracks, way more than you’d find in a real event. The only thing more humiliating than smashing into an eBay sign is doing so while wearing an eBay jersey. Ugh.
It’s a good thing the game is all about speed, because the framerate is rock steady. The various mountains are bursting with creativity. Rider animations are oddly cartoony and occasionally you’ll get snagged on an object, but for the most part the physics make sense and the game looks good.
The sound doesn’t hold a candle to most other extreme games because you actually have to spend earned cash to unlock songs. Stupid. Until then, it’s generic racing tunes all the way.
Downhill Domination won’t keep you up at night, but it won’t put you
to sleep, either. It’s a good, solid sports/racing game and is just funky enough
to warrant a spin.