Incog, the Sony first-party development studio behind such great games as the Twisted Metal series and this year’s surprisingly addictive War of the Monsters, has been secretly working away on this adrenaline-fueled super-human mountain bike simulation for the past 19 months. Not an unusually long development cycle, but when you consider that Downhill Domination utilizes the same engine, albeit indefinitely enhanced, that was used in both Twisted Metal: Black and War of the Monsters, it’s evident that that time wasn’t spent fashioning its foundation but rather polishing and tweaking an already-versatile system. Well, it’s no wonder that the only thing better than watching this game in action is actually playing it.
I haven’t enjoyed a two-wheeled racing game this much since Excitebike for the NES, and that’s saying a lot considering the huge amount of time between that game and this one. While most won’t appreciate the comparison between Excitebike and Downhill Domination, it must be said that the same level of interaction that allows the player to modify the angle of how your bike lands is fully revisited here, but in 3D. That aspect of the gameplay alone sealed the deal for me. Feeling like I’m in control of a game is very important. But Incog also borrowed a few chapters from EA Big’s trusty SSX series in the speed and trick department, not to mention Downhill’s liberal use of comically off-the-wall racing personalities.
A lot of the artists and programmers on the Downhill Domination team are big fans of the early Road Rash games, an inspiration that didn’t go unnoticed in the end-product; combat is not only present but encouraged. The square button allows you to attack opponents on your racer’s left side and hitting the circle button executes a right side attack. By landing tricks or picking up combat power-ups, you can upgrade your attacks, starting with a basic punch, then kick, bike kick, stick and finally water bottles which can be thrown as ranged weapons complete with auto-aiming. Combat isn’t a primary focus in Downhill Domination, nor is it required to consistently progress through the game, but it is a nice incentive for those that enjoy that sort of gameplay element.
Pulling off tricks in Downhill Domination is pretty straightforward and quite similar to the system used in the SSX games, relying mainly on using different shoulder button combinations in order to bust out showy mid-air maneuvers. Like the combat system, tricks aren’t necessary to win races, but they can certainly give you that extra momentum and edge on the competition that is sometimes helpful in sealing a first place victory. Plus, tricks are good for points, which are good for cash that can then be used to buy bike upgrades or really cool unlockable goodies such as new soundtracks, gameplay enhancements, racers, or tracks.
Speaking of the tracks, these downhill courses are unlike anything you’ve seen before. You’ll visit lots of different locales and dozens of unique courses covering nearly every thinkable ground hazard known to man. You’ll ride through lots of different environments such as path-laden woods, abandoned mine shafts, cliff-conducive mountain ranges, and lava pits, to name a few. There are also a few different types of courses, such as the free-ride courses, that consist of wide-open areas and multiple paths and shortcuts, sometimes taking up to four or five minutes to complete at full blast. The free-ride courses are also known for their diversity in environment, starting out as something completely different than what they end up being by the time you hit the goal line.
Mountain cross tracks are much smaller and focused than free-ride courses, featuring lots of controlled jumps and artificially created surroundings. There is also technical ride courses that are kind of an entertaining balance between free-ride and mountain cross. In technical tracks, you’ll have to learn the various subtleties of the environment; knowing exactly where to pull a hard left or jump over a fallen tree is vital to coming in first place. Regardless of which style of course you prefer, you’ll be glad to know that each one can be played with up to four players simultaneously.
The single-player experience with Downhill Domination is surprisingly well structured and offers plenty of potential game time, sporting lots of characters, multiple career modes, and an arcade mode. Playing through the Super Career mode allows you to race through almost every course in the game, which will take quite some time the first time through. But there are also other modes of play that, while not offering the longevity of the career modes, are great diversions. There is the superjump mode, where you ride down an enormous ramp before pulling off the biggest trick combo possible - and there’s a moshbowl mode, where the focus is on taking out opponents while riding around in a big dirt bowl track.
The courses in Downhill Domination are impressive enough in their own right, but it’s the spot-on bike handling and genuine sense of speed that really endears through hours of play. Being able to position your bike on the fly in accordance with terrain and landing jumps is great; never before has the player had this much control. And you’ll need that unbelievably reactionary control too since peddling at 60+ MPHs through random obstacles and death-defying jumps can quickly get a little disconcerting. One of the most important reasons this game seems so fast is the fact that the frame rate rarely strays from 60fps, which shouldn’t be too surprising considering a lot of programmers at Incog have backgrounds in the military flight sim industry, where anything but a constant 60fps would be breach of contract. So suffice to say, they know what they’re doing.
Nevertheless, the sheer number of things happening on-screen at any given moment is impressive and a tantamount to Incog’s engine stability and resiliency. It’s hard to believe that the same engine pumping under the hood of Twisted Metal: Black is being utilized to push this game’s racers at breakneck speed, though it is fathomable given the amount of shine and polish 19 months of development lends itself to. The environments are beautifully detailed and big, really big – I’m talking titanic big. I’ll never understand how Incog was able to cram so much information, so many textures, polygons, and scenery into the PS2’s diminutive 4-meg video buffer.
The sound is terrific too, if a little unfocused musically. Passing or being passed by the myriad opponent riders will initiate a quick quip on their part, much like SSX, but these played insults and rehashed name-calling quickly grows old. The sound effects though, are pretty amazing. Ambient noise abound when racing through different environments, and what you are riding on, too, is realistically represented. The music runs the gamut from punk, rock, techno, hip-hop – some of the tracks are really good and seem to fit the on-screen proceedings perfectly, while others seem out of place and at times downright annoying. Luckily, you have full control of the musical selection while you’re playing, so complaints in regards to the unbalanced roster of songs will be kept to a minimum.
Downhill Domination is an unbelievably fast-paced, fun, and multi-player friendly mountain biking simulation that won’t soon be usurped in the extreme sports genre. It stands as a one-of-a-kind racing game that is instantly propelled to the ranks of such games as SSX and indeed the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series, but like those games it has very little in common with conventional expectations. So expect something different, hope for something great, and you shouldn’t be disappointed.