Wakeboarding Unleashed featuring Shaun Murray Review
Shaba Games is a development house that likes Neversoft's Tony's Hawk's Pro Skater (THPS) series more than you do. If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, Shaba certainly flattered Neversoft by way of Grind Session, which was probably the closest Tony Hawk clone that this reviewer has ever seen. With the exception of certain additions (like technical lines and "skater's eye" view), the game felt just like Tony Hawk, but the control never felt as tight. Shaba was also responsible for Razor Freestyle Scooter, which was another Hawk clone with much less substance than THPS and seemed to be aimed at the younger set. Shaba even came off the bench for Activision to try and salvage Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX. Activision thought so highly of Shaba after the job they did that they acquired Shaba Games and assigned them the task of putting together the PSone version of Tony Hawk 3, which they did pretty well. It's pretty obvious that Shaba knows about extreme sports games, even if they're a bit flawed, and now Shaba gets their first PS2 effort with Wakeboarding Unleashed. Unfortunately, like their previous efforts, the game is good and pays homage to Neversoft's THPS masterpieces, but flaws eat away at the game's quality and never quite allow Wakeboarding Unleashed to reach its full potential.
Wakeboarding, for those that don't know, combines surfing style and some skateboarding-type tricks as boarders grip onto a line thrown by the boat that pulls them along and helps them gain speed. In order to get hangtime to pull of grabs and rotational tricks, boarders must use the wake from the motorboat that's pulling them in order to do so. Wakeboarding Unleashed helps out a bit by adding tons of ramps, rails, and other objects to trick off of so that using the wake isn't always required. Wakeboarding purists may disagree with this, but it makes the game eminently more playable as opposed to being limited to a few jumps and having to rely on the wake a lot more. Wakeboarding Unleashed also allows players to let go of their tow ropes to explore other areas, as long as their speed is somewhat maintained. Players can call for the tow rope to again be tossed to them if they slow down too much, but if you fall too far behind the boat, you'll have to restart, as if you bailed. Wakeboarding Unleashed shares most of its control layout with its Tony Hawk brethren, with grinds, manuals, reverts, grab tricks, and other controls just where you you'd expect them to be.
Wakeboarding Unleashed's Career Mode is one of the better ones that we've seen in this genre recently. In order to advance in Career Mode, there are three sets of objectives to complete. The first set of objectives revolves around the game's "Groove Mode". "Groove Mode" does away with the countdown timer and allows players to prolong a run as long as the "Groove Meter" has some energy in it. Similar to Z-Axis' Aggressive Inline, the Groove Meter deteriorates over time and when players bail, and refills slightly when players successfully pull off combos and high-scoring tricks. While in Groove Mode, players will have to top certain scoring plateaus, hit certain objects, or find hidden areas. Unfortunately, when it comes to missing an object or hidden area, you have to wait for it to come around again in a lap in try it again, which can quickly become annoying—especially if finding that secret area is the last objective to be completed.
The second set of objectives revolves around finding specific gaps. Gaps have been an instrumental part of the Tony Hawk series, and Shaba has set up some pretty interesting ones to be found here. Finding these gaps isn't all just trial and error, though. As you complete a gap, you're awarded a "gap key". Gap keys can then be used to unlock a fly-by of a chosen gap which gives you a general idea of where it is within the level. The gap's name may also give you clues as to where it is or what the gap entails. Sometimes, though, these short fly-bys don't tell you everything that you need to know about completing certain gaps, and that can prove frustrating as you repeatedly try to figure out what the conditions are. The more gaps that players find and complete, the better your completion percentage and the more stages become available for play as you progress—just like completing the Groove Mode objectives.
The last set of objectives revolves around completing specific challenges. Some challenges require you to collect five numbers, in sequence, all while maintaining one long combo. Other challenges put you behind the wheel of the boat and pit you against the clock as you must complete laps around each stage. One particularly interesting type of challenge involves racking up a certain number of points in a "video shoot". In these video shoot challenges, the camera is not as static as it is during the other gameplay modes. The camera is much more dynamic, which makes it harder to follow your character on the screen. The effect is decent, but the dynamic camera makes scoring points without bailing a lot more difficult. These challenge objectives usually repeat themselves from stage to stage, but get progressively harder to complete. There are a few other surprises, too, such as an animal rescue challenge which takes place during an incredible rainstorm, but many of the challenge objectives are repeated throughout the game.
As you complete objectives and challenges, stat points become available for you to use in order to jack up your player in several areas, including balance and air. As mentioned above, new levels also become unlocked as you progress, and you're always free to go back to previously unfinished levels in order to rack up that completion percentage if you need (or want) to. There's a fair amount of hidden stuff to find by completing the Career Mode inside and out, but be warned—a few of the later objectives are very challenging.
There are multiplayer modes available too, and an interesting option for two players is having one player control the boat while the other controls the wakeboarder. Unfortunately, this idea only sounds good and really loses its appeal pretty quickly. Controlling the boat can be sluggish at times, and it's too easy to be the sour end of a playing buddy's curses if the boat doesn't go fast enough or where he wants it to go. I suppose that's just like real wakeboarding, but it just seems like more of an afterthought than anything else here.
In general, there are some glaring flaws that prevent Wakeboarding Unleashed from being the good game that Shaba really intended it to be. For starters, it's a common occurrence to board right through an obstacle that you're trying to grind. That's a collision detection problem that should have been caught during development, but it somehow made it into the final version, and that's inexcusable at this stage of the PS2's life cycle. Another flaw lies in the level design. Much like Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder, there's no real way to backtrack if you miss something that's related to an objective. Fortunately, Wakeboarding Unleashed has levels that are considerably smaller than Shaun Palmer, so getting back around to what you missed isn't as time-consuming. Lastly, the objectives on the whole aren't all that new-- score X amount of points, knock over these objects, manual this far, etc. While Shaba gets kudos for implementing some new types of objectives, they're few and far between compared to what many of us have seen over and over again.
Aesthetically, Wakeboarding Unleashed is decent to look at and is a toss-up in the sound department. There's some nice looking water effects here to be seen, and the levels are decently detailed. The frame rate here isn't as smooth as we've seen in the last two Tony Hawk games, and that's a bit of a disappointment considering that we've seen previous titles maintain the 60 frames per second benchmark. The trick animations look pretty good on the whole, but the bail animations are nothing to write home about. As for the music, it really depends on who you talk to. Personally, aside from a couple of song tracks, I was not impressed with the soundtrack here. It was nice to hear a Van Halen song in the game, but there was little else that interested me. The Pixies, Pavement, Love and Rockets, The Flaming Lips, and The Stooges all make musical contributions; unfortunately, I just didn't like much of what of was offered in the music department. The sound effects are functional, with plenty of splashing water, motorboat sounds, and the welcome grind on a rail.
Wakeboarding Unleashed does some things well, has some flaws, and unfortunately has some drawbacks that are really due more to the sport itself than the game. It's a decent Tony Hawk derivative, to be sure, but with better collision detection and a little more originality, Wakeboarding Unleashed could have been better. It's still difficult to account for having to be led by your boat most of the time, causing certain things to be missed without having very sharp reflexes. Games like this need to have freedom of exploration without being tied down—either by momentum (like Shaun Palmer Snowboarding) or by boat, like this game. I certainly recommend trying it if you're a fan of the Tony Hawk series, but don't set your expectations too high.
6/24/2003 Peter Skerritt