Wakeboarding HD Review
When I first heard that we’d have little downloadable games on the PlayStation Network, I was about 97.3% convinced that I wouldn’t be interested. However, several years later, I find several absolute digital classics sitting on my PlayStation 3; there’s Wipeout HD, Shatter, Echochrome, Flower, Braid, Trine, and Magic Orbz. The latter, formerly known as Magic Ball, was created and produced by the same duo that just provided PSN users with their latest title, Wakeboarding HD. Creat Studios and TikGames have teamed up once again and this time, they’re looking to give us a more robust, in-depth experience. Perhaps this is why the game costs twice as much as Magic Ball when it first released, which – if I remember correctly – debuted at only $7.99. This colorful wakeboarding effort, featuring everything from a full trick mechanic to a world map, comes in at $14.99, which may not make it quite as appealing to some. However, despite some definite frustration, this one can be mighty fun.
As you might expect, they worked at the visuals; we get a vibrant, even enchanting color palette that makes just about every level explode off the screen with its warm, inviting, and even dazzling hues. The obstacles and environmental objects/items aren’t overly special, as the detail is decent but not intricate and the character design is basically generic. However, most will appreciate the amount of work placed into the water: it not only looks good, it also moves beautifully; it ripples and ebbs, waves have foamy white crests that sparkle in the sun and the wake created by the boat is a pleasure to see. When you get up close and personal with other aspects of your surroundings – like thatched huts, docks, boats, and other random junk scattered about – there’s a small lack of sharpness, and I think they could’ve refined the visual effects. Sometimes, the explosion of mines renders you almost completely blind; the little balance meter for grinding is often lost in that aforementioned vibrancy, and splintered huts and boats all seem to break apart in the same way. Other than this, it still looks pretty darn good for a downloadable effort.
The sound is about on the same level as the graphics: we get some decent effects that are often crystal clear and the soundtrack, although too repetitive (there are only a few tracks to accompany the gameplay), is wonderfully kooky and slides right into the colorful, arcade-y feel of this pseudo-surfing adventure. It all seems to work together, in that there are no glaring flaws in the technical presentation and while one can spot the drawbacks of a smaller, lower-budget title, the final result gels. There is no voice acting and the characters really don’t make any noise while riding along, but then again, I’ve become bored of the affected grunts and lame one-liners I’ve been hearing in other digital downloads. I was definitely hoping for a wider selection of music, so that various levels that require very different skills would’ve benefited from tracks unique to the diverse objectives. The sound of the water sprays and the slap of your board on the water is just about right, though, and even if it sounds the same whether you hit a piece of stone, a floating oil can, or a wooden dock, that can be excused. It works, you know?
As you might expect, this is all about wakeboarding, which is holding onto a rope behind a speedboat with your feet planted on what appears to be a small version of a surfboard. It’s all about tricks and flips, all the while trying to keep from dumping into the water. I’ve never tried it but it certainly looks like a lot of fun, and Wakeboarding HD really does try to present the player with a purely entertaining experience that is both leisurely and challenging. I know the aim and while I can honestly say I did sit and play for an hour and a half without stopping – and without torturing myself, as I often have to do with bad games – I can also say they fell a tiny bit short of their goal. There are just a few large issues that put a definite damper on my fun time, and although I got used to the inherent eccentricities and flaws, I still think the game could’ve used a bit more polishing. There are simply too many instances where you’ll frown at the screen and go, “that wasn’t my fault,” or, “how the hell am I supposed to do that?” I’m always up for a challenge but I don’t like to feel unfairly pressed.
Control isn’t as simple as you might expect for a downloadable game. You move back and forth with the left analog, but that’s only the start. Pressing R2 and L2 will allow you to cut hard to the right and left respectively, thereby increasing your turning speed but decreasing your accuracy through the water. You can grind rails and even crests of waves; when you’ve balanced atop one or the other, a balance meter shows up and you just have to keep the little ball in the center from moving all the way to the left or right. Then there are the tricks: charging a trick is as simple as holding down any one of the face buttons and then releasing. You need this when preparing to fly off ramps, and you can also rip off smaller tricks by using the sides of the wake. Lastly, you can simply bust through certain obstacles – like small fishing boats, pool toys, etc. – to earn more points, and the better your tricks and the more stars you earn without falling, the higher your combo gauge will go.
The control is solid and although I was initially going to say there’s a big problem with the drastic cuts left and right (R2 and L2), I got used to the mechanic. I’ve decided the “drastic” nature of the turn can be tempered by a light touch on the triggers, and the game does help by actually slowing down when you swing wide on such a turn. I still believe it’s a bit too herky-jerky and I still miss ramps, rails and other goodies by overshooting with those quick, darting, wide-sweeping turns, but it’s not crippling. You just have to get used to it. The one problem I really do have centers on the trick system: depending on the face button you used to charge your jump, you will perform a certain trick. But you can also flip about in the air with the left analog, and you can hold a face button again to perform a grab. This is all well and good; however, you must let go of all command buttons before hitting the water. Otherwise, you’ll fall. Now, releasing the face buttons isn’t an issue but releasing the left analog, which is also tied to steering and turning…? No good. I’m almost always trying to turn and steer too soon before landing the jump.
I trained myself to let go of the entire controller before my board hit the water after a trick, and I did get better. But they shouldn’t have tied the control of tricks to your directional command; it throws a hitch into the gameplay that didn’t need to be there. The rest of the mechanic(s) tend to work rather well and won’t let you down and while I know other trick systems in racers operate the same way, this just seems a touch more sensitive. You really can’t be holding any button or the left analog when your board is close to landing. Expect to get dumped early and often, especially if you’re trying to perform tricks with just the crests of the wake. Still, bear in mind that you will get better and that if you can tolerate the shortcomings, there’s a lot of fun to be had. The only other technical problem is when the collision detection issue rears its ugly head. I fell when simply moving onto a ramp; the game must’ve thought I hit it too hard or not “just right” and tossed me off the board. Furthermore, an obstacle won’t hurt me by bumping into it on one ride; on the next ride, I get smacked.
So as you can see, the controls needed some tightening up, but I don’t want you to believe it’s a broken system. Beyond the collision detection flaw and the sensitive trick mechanic (which I freely admit is very subjective; fans of off-road racers may be more schooled on this kind of thing), Wakeboarding HD delivers in a number of different areas. After completing the tutorial, you’ll come face to face with the world map. It’s not entirely linear, but you do have to complete certain spots before moving on to others. Each freshly opened spot will present you with several challenges; you must complete the primary task in order to clear the level, but there are also a couple optional challenges you can attempt as well. This is where the diversity really shines. One minute, you’ll be trying to grab 100 stars “of the appropriate color;” the next, you’ll be trying to snag at least an “A” rating. Challenges can involve dodging a certain number of sharks, reaching the end of the stage without falling, grinding on rails for a certain amount of time, and jacking your combo multiplier up to a particular number.
There isn’t much of a premise or storyline but that’s all right. The track designs are great, the tricks you can perform are crowd-pleasing, the environment always appears charming albeit a little underwhelming in some parts, and the fast-paced nature of the gameplay really holds your attention. The control can be iffy and you will get frustrated, but spending only an hour will get you accustomed to the game’s downsides. I really wanted to be able to go through each track and focus on one objective at a time – trying to complete the primary and optional tasks in one run-through is usually very difficult – but the bottom line is that I still had fun. I don’t know much about wakeboarding, but the combination of item collecting (the Stars and other bonuses), balancing system associated with grinding, high-flying tricks, and the surprisingly authentic physics attached to the water beneath your board is all positive. The music and visuals aren’t amazing but they fit the general concept and the game’s longevity is good. There are lots of levels and trying to nab all the Souvenirs by completing all the tasks will take a while.
Wakeboarding HD is probably worth your time if you like what you’ve read here, but it’d be better if you’re a veteran of games with similar trick mechanics. It’s sensitive enough to annoy the uninitiated and the diverse objectives are challenging enough to force you to play one area many, many times. And while people may balk at the price tag, it does look and feel like a $14.99 game. It plays well enough and lasts long enough. It’s also a blast with two players, and that may be the game’s bread and butter if you’ve got a willing buddy. It's worth a try, I think.
3/29/2010 Ben Dutka