Surfs Up Review
At this point, it's almost inevitable that we'll see a video game based on any high-profile film, and that goes double for movies designed for children. One of the latest animated adventures, Surfs Up, brought you kooky and comical characters amidst a gorgeous tropical climate. Obviously, that's exactly what you get in the game, and yes, you will be surfing. Unfortunately, "rail surfing" is about all you'll ever do (most surfing games have you following the wave), and while entertaining for a while, it will quickly wear thin. The game has its moments, but it's so bare-bones and straightforward, it's not about to absorb the player for much longer than a few hours...of course, that may have been the developer's intention right from the start. After all, the game likely only appeals to a younger age group, and younger gamers tend to have much shorter attention spans. So maybe it works for the kids, but not so much for veterans of the hobby.
The graphics are full of color, as you may expect, and there's even a nice bit of detail in this PS3 version. The water moves well, there's a nice amount of visual diversity - as much diversity as there can be in a surfing game - and each character is designed well. It will certainly satisfy fans of the movie, even though it hardly qualifies as one of the best graphical presentations on the system. There's a small lack of clarity in some of the obstacles in your path, and the game isn't without several glitches; you might see some random clipping and other visual miscues, but nothing to get in a twist about. We never expect anything all that incredible from games based on movies, but this isn't too bad. The developers really take advantage of the opportunity to depict a charming, vibrant, and mostly engaging world, despite failing to embody a higher level of quality. All in all, the graphics aren't refined enough to impress, but they do the job in catering to this title's target audience.
The sound doesn't stand up as well, as the soundtrack is often downplayed, generic, and even annoying in some spots. You do have the option of selecting your music - after unlocking new tracks during gameplay - but all this does is add a variety of mostly lame tracks. The sound effects are also run-of-the-mill and never stand out, providing a very benign surfing experience. Considering the entire premise of the game revolves around high-flying, non-stop action, we could've used some flashy sound, but in general, it's anything but. Still, much like the graphics, they do tend to fit the atmosphere and style, although they don't come through in all aspects. At the very least, there's some decent dialogue during the brief "SPEN" broadcasts at the start of each new section, and the character catch-phrases during gameplay are various and serve to enhance the experience...slightly. We've noticed a significant lack of quality sound in movies-turned-games these days, and we wonder when that trend will stop.
Hey, guess what you do in this game? C'mon, you only get one guess; you should only need one guess. Right off the bat, Ubisoft has something relatively original to work with: "Surfs Up" doesn't lend itself to some lame action, platforming, or third-person shooting title. There haven't been very many surfing games over the years - the Xbox launch did have a decent one in Transworld Surf back in 2001 - so Ubisoft could really present something unique for younger gamers. However, while the gameplay ends up being mildly enjoyable, they simply don't take it far enough. The primary mode is Championship Mode (outlined below), but other than that, you've got a pretty watered-down multiplayer mode that supports up to four players, and a throwaway mini-game in Leaf Sliding. Beyond that, all we get is some Exclusive Content and the option to use the motion sensitivity of the Sixaxis controller, but that's really not enough to vault this game into the "fully-realized" category.
Championship Mode has you travel around Pen Gu Island, participating in surf events and attempting to pass the tests within. For each event, you'll have two point goals and a gate goal; you have to pass through a certain number of these gates to satisfy the gate objective. Points are obtained by performing a variety of tricks, and that includes wave leaps, power pick-ups, and grinding on a variety of rail-shaped objects. If you can just satisfy one of the goals (the easiest is the lower point total), then you've successfully passed the event and can move on. That's easy, but the real challenge lies in nailing all the gates and getting the high point goal, which can get extremely difficult later on in the game. Every goal you hit unlocks something: the low point total unlocks more songs, the gate goal unlocks a new board, and the high point total unlocks a new character. This is really the meat of the game. You also have a limited number of times to participate in each event, although restarting never counts as one, so it doesn't make things impossible.
However, while the control is pretty solid, and the speed and action is actually very good, there is one significant flaw that permeates the entire experience: the response to your button presses is often erratic and rarely predictable or reliable. In other words, pressing the same series of buttons may not do the exact same thing twice in a row, which can be a little irritating later on. Freestyle - rotating the right analog any which way after leaping off a wave - works okay, but the other buttons for advanced tricks tend to fluctuate. We could never tell if using the right analog with those other buttons ever made any impact, and even if it did, we couldn't tell if it made any change in our point score. Furthermore, when the game "pushes" you in a certain direction, like towards a gate, it's difficult to fight the pre-chosen selection and if you do, you'll likely wipe out. Lastly, speaking of wipeouts, the game puts you a little further along the course after wiping out, meaning you'll miss a few things in between.
That latter feature simply adds more challenge to the game and isn't necessarily a drawback, but it is when we're coerced into crashing. The rest of the difficulty lies entirely in hitting the high point total to unlock the rest of the characters; simply passing the events would only take about two hours. There is one last bit of depth we can talk about, though- each character and surfboard has different strengths and weaknesses. They're ranked based on Turn, Stoke, Speed Boost, and Freestyle. Stoke, by the way, is built by landing consecutive tricks and building a gauge; when it's full, you can unleash this slow-mo effect and pull off some seriously insane stunts. This is where the intricacy and complexity of Surfs Up begins and ends, so if you have a big enough blast pulling off the tricks and unlocking the boards and characters, the game may actually be very worthwhile.
But just remember, that's all there is...there just isn't anything beyond the Championship Mode. Multiplayer in the PS3 version supports up to four players, but there are only a few multiplayer courses, and unless all your friends are under the age of 12, it's not exactly a great party option. The difference in difficulty between simply passing the events and unlocking everything is a little too drastic for younger gamers, too, which means Ubisoft didn't completely nail their target audience. But overall, this one is certainly cute and entertaining for at least a little while. The technicals are quite good for a game based on a movie, the artistry - correctly inspired by the film - and design is appealing, the controls are fairly easy to learn, and the gameplay is always fast and mostly fun. With all the crappy movie-to-game installments out there, Surfs Up isn't half-bad, and that alone is a pleasant surprise.
It's just not worth the full price of admission for anyone who isn't a big fan of the movie, simply because there isn't anywhere near enough content and depth to warrant the $60 price tag. We do recommend it as a Christmas gift for most any child who enjoyed the film, though; the game should be lower in price by then.
6/27/2007 Ben Dutka