There’s an old phrase that says “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There are plenty of examples where designers develop a formula that seems to do well, prompting others to build somewhat on their design or to copy their ideas entirely. “Extreme Sports” titles are a prime example of this concept, since capturing the high-flying, fast paced attitude of these fringe sports can be rather elusive. While most of these games emphasize colorful characters, impossible tricks and huge courses to compete on, a majority of them are based solely on land. Sony tries to break this mold with Jet X2O, a racing game that takes players to the water to shred some waves.
Like most racing games, you choose from one of 8 quirky personalities culled from around the world. These personal traits actually reflect each characters strengths and weaknesses in each of four statistical categories. Balance relates to the steadiness of a rider on their machine, primarily after attempting a trick. Strength refers to their ability to resist hard bumps from competitors, landings and obstacles without getting thrown off your watercraft. Weight deals specifically with speed and how much of a burden the character is on their craft, which can affect its speed. Finally, Tricks determines how extravagant and over the top your attempted tricks will be. Choosing a rider that appeals to your particular style of play is important, but it’s only half of the equation. You also need to choose a craft that’ll help you cross the finish line first. Hopefully making up for your rider’s weaknesses, each machine also has it’s own stats, affecting the acceleration, top speed, stability and steering of the craft.
Regardless of the rider or the machine chosen, your primary goal is to come in first place. Players that need a little practice getting the hang of controlling the watercraft or pulling off tricks can choose Big Wave mode, a free arena that lets you practice without other riders or time pressures looming over you. If you’re looking to blaze through one of X2O’s 8 courses, you may want to check out Single Race Mode. On the other hand, if you’re interested in proving that you’re the best, World Tour is the choice for you. Aside from choosing your difficulty level, there are three other settings that allow you to specify the conditions for victory in X2O. There’s the customary Race mode found in other titles where you try to complete a course in the fastest time possible, Trick mode, which bases your performance on the number of tricks you successfully complete on a course run, and Combo mode, where you try to finish the course as fast as possible while landing as many tricks as possible. The creative thing about Combo mode is that even if you come in dead last in the race, you can still potentially take over first place if you’ve completed enough tricks (especially big air maneuvers).
You can pull off a trick at any point during a race, but to really break open the scoreboard, you’ll need to catch some air. Scattered throughout each track are numerous ramps that can launch you into the air if you have enough speed. Obviously, if you keep your finger on the gas you’ll go over the ramp, but to really fly, you’ll need some boost. Also placed throughout each level are multicolored boost gates. Passing through these gates provides your rider with a certain amount of turbo-charged fuel that can be used to overtake fellow competitors or launch you skyward over ramps and large waves. If you take these few seconds that you’re airborne to pull out a trick (or sequence of tricks), and you successfully land it, you’ll also add boost to your onscreen meter. If you manage to gather enough boosts, you will gain a Mega Boost, an even more powerful speed enhancement. More importantly, the Mega Boost allows riders to pull off their signature tricks, death defying moves that can really rack up points. Considering that each level is huge and packed with shortcuts and multiple waterways, it’s entirely possible to acquire thousands of bonus points.
X2O delivers some of the clearest, most realistic water you’ve ever seen. It splashes, sprays and rolls naturally, making it seem as though you’re really interacting with the environment as you’re challenging your opponents for position. It also tracks rogue waves and wakes from other riders, accurately. It may not seem like much, but when you’re on a hard stage with a high difficulty setting and water pitching and rolling around your rider, you’ll really be impressed. What’s even more remarkable is that with the constant motion of the water, riders and environment, the game runs at a consistent frame rate without any hint of slowdown. Character models are rather large and well animated, with plenty of articulation in their faces during their cutscenes and realistic transitions between each trick.
The tracks themselves are also beautiful arenas packed with details. For example, Slicstream, an arena set in and around a hydroelectric power plant, not only features beautiful forest settings, but also displays impressive details for the power plant, its gates and its power outputs. You can literally detect the shift between upstream and downstream motion as you wind your way through each level. You’ll also notice that there’s constant movement in the background, with cameras flashing and monitors broadcasting the action of the race.
Musically, X2O features a fast-paced, hard driving techno soundtrack; however, it actually suffers because it comes across as a minor afterthought. Most of the time, the commentator and words from your opponents overpower the tunes in the game, making you listen to them instead. Granted, these comments are full of wry statements, smack talking and reactionary remarks. However, these quickly become stale and overused. The four or fifth time that you’ve heard an opponent remark on your position in the race is enough to turn the volume down. The commentator isn’t any better, often saying the same statement over and over again in a short period of time, especially if you crash. Plus, the personality behind the commentator feels manufactured and false, as if the actor was trying too hard to embody this character. If anything, the largest plus are the engine sounds for each watercraft, which sound different depending upon the selected vehicle.
Controls are solid, and easy to manipulate. You may experience a slight shift in your driving ability, especially if you’re coming from titles such as SSX or its sequel. That’s because the tracking of the water can affect the handling of any vehicle, and many times can cause a wipeout if you’re not paying any attention. You’ll also have to get used to wakes and timing waves to truly successfully land from high jumps. Actually, that’s one of the larger problems, which is that it’s pretty easy to get thrown from your machine even with a great trick and balance statistic. Technically those two rider characteristics are supposed to minimize the number of spills that happen to you, especially during stunts, but there are a few moments where this seems to fail you. It’s understandable if some one jumps on your head and knocks you into the water, but it’s even worse when you pull successfully pull off a trick only to watch your points and boost be negated because your rider doesn’t stick the landing.
Speaking of someone jumping on your head, what the hell is up with the super aggressive, overly angry computer controlled players? I understand that in Tricky, the inclusion of a rivalry system added additional drama and intrigue to a race, making you want to screw over people and, at the same time, protect your friends because they’d look out for you. Well, apparently in X2O, it’s every rider for themselves, and computer opponents will sometimes go over and above the call of duty, running you into rocks, sides of ramps and other obstacles, almost always making you spill to the waiting water below.
Finally, and perhaps most detrimentally, one of the largest obstacles to X2O has to be the fact that there really isn’t anything new in this game. All of this ground was covered originally in SSX, rehashed and improved in Tricky, and to a certain extent, been featured in other “extreme sports” titles. Even the stereotypes for the riders have been seen before, with the strong Russian muscleman and the agile Japanese teenage girl. Granted, as I said at the beginning, this title is one of the few that have been taken to the water, but subtracting that, there’s no innovation to be found here.
What’s the final verdict on this one? Well, if you’re looking for a technically gorgeous title that truly shows off the depth of its environments to the limits of the system hardware, X2O does a beautiful job of giving the player amazing water effects. If you’re looking for an innovative extreme sports title, you may do better off checking out SSX or Tricky, because every feature in X2O was either pioneered or ensconced in those two titles.