Since the late 90’s, when the extreme sports genre blew the hell up, it has slowly evolved into various extreme incarnations, some of which were instantly classics (Inline Skating and the Tony Hawk series, for example) and some of which the world would have been better off had they never been realized in the first place (Simpson’s Skateboarding, BMX XXX). But while the genre has certainly had its ups and downs, one thing has also remained a constant: on the whole, they have gotten better. This brings us to Activision’s recently released Wakeboarding Unleashed Featuring Shaun Murray. Not quite Tony Hawk and not quite completely innovative, Wakeboarding Unleashed is an original take on the extreme sports genre that, despite breaking new ground in the field of wakeboarding, manages to get it right the first time.
Now, wakeboarding isn’t the most recognized of the extreme sports, but it is certainly one of the more exciting and visceral ones. Basically, you’ll be tugged along by a speedboat while standing atop a small surfboard-like platform, all the while performing aerial tricks and deft-defying maneuvers. The action in Wakeboarding Unleashed is far removed from depicting the sport in a realistic manner, which means pulling off insane jumps and tricks is the norm. Tricks can also be chained together to form huge combos, making for some truly memorable seven-digit scores.
While holding onto a rope attached to a speedboat for dear life is certainly conducive to some impressive grinds and tricks, the real innovation in this game’s mechanics comes in the form of letting go of the rope and doing your own thing. The L2 button is dedicated to dropping the towrope while hitting L2 again throws the rope back to you. This means that the various levels in the game aren’t limited merely by the speedboat’s trajectory. Instead, the environments feature lots of open space chock full of trick potential that can only be realized once you free yourself from the bonds of the towrope, though it is vital that you keep in mind that once you let go of the rope, your speed will drastically drop, and if you wait too long to call for the towrope, you’ll be up the creek without a proverbial paddle; not good.
The career mode in Wakeboarding Unleashed is surprisingly long, and the challenges amazingly appropriate. Very rarely did I ever start a level where I consciously made the decision to complete a specific goal. Instead, just doing well, catching a lot of air, and taking advantage of opportunities as they arose allowed me to complete a couple goals each time through. A groove meter determines how long a run will last. By executing high-scoring tricks and combos, your groove meter will replenish, but waiting too long between tricks will slowly decrease the meter. Once the groove meter is completely empty, you’ll have to start over. This variable is merely a technicality in the long run as making sure your groove meter is filled is only a problem until you’ve properly acclimated yourself with the controls.
The challenges that you’ll be required to pass from level to level aren’t entirely innovative or indeed even original, but they are fitting and never seem tacked on for the sake of prolonging the game. Tony Hawk fans will recognize a few of the goals, such as the combo letter challenges, while other challenges couldn’t have been used in any other game, such as full-on boat racing. One interesting mode is the video shoot where the action is depicted from a television-style perspective and you are asked to perform impressive tricks. While interesting, this style of play does little to enhance the enjoyment of the experience as performing tricks and combos from an awkward vantage point is little more than frustrating.
The number one focus of this game, water, is perfectly realized. Hands down the best use of digitally-rendered h2o, Wakeboarding Unleashed is impressive indeed, but problems do arise with the engine the developers went with. For example, some environmental structures will make you drop your towrope should they get caught between you and the speedboat, while other objects will pass right through the rope with no detrimental effect whatsoever. The ambiguous nature of environmental objects is also present in terms of what structures can be used to trick off of and what structures are merely background fodder. While most won’t have a problem with these aspects of the game once they have played a particular level a few times, it is still unfortunate that the developers couldn’t have went to the effort of making the purpose of environmental objects more clear to the player.
On the graphics front, Wakeboarding Unleashed is one of the better-looking extreme sports games in the genre. As previously mentioned, the water effects are second to none, reacting in an eerily realistic manner to surrounding objects and colliding currents. The wake left by the speedboat will seamlessly mesh with the mini-wake left by your board, and using the boat’s wake to launch jumps is incredibly easy thanks to the spot-on visual indications. The reflection techniques used to represent surrounding environment on the face of the water is exceedingly impressive.
The sound in Wakeboarding Unleashed is no slouch either, featuring an attention-grabbing soundtrack full of old-school and contemporary artists alike such as The Flaming Lips, Pavement, George Thorogood, Van Halen and The Pixies. It seems extreme sports game have turned a corner in terms of avoiding the common pitfalls of simply licensing whatever songs are making the rounds on popular airwaves, and I, for one, am eternally grateful that I don’t have to listen to mainstream crap-ola every time I want to get my extreme game on. The sound effects, such as the crushing, slicing, sounds of ripped waves of water are exactly as you’d expect them, but little more. Sound effects as a whole in Wakeboarding Unleashed are a tad on the minimalist side, though fitting all the same.
For those who have yet to tire of the still-growing extreme sports genre and can still appreciate the brilliance of Tony Hawk’s tried-and-true control scheme, Wakeboarding Unleashed Featuring Shaun Murray is the perfect game to tide you over until Tony Hawk’s Underground is released. The controls take a little getting used to but the gameplay is more than familiar enough to give most players reason enough to jump right in.