Reviewed: August 17, 2003
Released: June 3, 2003
I love writing reviews about sports games and I really love writing about sports games that mirror activities I have actually done in my personal life. I'm particularly fond of water sports including driving various watercraft, skiing and wakeboarding. Iíve even given surfing a try but the waves in the Gulf of Mexico are seldom large enough to have any real fun. Anyway, you can't imagine my delight when Wakeboarding Unleashed featuring Shaun Murray came up for review.
Congratulations to Activision and Shaba Studios for releasing not only one of the most original extreme sports titles in history, but also managing to capture the very essence of the sport on which it is based and keep the game fun and reasonably simple to play while challenging to master. The only way this game could be more real was if it came with an actual wakeboard controller similar to the ThrustMaster FreeStyler Board.
Some of you probably have some initial questions like ďWhat is wakeboarding?Ē and ďWho is Shaun Murray?Ē Wakeboarding is similar to slalom skiing (one ski) but you use a wakeboard rather than a ski. A wakeboard is similar in size and shape to a snowboard and you ride it like a ski by getting pulled around by the towboat then ripping off tricks by catching air off the wake generated by the boat in front of you.
As for Shaun Murray, donít feel bad if you donít know who he is. Wakeboarding and the mega-stars behind the sport are still relatively unknown thanks to a lack of televised coverage. Shaun is the ďTony HawkĒ of wakeboarding, two-time world champion and nicknamed, ďHouse of StyleĒ. Donít take my word for it Ė watch the opening movie.
Shaun is joined by six of his all-star wakeboarding friends including Parks Bonifay, Dallas Friday, Tara Hamilton, Cobe Mikacich, Darin Shapiro and Colin Wright. Each pro comes to the sport from a unique background and offers their own signature style and tricks to the sport.
As much as I hate comparing every extreme sports game that comes out to the Tony Hawk franchise I must admit that Wakeboarding Unleashed is very similar in style and gameplay to Activisionís skateboarding mega-hit, with a few obvious differences of course.
First of all the game is on water which creates all sorts of subtle gameplay issues you normally donít have with land-based games. You actually have to learn the way your boarder moves and how to increase speed and slingshot around turns or how to cut in sharp to cross back over your own wake for maximum jumping height and trick potential.
Since you are being towed your trick path is often out of your control and quite linear. This means you will need to learn every intricacy of every course to capitalize on the various ramps and verts given to you. This isnít to say you can go off exploring on your own.
Wakeboarding Unleashed gives you the very cool ability to release the towline at your discretion and move off in a totally different path than the boat. Naturally your momentum will start to bleed off as you skip across the water or grind some hidden rail, so your ultimate goal is to find places to take these rope-less detours but still allow you to get back in range of the boat and have them toss you the line. There is even a directional finder that shows you the direction and distance to your boat.
Controls are rock solid and identical to those found in Tony Hawk. You have all the fundamental moves like grabs, inverts, grinds, reverts, and even manuals. All of these building blocks can be used to chain together incredible trick lines that can easily reach millions of points per line. The learning curve is surprisingly high in this game, even for a Hawk veteran such as myself. There is something about the wave dynamics and being dragged along by a boat that just puts a whole new spin on the extreme sports genre.
You have no direct control over the path the boat will take and if you just sit back you will make the same circle over and over again. Thatís not to say you cannot manipulate the boat into taking a new path. Once you learn the lay of the land you can figure out precisely where to release the rope and take your own course. The boat will try to join you and often you can get it to switch to an alternate path through the level.
There is a very nice tutorial mode that gets you started with all the basics and I highly recommend taking just the boat out for a spin to learn each course as you unlock it. There is even something a bit relaxing about cruising around the lakes and waterways without the pressure of points and timers.
There is a staggering amount of content lurking on the Wakeboarding Unleashed disc. The career mode is massive and consists of objectives, challenges and gaps. These are presented in a checklist format (similar to just about every other extreme sports game) and you do as many as you can on each run. Rather than a conventional timer you have your Groove Meter. As you do tricks and stunts the meter will fill and when you arenít it will slowly diminish. As long as you can keep your groove alive you can keep playing, so unless you have a string of wipeouts or some very bad luck the timer should never really influence your game.
Each level has several Groove Objectives and when completed these will open up new challenges or interactive objects within the level. The challenges are often more difficult than the objectives and some even have you driving the boat. There are also dozens of gaps in each level. Some are obvious but most of them require a clue. By completing one gap you earn a Gap Key Ė this is a video clue as to the location of another gap, of course knowing where it is and actually getting to it and tricking across it are two separate issues.
As you might expect, most of the content in this game is locked down and you will need to start checking off objectives in the career mode to open up new levels. There are 11 stunning levels to explore, each with their own theme and environment, and many of the challenges and objectives are tied into these themes.
I was most impressed with the objective and challenge design and how it flowed with the levels. Often in games like this (normally the ones on actual timers) I will plan to do one or two objectives then make my next run and do another few. Wakeboarding Unleashed is designed so that with some average skill you can do several objectives each lap and keep your Groove Meter filled enough to keep going. While I never did an entire checklist (Attack Sheet) in one continuous run I came close a few times.
There is an innovative two-player cooperative mode where one player drives the boat and the other is on the wakeboard. Not only does this give you total control over the game but the designers have added fresh content (new ramps and rails) for both the driver and the wakeboarder. I had high hopes for this feature but it turned out the camera just doesnít work well trying to satisfy the needs of both driver and wakeboarder. Itís one of those deals where you could probably master cooperative play or solo play but switching between them really screws you up.
Of course there are some head-to-head two-player modes including Tug-O-War, Trick Attack, and HORSE. Tug-O-War is probably one of the most ingenious two-player games ever devised. Basically as one player performs stunts the other playerís rope gets shorter. The first person to run out of rope loses.
Trick Attack is the standard timed run and whoever has the most trick points wins while HORSE is the traditional copycat game where one player does a trick and the other must match or exceed it or get a letter. To add some pressure you are on a six-second timer.
With all of the great single and multiplayer content jammed into this game, Wakeboarding Unleashed is going to keep you busy for a long time. The learning curve is steep but the rewarding gameplay is worth it.
I knew this game was going to be something special right from the opening menu. Prior to the menu you get the gratuitous FMV footage of the seven all-stars showing off their moves set against some thumping Van Halen, but once the movie is over you get this amazing still image of all of the boarders doing some kind of stunt out on the lake. As you select each rider the camera zooms around the lake to focus on that rider. The action is captured in a Matrix-like freeze-frame with even the water droplets suspended and glistening in midair. Itís quite stunning and perhaps the best front-end menu Iíve seen in any game to date.
Realistic water seems to be the benchmark of any next-gen game these days and when your game is based entirely on water you had better bring something remarkable to the table. Shaba was more than up for the challenge and not only have they delivered the best looking water, it is also the most physically accurate recreation of the substance I have ever seen in any video game. The ripple effects and the wake generation are phenomenal and since it follows the rules of real life physics you can learn to predict and use the wake to attain incredible (and often unrealistic) air.
The levels are populated with plenty of ambient scenery. You can grind the rail on a houseboat on Lake Powell or off the main cannon of a battleship in the Boneyard. The water offers nice real-time reflections of the scenery but your boarder is strangely absent. All of the levels are quite creative and designed for functionality and trick lines while remaining imaginative and fun to explore.
At first I was amazed at the massive soundtrack included with Wakeboarding Unleashed until I realized that by default it randomly mixes up all of its music with anything else you have ripped to your Xbox hard drive. But even after I filtered out my custom tracks I was still impressed with the large and eclectic mix of tunes provided. Glancing at the music credits you will spot songs dating back to 1969 including many tracks from the golden era of rock (Van Halen, Molly Hatchet, and Blackfoot) while mixing in some contemporary tunes. Basically, there is something for everyone and if not, you can use your own custom music.
While there is sufficient ambient noise such as the boat engine and the splashing of waves there was also a disturbing lack of any additional sounds to immerse me in the game levels. If Iím grinding across the deck of a houseboat I want to hear the owner screaming at me. Itís just a small observations and it really doesnít detract from the quality of the gameplay in any way.
I canít recall a game that is more worthy of a full-price purchase than this. It took me nearly 24 hours to finish all of the levels with Shaun Murray and I still havenít fully explored all of the cooperative gameplay elements. Iíve started a second run of solo play with Dallas Friday and the game isnít any different, so whether you choose to replay the game six more times with all of the characters is your decision. If so, you can expect 80-100 hours of gameplay to complete all solo and multiplayer modes.
The lack of any custom boarder creator or level editor bothered me at first, but then I realized that there is so much content that comes with the game that I doubt most people would really want to play it much more beyond the scope of what is provided. Heck, by the time you finish this game the sequel will probably be out or some other game will have captured your attention.
Trying to place Wakeboarding Unleashed in the grand scheme of the extreme sports genre I would have to say it is much better than the Transworld Surf game yet I still enjoy the relative freedom of land-based games like Tony Hawk, Aggressive Inline, and the handful of MX and BMX games I play regularly just a bit more.
Even so, I must admit that I havenít had this much fun with a game in a long time, both because it represents a sport I enjoy in my personal life (although not nearly as extreme) and because it mirrors that sport so perfectly. Everything from the wake generation to the boat and boarder physics is flawless and you wonít find a more original or fun game than Wakeboarding Unleashed.