Nintendo's Wave Race 64 is still the pinnacle of jet skiing video games almost five years after its release. Though several games have tried to challenge its dominance with less-than-fruitful results, Infogrames and Rainbow Studios may be the first to legitimately make a play for its crown with Splashdown for the PlayStation 2. The game is just 14 months into development, and Rainbow Studios' blueprints call for plenty of tracks, skis, tricks, and gameplay modes to quell the thirst of game players looking for some water-soaked fun.
What makes Wave Race 64 so great is its accurate physics, startling water effects, and tight gameplay. Based on what Rainbow Studios has planned, Splashdown is already headed in the same direction. There will be five different gameplay modes and three difficulty settings to choose from for both single- and multiplayer abuse. Only the career, countdown, and freeride modes have been announced thus far. The career mode works similarly to the championship mode in most racing games. To unlock the next circuit, you must best four other racers over a series of several courses. The countdown mode has a timer that gradually dissipates, and you are awarded extra time by landing tricks or negotiating buoys. The self-explanatory freeride mode is the only gameplay option already instituted. The gameplay in the career mode consists of navigating a slalom course of buoys while hitting enormous jumps and busting tricks. As you successfully negotiate each buoy or land tricks, a performance meter increases and gives your Sea Doo a higher top speed. If you miss a buoy or bail a trick, the meter drops back to zero. Traveling off course is encouraged in Splashdown, and you must frequently traverse dry land to find shortcuts. In the final version of the game, you will be allowed only three seconds out of the water before you will be teleported back to the track. Splashdown will also include a combo system similar to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. If you manage to string several tricks together, a multiplier is used to boost your trick scores and your ski's performance meter.
There will be 30 flatwater, aerial, and underwater tricks included in the final version of Splashdown. Barrel rolls, fountains, pirouettes, flips, and tail stands are just a small sample of the maneuvers you'll be able to pull off. The push-button tricks are yet to be implemented in Splashdown's latest build, but back flips can be performed by diving underneath the water and then pulling back on the analog stick when the Sea Doo surfaces. Each of the eight riders will have at least one original trick in the final version. Rainbow hopes to have 18 courses included in Splashdown, as well as several unlockable hidden tracks. The announced tracks include the gondola-infested waterways of Venice, the rice paddies of Bali, the Florida Everglades, the Great Barrier Reef, Lake Havasu in Arizona, a Hawaiian island course, and Nice, France. Only the Hawaiian and Venice tracks were available for play at the event. The Venice track is narrow and requires an adequate amount of experience to navigate. The Hawaiian course, conversely, is wide open and includes plenty of jumps to send your Sea Doo careening over huts and large pieces of land. There is also a wealth of shortcuts that you may take on each track. Some ask you to gain enough speed to clear an obstacle with a jump, while others ask you to dive underwater to reach a new area.
For a game that is so early in development, Splashdown is looking quite good. Though the water effects are already impressive, Rainbow claims that they will be vastly improved for the final version. Real-time reflections and refractions flit along the surface of the water, while warping with the rippling waves. So far, there hasn't been a great deal of turbulence added to the courses, but one section of the Hawaiian course has a series of whoops that require precise timing to negotiate. When the courses are completed, they will include double jumps, triple jumps, and a variety of wave types. The courses are huge, with each one including several virtual miles of terrain. They were built using Rainbow's Motocross Madness engine for the PC, which, according to Rainbow, allows for 10 million polygons per second to be displayed. Rainbow will also be using a brand-new particle system to illustrate water being churned up by the skis and dripping off the airborne watercraft. Considering Rainbow produced some impressive particle effects for its first PlayStation 2 game, ATV Offroad Fury, this should be one especially impressive graphical element. The textures are nicely varied and clear, essentially debunking the PS2/VRAM myth.
The frame rates currently hover somewhere around 30 frames per second, which Rainbow claims will be the minimum rate for the finished game. Rainbow also claims that Splashdown is pushing the PS2 near its limit and therefore the frame rates will likely peak at 45 frames per second. Many of the graphical elements currently included in Splashdown are simply placeholders for the final treatments, so it's impossible to make any judgments at this point. But if Rainbow Studios can accomplish what it has in mind, Splashdown could be one of the more visually impressive PlayStation 2 games to be released this year.
There will be four different licensed Sea Doos to choose from, and their appearances factor heavily into how they are controlled. The flat-bottomed boats will hug the waves but will have a lower top speed. The boats with curved hulls, on the other hand, will be harder to keep under control but will scorch the straightaways. Controlling the skis is a mixture of arcade and simulation gameplay styles. Real jet skis will only turn while the accelerator is depressed, but Rainbow explained that this sort of mechanism would make it difficult for casual players to enjoy the game. While you can't cut sharply without accelerating, you may steer the watercraft in a general direction until you can get back on the gas. In the default control scheme used, the X button acts as the gas, the square button performs tricks, and the left analog stick is used for steering. Jordan Itkowitz, Splashdown's lead designer, stated that tricks will be performed in a variety of ways. Some will require a simple combination of analog stick movements and button presses, while the more advanced moves will ask that you perform more complex inputs similar to fighting games. Itkowitz also claims that Rainbow's goal was twofold: to make sure that casual players can pick up and enjoy Splashdown and to make sure that the gameplay has enough depth for advanced players. While we have yet to experience the AI, it will be forced to control riders using the same inputs as human players. This means that the computer will not be able to cheat.
Splashdown's audio is the game's least complete component at this stage of its development. Rainbow's sound studio has already visited nearby Lake Havasu to record actual Sea Doos on the water, and each licensed ski will have its own unique engine sound. Even in the early build that Rainbow let the press play, the engines sound different while the boats are airborne, and the sound of engines bogging down during especially tight turns is already convincing. While it was not included in the build the press played, racers will quip back and forth as they pass each other, and there will be a wide selection of ambient sounds included to help maintain immersion. Nothing has been said about the game's music yet, except that it will use Dolby Pro Logic. This guarantees that the overall sound clarity should be quite good.
The jet skiing genre isn't exactly crowded on the PlayStation 2, so Splashdown should enjoy a good deal of interest from consumers when it's released later this year. While the game is still early in its development cycle, the short time we spent with the men and women of Rainbow Studios was enough to convince us that Splashdown is in the hands of a company that is committed to quality. There should be an updated build of Splashdown at E3 next month. Look for our updated hands-on impressions from the show floor.