Surf's Up Hands-On

We hang ten with a near-finished version of Ubisoft's movie-inspired surfing game.

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Currently scheduled for release later this month, Surf's Up is an extreme sports game inspired by the upcoming movie of the same name. Set on the waters around the exotic Pen Gu Island, Surf's Up casts you as one of 10 playable penguins (OK, technically only eight of them are penguins--one is a chicken, another is a secret unlockable character) attempting to win the annual Reggie Belafonte Big Z Memorial Surf Off competition. We haven't defeated nine-time champion Tank to claim the trophy for ourselves just yet, but while playing a near-finished version of the game recently we were able to check out a few of ithe game's varied environments and get a feel for its controls.

Only four of Surf's Up's characters will be selectable from the outset: carver Cody Maverick, acrobat Chicken Joe (you guessed it, he's the chicken), and aerial specialists Rory Nubbins and Lani. There are four character attributes to consider when choosing your surfer, including their turning talents, their freestyle flair, their "stoke" trick skills, and their speed boost ability. Your surfer's appearance can be customized using various back, head, arm, and wrist accessories, although many of them need to be unlocked, along with better boards. Said boards will affect your surfer's attributes and can be customized with different colors and patterns before you take to the water.

Before taking part in the competition proper you'll have an opportunity to play through several brief tutorials that do a good job of familiarizing you with all of the game's controls, which, on the PlayStation 3, include the option to steer left and right and brake simply by tilting the Sixaxis controller. We found using the left analog stick to perform those same actions preferable on this occasion, and we also put the right analog stick--which is used to perform "freestyle" flips and spins in the air--to good use. All four of the face buttons are used to perform tricks, designated as basic tricks, advanced tricks, hold tricks, and stoke tricks, respectively. Basic tricks can be performed very quickly; advanced tricks take a little longer but are worth more points; and hold tricks leave the timing up to you by ending only when you release the button. Stoke tricks, which are somewhat reminiscent of the over-the-top "uber-tricks" in EA Big's SSX snowboarding series, take a long time to perform and can be attempted only after you've managed to fill up your energy bar by performing other tricks. Other controls worthy of a quick mention include using shoulder buttons to "float" on top of a wave in the same way that you might grind a rail in a skateboarding game, and to spend some of the aforementioned energy on a speed boost that can be used to get extra airtime or to smash through otherwise impassable obstacles.

You'll need to maintain your balance manually when floating on a wave or grinding.

Given that Surf's Up is targeted at a relatively young audience it's not surprising that the controls are easy to pick up and that progressing through the game isn't particularly challenging. With that said, the waters around Pen Gu Island are anything but surfer friendly, and while many of your goals are score oriented, others task you with passing through gates, collecting bonus objects, and finding hidden surf idols. Completing these different goals is the only way to access certain bonus content, such as concept art, movie clips, new multiplayer levels, and a "leaf slide" minigame. In what might well be a first for a surfing game, all of Surf's Up's levels look like they'll have plenty of replay value as well, because there are a number of different routes that you can take through them depending on which goals you're trying to accomplish.

Although they're all purportedly set in the waters off a single island, Surf's Up's levels are very varied, with the icebergs of the first level giving way to tropical locales and volcanoes after less than an hour of play. Each environment has its own distinct obstacles, hazards, and spectacular trick opportunities for you to negotiate, and you'll also find that the waves you're riding vary somewhat. For the first few levels you'll be riding a wave that gently rolls from left to right, for example, but later you'll traverse waves that are move from right to left, and you'll have an opportunity to ride inside tubes for an instant energy bonus.

In addition to the single-player tournament mode that we checked out on this occasion, Surf's Up will feature split-screen competitive support for up to four players. Look for more information on that and the rest of Surf's Up's features in our full review later this month.

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