Splashdown for the Xbox is a wave-runner racing game with some really great water effects. While the original PlayStation 2 version was praised for its gameplay mechanics and all-around solid presentation, the game lacked any sort of serious wave dynamics, which made it seem more like a traditional racing game as opposed to one that takes place on water. Splashdown for the Xbox still retains this issue in a large portion of its courses, but you'll find that the two courses created specifically for the Xbox version of the game are vastly superior, featuring realistic waves that would make any die-hard Wave Race fan jealous.
The new levels are so impressive that you'll wish that Rainbow Studios had enough time to go back through the original courses in the game and introduce similar improvements. But you'll still be impressed by the fact that the overall quality of the graphics has improved. The frame rate runs at a brisk pace, the lighting is more pronounced, and just about everything looks smoother, which helps give the already impressive water an even more natural look. If all that isn't enough, Splashdown for the Xbox also gives you the ability to rip your own soundtrack of the game so that you aren't stuck listening to songs that were popular on the radio several months ago.
Splashdown has a variety of driving methods and techniques that can impact the outcome of any race. Pulling back on the analog stick while approaching top speed causes the craft to hydroplane across the water, decreasing the amount of water resistance and giving you a slight boost in speed. However, hydroplaning before the wave runner reaches optimal speeds can have a detrimental effect on your race performance, and such an action usually results in your craft losing speed. As rare as they might be, waves can be particularly problematic for racers who use hydroplaning because the waves will lift you into the air, reducing your speed.
Even basic actions, like turning, offer alternative strategies. When going into a turn around a wall or a buoy, you must decide whether or not you want to make a sharp cut by pressing diagonally on the analog stick--or you can simply perform a basic turn. Consistent use of the sharp-turning function can shave a few seconds off your final lap time, whereas a basic turn doesn't really help or hurt your chances of a great finish. The catch with making proper sharp turns is that it can take a little time before you can execute them properly, so you're better off practicing this technique in one of Splashdown's other modes.
Splashdown's trick system serves a similar purpose by offering similar risks as other methods for winning a race. Whenever you perform a trick in Splashdown--which usually involves a ramp--a small meter located to the right of your speed gauge will slowly fill. As the meter reaches capacity, the overall performance of your wave runner increases, giving a possible advantage over the other competitors. Basic tricks like can-cans or kicks fill the meter in small segments, but the more difficult tricks, like the handlebar foot grab, will fill it much quicker--although you run the risk of losing control of the wave runner with the complex tricks. If you need a quick boost and there aren't any ramps in sight (as unlikely as that is), you can do a quick invert trick that involves dipping under the water and then launching into the air, allowing you to perform a backflip. Unfortunately, you can lose a lot of speed performing this maneuver, so the benefits don't necessarily justify it. Overall, the trick system is easy to use and is a nice touch. It requires you to press only one of three trick buttons and a direction on the analog stick, and since it plays such an important role in the game, this nearly effortless trick system is certainly welcomed.
While Splashdown's mechanics are sound, you can't help but be disappointed by the fact that these mechanics would have been put to better use had the development team incorporated more waves and more dynamic water physics into the original courses. Of course, many of the environments in Splashdown are fresh water areas, which are generally not known for having enormous waves, but even on the oceanside courses, waves are a rare sight. And the few sets of waves that are in the original courses seem pathetic at attempting to demonstrate that this particular engine is capable of calculating waves, as they seem almost out of place or unnatural in their positioning on the course. Perhaps leaving the waves out of the original courses altogether would have been a better course of action.
The two courses created for the Xbox version, the Florida Keys and Ruminer Point, are an entirely different story. Both courses feature several sets of incredible waves placed at certain points in the course--usually around tight turns or in an area where you need to weave in and out of buoys quickly. It's amazing how much the gameplay changes in these courses--from a simple dash to the finish line (that can just as easily be found in any other racing game) to one that places an emphasis on your ability to maneuver a wave runner.
The water looked good in the PlayStation 2 version of the game, and it looks even better in the Xbox version. You'll see smaller undulating waves quite clearly, as well as the foam that laps up onto the shore and on various scenery objects, which are plentiful. You'll also see the much larger and more impressive waves in the new courses. Even though the lighting on the original courses has been improved, one of the new courses features substantially better lighting in the form of a setting sun, which bathes the water and the surrounding environment in a gentle orange glow. The individual rider models look solid and animate well, and the model for the wave runners also looks about as accurate as you can get. The draw distance, which was quite noticeable in the PlayStation 2 version, is nearly nonexistent here--unless it's used as a visual effect, like in the courses that are engulfed in fog. The game generally looks smoother and much more natural than its PlayStation 2 counterpart, and while the frame rate has been improved, there's still some noticeable stuttering when making sharp turns in a championship race.
Splashdown's sound complements the game well. At the start of the race, you'll be able to hear the familiar noise of a wave runner's engine gargling water. As racers perform tricks off ramps, you'll hear them say a few choice words, and they'll even make comments about other competitors when they're in close proximity. Unfortunately, these voices are so bad that they border on being offensive in some cases and generally can become annoying when you're forced to hear the same lines constantly repeated. The soundtrack offers a mix of popular songs from bands like Smash Mouth and a few lesser-known songs that fit the general theme of the game, and even if you don't particularly care for any of them, you can rip music to the Xbox hard drive and listen to your own soundtrack.
There is quite a bit of potential replay value in Splashdown, but a majority of the extras really aren't worth playing the game through repeatedly. The championship mode--in which you participate in either 12 or 20 races depending on difficulty--lets you unlock additional courses, costume colors, and riders, all of which you can access in other modes. In the arcade mode, you can participate in a few different events, such as time attack and countdown, a mode in which you have to tag a number of different colored buoys before time expires. Splashdown's arcade and split-screen multiplayer modes offer a fun little diversion from regular competition, but most of your time will probably be spent in the championship mode.
In a sense, it's almost sad to play through the new courses created specifically for the Xbox version of Splashdown because you get a glimpse of what could have made this game not only one of the Xbox's best, but also the finest water-based racing game, period. When you race through the new courses and then through the original courses, it almost feels like you're playing two different games--one that truly captures water racing and another that gives small little tastes of what it can be like. In any case, the improvements that Rainbow Studios made to an already good game are certainly for the best, so Xbox owners looking for a racing game that plays and looks great would do well to pick up Splashdown.