As Activision gets deeper and deeper into the extreme sports category, we're starting to see the genre get a little weird. Skateboarding made sense. BMX biking was a short leap from there, as were surfing and snowboarding. Now the publisher is starting to move toward sports you might not immediately associate with the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater control scheme. For those who haven't been keeping score, Shaba Games' claim to fame was Grind Session, a skateboarding game that was released in the wake of the original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. The team later went on to finish up Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX. Now, the California-based developer has turned its attention to the sport of wakeboarding, and the end result is a good one, though it's not without its share of sometimes-glaring shortcomings.
Not everyone is familiar with the real-life sport of wakeboarding, which is to waterskiing as snowboarding is to regular skiing. You're tugged along by a speedboat while riding a small board, and the wake created by the boat can be used for tricks and other fancy maneuvers. Wakeboarding Unleashed, as you might expect, pumps up the ESPN2-style sport to unrealistic and exciting extremes, giving you the ability to catch gigantic air off the wake and providing you with lots of boats and other obstacles on either side of the course, which can be used to execute grinds and get into all sorts of other Tony Hawk-esque chicanery. The key mechanic here is that beyond the standard grabs and flips you'd expect to see, the game also lets you get entirely away from the boat by devoting a button to dropping the boat's towrope. This concept let the developers really open up sections of the level to all sorts of wild alternate paths, because you no longer have to remain right behind the boat, which follows a preset path through each area. However, your speed rapidly decreases when you aren't being pulled by the boat's powerful motor, so the basic idea is to let go of the boat, do a bunch of really wild tricks, and then hope that you're still close enough to the boat to call for the rope to be tossed to you. This one mechanic gives the game almost all of its depth, as without this ability, you would simply be jumping off the wake and grinding on the rails of nearby piers and boats.
As you might expect from a game like this, the main mode is a career mode that takes you from level to level, giving you challenges all the while. Challenges are broken up into two groups. Groove challenges are goals that can be met while simply running laps around the level. A groove meter acts as a timer, and it can be filled by executing long trick combos. There are also separate challenges that must be selected from the game's pause menu. Some of these goals are pretty good, such as goals that work just like the combo letter goals in Tony Hawk 4. But some of them feel very forced, as though they were thrown in just to make the game longer. One goal that comes up from time to time is a boat race, where you actually don't wakeboard at all. Instead, you just drive the boat around a set course and hope to beat a specific time. Another is a series of "video shoot" goals that ask you to score a certain number of points within a specific time limit. The catch is that you actually see the action from a television-style replay angle. On some levels this means that you won't be able to see your boarder at all, especially when he or she is grinding on top of a building, as seen in the game's Hong Kong level. Both goal types just seem incredibly sloppy and thrown in.
This sloppy feeling extends to a few other aspects of the game, as well. Collision detection in the game is spotty--some buildings and objects let you ride right through them, while others cause you to crash. Larger objects may cause you to drop the towrope when the rope collides with them, but this, too, seems to happen without rhyme or reason. You'll be able to pass the rope through some objects unscathed, while other, smaller objects will cause you to drop the rope. This gives the game an unpolished feel and makes certain aspects of it feel like guesswork.
The quality of the game's level design varies from stage to stage. Each location has a few alternate routes that can be explored by finding path-switch icons placed throughout the level. But by and large, there aren't enough alternatives to the levels, and the neat mechanic of dropping the rope to explore seems underused.
Aside from the career mode, you can play a free ride mode that removes the goals, and there are some two-player games, including one where one player rides while the other drives the boat. Like the boat driving seen in the career mode, this seems like a real "because we can" sort of addition.
Graphically, Wakeboarding Unleashed has its moments of clarity, but the game's bad clipping problems and occasionally odd physics make the game look pretty weird at some points. When all is running as it should, the water looks great, moving like a real wake would and showing some nice reflections of the surrounding environment. But you'll occasionally catch a look at the water from the side, and then the illusion is partially blown. The surrounding structures look good, but rarely great. The game is available on both the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox, and it has the typical qualities you would expect from a multiplatform game--the versions are roughly identical, but the Xbox version looks a little crisper and cleaner, though not as much as it would if it were being developed specifically for the Xbox.
The game's sound does its job. The sounds of the boat and your board riding on various surfaces are the main audio components. The game's soundtrack is a little more wild than you'd expect in this age of "license whatever the hot songs are this week" soundtrack design. Songs from The Pixies, The Flaming Lips, Love and Rockets, Molly Hatchet, J. Geils Band, George Thorogood, Pavement, The Stooges, and Van Halen can all be found here, among a handful of others. The Xbox version of the game has custom soundtrack support, letting you select a mix of the game's tracks and your own, if you desire.
Wakeboarding Unleashed is a fun game. But most of that fun comes from simply seeing the levels and executing the longest combo you possibly can. Unfortunately, the game's real goals aren't exciting enough to carry the game, so once you've unlocked enough levels to be satisfied and gotten the hang of the controls, there really isn't a whole lot more to see. Fans of the genre will be left wanting more, which makes Wakeboarding Unleashed a terrific candidate for your next game rental.