With the sole exception of Rainbow Studios' watercraft-racing title Splashdown, the Xbox has been sorely lacking in terms of games in this particular category. In fact, Global Star and Argonaut Games' Carve is the first game of its kind to appear on the Xbox since Splashdown's release two years ago. However, unlike Splashdown, Carve doesn't provide much depth either in gameplay or in available modes. Instead, it focuses on simply providing a decent--if unspectacular--watercraft racing experience that can be played via Xbox Live and purchased at a budget price. Ultimately, the game manages to achieve these few, less-than-lofty goals.
Carve's basic gameplay is about as easy to pick up and play as you'll find in this genre. The right shoulder button accelerates your watercraft, the left thumbstick steers it, and tricks are performed by pressing the four main buttons and the left thumbstick in specific combinations. For example, performing a simple backflip off of a ramp requires a press forward on the stick at the right moment, and then it requires a jerk backward on the stick immediately following this forward motion. To do something like a one-hander, you need only press the X or Y button twice. Some of the combos are a little more involved, but rarely are they difficult to pull off after a couple of tries. Tricks can also be performed both off of ramp jumps and while in the water, and performing various types of tricks throughout a race gives you a temporary speed boost, known as "rush." Depending on the complexity of the trick, your rush can last for longer periods of time, though most instances of it only last for a few seconds. The trick system does add a bit of variety to Carve's mix, but there are actually only 12 basic tricks in the game and four signature tricks for each of the game's eight racers, so it's not hard to find yourself repeating tricks quite often.
In terms of handling, Carve feels pretty good, though it's not very impressive. The physics are adequately realistic, save for a few intermittent instances of collisions that didn't occur when they should have. Turning feels like it's supposed to feel, therefore it generally requires a reasonable measure of accurate timing so that you can avoid crashing into walls and other objects. Jumps feel equally good, though some jump tricks seem to occur a little behind your button presses. This is fairly consistent, however, so nailing the timing just takes a minuscule amount of practice. The only real issue to speak of here is that while it all handles OK, there's almost no variety in controlling your racers. Each racer has varying stats in categories like speed, tricks, defense, and such, but very little of these come across in the actual game. Yes, speedier racers do tend to overtake other racers better, and racers with higher trick ratings are a little more adept at performing tricks, but the differences are really rather small overall. What's more, these minute details aren't enough to really give the gameplay any sort of variety from one character to another.
As for the remaining portions of Carve's gameplay, it's all pretty simple stuff. Races are timed, to a certain degree, in that you have to complete laps in a set number of seconds. Throughout each course a number of red and yellow buoys are scattered about, and the color of each determines which way you have to navigate around them (red requires a right-hand pass and yellow requires a left-hand pass). Missing buoys will cost you time, and you can only miss five buoys in a single race before you're disqualified. However, missing buoys is pretty easy to avoid in most cases, and in fact, it's rare that you're ever really in danger of being disqualified. Additionally, on all difficulties but the highest, the competition is rather scarce at best. Even on the highest setting, after an hour or so, you should be pretty much able to school just about anyone--barring any random collisions or accidents.
Compounding the lack of challenge within Carve is the game's slightly lacking roster of gameplay modes. Your choices within the game include a quick match, an arcade mode, a tournament mode, a time trial, and the aforementioned Xbox Live support. Quick match and arcade mode are pretty much throwaway modes for single-player due to the inherent lack of challenge. However, they're just fine for multiplayer (four players can compete on a single system). Tournament is where the meat of the single-player action occurs, and it puts you into one of five different tournament challenges, each with four races apiece. Winning tournaments unlocks new courses, tricks, and cheats, so there is at least some incentive to play through them. Ultimately, though, it shouldn't take more than a few hours to blast through all of the game's tournaments.
As for the game's online play, it delivers exactly what it promises. No more, no less. All the usual Xbox Live features are available here, including friends lists, voice chat, leaderboards, and the like. There are actually two different varieties of competitions available: arcade and team race. Arcade is just a basic one-to-eight-player race around any of the game's courses, whereas team race actually puts you and another player on the same team. You see, each racer in the game is actually part of a two-person racing team, though this aspect is never really fleshed out in the offline portions of the game (beyond having your teammate occasionally send you words of encouragement during a race). When playing a team race, missed buoys affect both players, and your score at the end of the race is combined. This race type is kind of a neat idea, though it definitely feels a bit underdeveloped compared to the game's other play modes. Overall, the online portion of the game plays just fine. There's no lag, there are no frame rate issues, and there isn't anything else to this effect. All in all, it's probably Carve's best asset.
Graphically, Carve doesn't do much to set itself apart from other water racing titles, but overall it still looks pretty good. The game's water effects--which may represent the most important aspect of any water-based racing title--aren't spectacular, but they look sharp enough. The water itself moves in some nicely realistic ways. Unfortunately, Carve doesn't feature too much in the way of wave effects, since most of the courses take place inside canals and in other enclosed waterways. However, in those few courses where you do get a bit more in the way of open water, the wave effects provided are nicely done. Carve's character design is something of another story, unfortunately. Though the characters themselves are technically sound and animate reasonably well, the basic designs for them are pretty stupid. Each team seems to literally one-up the next in terms of how "extreme" it is--be it the pair of ex-Soviet mercenaries, the twosome of bubbly Japanese girls, or the team of "gnarly" surfer dudes. These characters seem like the end product of some sort of marketing meeting gone horribly wrong, and they add no real benefit to the game.
Carve doesn't offer up a whole lot in the way of sound, but what it does provide is adequate for what the game needs. In terms of a soundtrack, the game features a number of licensed electronic-sounding tracks, though they're not by any artists you'd likely immediately recognize. It's decent stuff, though none of it is anything you'll ever notice as more than simple background fodder. The in-game effects sound good enough, with appropriate engine sounds, some good splashing effects, and occasional crash sounds. Where the sound design ultimately falls flat is, once again, in terms of the game's characters, who will occasionally throw you a bit of cheesy, ham-fisted dialogue when you're racing. (Thankfully, the only character who ever talks to you is your teammate.) Furthermore, each character only has a few, meaningless lines. However, the repetition of dialogue occurs surprisingly often, so you'll end up hearing the same lines at least three or four times per race, if not more. Maybe if the voice acting weren't terrible, this might be less of an issue--but this is not the case.
On the whole, Carve feels like a game that could have been a lot more than it is. For what it's worth, though, if you've been waiting for a game that lets you race watercraft online, Carve definitely delivers. So if you can forgive the generally unremarkable production, it can be worth at least a rental for this feature alone.