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Surfing H3O
Score: 65%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Games
Media: CD/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Sports

Graphics & Sound:
Wow. They weren't kidding about the wave physics... I really liked everything about the visual presentation of this game, but the water effects are truly great. Rolling waves break and foam, chop and spray shoots up around the board and rider, and moving through the water...well, we'll get to that. All the characters are cool looking, with some pretty hot little surf-chicks and muscle-bound lads aplenty, but their voices are completely irritating. It's not the actual voice acting that's poor, but every sample plays over and over again until you just want to plug your ears and watch the pretty water. And that is a shame, because the bands who provide the soundtrack for Surfing H3O are killer. Plenty of good songs and authentic surf music make for a good soundtrack, but those voices!! Help!! Sometimes, as with Rockstar's other PS2 offerings, the commentary is hilarious. My favorite is, ''You're nasty, dude!'' That's a compliment, BTW. :) Surfing H3O is full of excellent music, good design and the most realistic wave physics you're likely to see on dry land, but definitely don't judge this book by its pretty cover. Oh yes...there's more, and it's not good.

Here's the problem with Gameplay: There isn't any!! I can't believe how thin the total offering is here. With short courses and no variation in what you're trying to do between Start and Finish, Surfing H3O left me asking where the rest of the game went... Starting out, you can either enter the Tournament or play in Vs. Mode. Although Vs. is supposed to be the 2-Player action, you have to pass a controller back-and-forth and compete for best time on the same wave. Tournament has you pick a surfer and board and run through courses collecting items and pulling off tricks. Problem is, the characters all feel the same, and I never got the impression that picking a different board made any impact on performance. Likewise, item-collecting provides zero entertainment and courses are too short to provide fertile ground for fun with tricks.

As you run each course, the items you look for are big colorful floating balls. Because they're different colors, you can earn extra points for getting complete sets in a single color. Tricks also earn you points, and happen when you launch off the face of a wave and press shoulder buttons. Much like some of the other 'board' games we've played (snow or skate), Surfing H3O riders do a mean Indy, Method, Mute, etc. The animations for these tricks are cool, especially because you don't have to worry much about landing and can just check out the show. Certain courses are better suited to tricks because of how the wave is moving. In others, you have to put most of your effort into staying on the board and grabbing items. The tricks are cool, but imagine a skateboarding game where you had to spend the whole time in a halfpipe. After you've run the courses, it all starts looking the same. Tricks are done one way only, and although the waves move differently, courses are starving for variety. No obstacles, no other surfers, no sharks... I mean, where's all the other stuff that could have gone into the experience?

Only a handful of surfers are available at first, but you can unlock new riders through Tournament Mode. Some surfers have different trick styles, but nobody seems that much different on the board. In fact, moving a rider through the water is way too sluggish, even if it's realistic. Control is far from tight, and switching surfers just doesn't make enough of a difference. There's a power meter to show your speed in the water and when you're ready to make a jump. Squatting on the board, getting too far from the wave and dropping the tail can affect speed. Speed affects balance, too.

There's nothing frustrating about Surfing H3O that doesn't come from some failing of the game itself. Difficulty can be adjusted, but nothing really feels challenging in the gameplay, so why bother? Use of the L3 and R3 buttons (the button that activates when you press down on an analog stick) was a creative move, but not very intuitive. Moving into place and executing tricks is completely bizarre, and requires the kind of control you have to struggle with Surfing H3O to achieve. And the reward isn't worth the struggle.

Game Mechanics:
Although there's a short tutorial in Surfing H3O as an option when you start Tournament, I watched it several times before I was able to make sense of the controls. Balance doesn't come into play unless you slow down, and by the time you slow down, you fall. Tricks happen when you jump off the top of the wave, but don't jump too far above or you'll pull out. Also, don't jump too far back or you'll wipe-out. You can ride in the tube, but only if you squat on the board. You can push down on the tail to slow or make tight cutting turns with the R3 button. This button, along with L3, makes a rider get low.

But really, there's nothing to do with all this information. When the course loads, you paddle down the wave, get up on the board, and stay there until the finish line. Surfing H3O has continues for levels that you can't get through because of low points, and you start where you fell off in a wipe-out situation. Since it's possible to just cut the board anywhere you choose to go, I never felt much like the surfing was precarious or that I had to do anything but point my board at an item. Unlike the control it takes to stay on course in other 'board' games, Surfing H3O is positively lazy. I guess the idea is to encourage people to do tricks by requiring they hit a total number of points before moving on to another course. But, the waves just didn't inspire me to do anything but go for items and move on to the next level. After you win a Tournament, you're rewarded with a still image of your surfer.

I just can't see Rockstar behind this thing, but that big 'R' on the cover don't lie. Maybe the people who have been dying to play a surfing game will enjoy Surfing H3O, but my impression is that developers put all their time into building a good looking game with cool trick animations and great water-effects and nobody remembered that all that stuff is no good if there isn't anything going in the Gameplay department. It's too bad, since the premise of surfing is a cool one. After spending time with Surfing H3O, I'm afraid to go back into the water.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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