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Wave Rally
Score: 69%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Opus
Media: CD/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Racing

Graphics & Sound:
If you're a little confused by the sudden appearance of 3 similar titles on the market, nobody could blame you. Blue Storm for Gamecube, Splashdown for PS2, and Wave Rally for PS2 all came out within a month of each other. Wave Rally doesn't do anything better than the other two, but it has some appeal. The holy grail of these games is representing water effects that look real. Back to Wave Race 64 the most talked-about aspect beyond gameplay or even before gameplay was how the water looked. Unlike traditional racing games, the surface you race on in Wave Rally will come up to meet you or drop away at the last minute, so presentation is intimately paired with mechanics for this genre. Saving the discussion of mechanics for later, I can say that as a general rule, the bigger the wave, the more believable the graphics. There isn't a high degree of subtlety in how things are presented, and this failing definitely saps Wave Rally of the 'WOW' factor present in its two nearest competitors. The detail we want in not only the water effects but the riders and the jet skis and the tracks reaches about 65-70 on a 100-point scale for Wave Rally, whereas it comes closer to 90+ for the others. Still, the weather effects are amazing, especially when you get the chance to race the same track in different conditions. Racing the same track at a different time of day also creates interesting variety. But, the bystanders to the race are like cardboard cutouts. You literally can ski through them in the Venetian level, and this kind of flat presence carries over to the track elements. Nothing has the right texture or weight to feel convincing.

The sound and music are excellent, and the stereo effects in particular were very well designed. There is one point in the Venice level where you pass a church and hear soft music that fades believably as you motor by, and it is so subtle that I actually thought it was just coming from another room in my house. Cheers and jeers from the crowd and other riders are interspersed, not overused, and the sound of the jet ski really takes the cake. The difference in the sound of your motor as you are submerged or exposed is noticeable, and the programming that went into adjusting the sound of a revving motor while in the water as opposed to in mid-jump was well executed. Eidos landed Kawasaki and Jet Pilot as licenses for the skis and clothing respectively, but the music comes from artists you probably haven't heard before now. It's good stuff, though, and there are plenty of music tracks.

Where Wave Rally shows many of the weaknesses its detractors will use to justify a purchase of one or both of the other titles available is in this category. I fail to understand how Eidos and the developer Opus, after many generations of racing titles on all platforms over the years, could fail to fix many of the obvious problems here. First, to paint a picture, you launch the Championship Mode and begin by choosing either the Stand Up or Runabout model jet ski. Runabout is the larger, sit-down style that Splashdown uses as its default and Stand Up is the smaller, one-person model. Two classes are available, and you have to open up the more difficult, advanced class by winning in AM (amateur) Class. Wave Rally comes with many riders preconfigured, including their attributes. It's possible to adjust attributes by robbing points from one area to add in another. But, for argument's sake, you pick a good overall rider with solid Handling, a strong Engine, good Grip and some capacity for Tricks. Before you start in, you can adjust the number of laps and the size of the waves, or choose the defaults and go to work.

Racing any one level is as you might expect, with the modification for water of checkpoints and course outlines. The course is marked by buoys red or yellow, and you'll have to steer left or right depending on how the buoy is marked, 'L' for left or 'R' for right. Miss a buoy and lose valuable time. Many times, you'll be able to grab a shortcut, and these may bypass buoys but still keep you on the correct side. So, the racing is great in each level, but if you fail to complete a level in the place you want, you have to start over from the beginning of the Championship! The first time I pressed 'OK' to do this, I thought I would just be restarting the race to try and improve my placement, but instead all my progress over 5 or 6 levels was erased. This is just dumb. Especially with the level of difficulty and catch-up enable for competing racers in 1-Player Mode, Championship can be frustrating to complete since you not only have to win consecutive races, but make sure that your last few races are near perfect so as to avoid slipping in the ranks. And, with the hardest tracks set last in the lineup, you'll work hard to reach the Pro Class. It's possible to race tracks you've opened up in Championship in Arcade, Time Trial or Freestyle Mode, but nothing like a Practice Mode exists, so the time you have to really suss out a track is limited. Freestyle is a 2-minute round where you have to pull as many tricks as possible and be rated. Tricks differ between the two jet ski models, and the Stand Up has more variety. Freestyle is a fun mode, and helps offset the limitations of Championship for folks who really enjoy playing Wave Rally like more of an eXtreme Sports game. Trick controls are anything but simple, though, which may sap the fun for younger players.

Wave Rally is almost impossible at times, and the learning curve is steep. Conditions in heavy storms become so terrible (albeit realistically) that familiar courses have to be learned all over again. Slipping down the side of a wave or smacking the face of one where you expected smooth water will be a new experience for those who haven't played this kind of game before. That's not the fault of the game, but AI balance is rather poor, for which we can only blame the developers. CPU racers seem perfectly capable of speeding by you in all conditions, and no matter how far you fall behind in a race, they seem never to be more than a second behind you. In 2-Player Mode, it's possible to handicap the lead rider, but nothing like this exists for 1-Player. Even this small addition might have tamed the CPU racers enough to open up Wave Rally to less experienced racers.

Game Mechanics:
Wave Rally claims the new 'GZ Wave' technology, which is a real-time wave generator that works with other 'GZ' tools to build the game's environments and presumably create wave effects on the fly. Riding across these waves definitely feels real, to the extent that moving through waves partially submerged and smacking off the surface of the water is perceptible through vibration feedback. There's a sense of 'give' in the water that is partially affected by some settings on your jet ski and further influenced by the surface you're riding on. Smooth water is easy to predict, and turning or jumping produces consistent results. But, when waves are rolling or water is disturbed, jumps often send you surging left or right upon landing, and trying to turn against a wave is accomplished with varying degrees of success. Just being able to jump off of waves can open up entire strategies for racing, but waves generated in real time aren't as predictable as set objects like logs or rocks or ramps. Similarly, trying to navigate in high storm conditions makes some tracks feel inordinately hard, as mentioned before. So, the wave technology is impressive, but does it influence controls to an extent that it goes too far toward sim? Well, you can make adjustments to the wave level in certain areas that help increase or decrease turbulence, so advanced racers can give themselves as much challenge as they want. Trick controls will take some time to master, since there isn't one consistent baseline for tricks, excepting maybe the (O) button that makes an appearance in several. Trick controls are less than intuitive, but performance is solid and the rider animations are a nice reward. Slowdown on tricks and jumps pops up in many areas of the game, and especially when conditions are poor, you'll notice the engine chugging away frequently. Several weak pieces of the game's engine take away the suspension of disbelief we all want, and no matter how great the wave engine may be at producing real-time water effects, if we can't buy into everything about the jet ski, its rider and the tracks we may not have time or motivation to 'ooh' and 'ah' over the waves.

Considering this one for purchase? There is almost no reason to choose Wave Rally over Splashdown for PS2 owners, and the decision between Splashdown and Blue Storm is pretty much a toss-up for folks with both Gamecube and PS2. What's interesting about Wave Rally that makes it worth a rental is possibly the experience of racing the Kawasaki license, for folks who already have some allegiance to that brand. There would be plenty to recommend Wave Rally if it were the only game in its class on the market, and I can tell work went into all aspects of the presentation and underlying development, but the resulting product falls at the bottom of the list for similar games on shelves right now based on poor gameplay design and failings in the engine. As a rental, just to have the experience, you can have fun with Wave Rally, but don't expect too much.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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