Welcome to the exciting sport of jet ski racing, where you can take the helm of a watercraft and ride the waves on your way to a quick and speedy win. Wave Rally, following the recent trend of water sports games, tries to present smooth and realistic water effects, while also providing a thrilling race and freestyle experience. A no-nonsense, stylish title, Wave Rally doesn't have a lot of the flashier effects like other sports titles, and tends to err on the conservative side when it comes to in-game craziness. You won't find any campy storyline, strange jet ski and runabout paint jobs, or bizarre riders to deal with. What you will get is a game that, while a bit unrealistic, still tries to give you an experience that focuses on gameplay, and not the gimmicks that other titles rely on.
Eidos has chosen the right development team in Opus Corp, a team that built this game from the ground up to feature-detailed, realistic wave effects. Touting the wave engine as one of their prime features, it's questionable whether or not it makes the game any better to play, but it most certainly makes it much nicer to look at. The wave engine itself is called "GZWave," and definitely promises to deliver the best water effects you've ever seen on the PS2.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
To begin, the way this game handles is nothing short of...unusual. Wave Rally features a wave motion component in its 3D engine, so the first thing you should notice is how bouncy the ride is. Your watercraft will bounce and skip through the waves, each of which affects your overall control. I was both impressed and dismayed by this feeling. It's incredibly fascinating to see what they can do with wave effects on a PS2, and see how they can affect every little way the jet ski moves, realistically modeling the way a real jet ski would jump because of it. At the same time, it also makes the game somewhat difficult to play, in that the waves can cause you to gain or lose acceleration, speed, and turning ability all at the same time. If you don't practice the courses at all, you're unlikely to be able to handle this effect for very long.
The controls themselves are rudimentary, with the analog stick controlling the steering, and the X button controlling the accelerator. That's it. There are buttons for jumping and quick turns, but they're really unnecessary in most circumstances. When you start performing stunts, you'll need to use more of the buttons, but for the most part, the analog stick and X button are all you need to know. Hold down the accelerator, and buzz through the courses, as the majority of this game's learning curve requires detailed knowledge about the courses, as well as any shortcuts they may have. You'll need to pass buoys as you race, passing the buoy on one side, depending on the colored arrows that mark it. Miss a buoy, and you'll get docked points for missing the objective.
Tricking is also an important part of the game, although by the design of the trick controls, you wouldn't think it. First, you'll usually need to go off a jump to trick. Second, you'll usually need to use a combination of at least three buttons, combined with movement on the analog stick. Pull it off wrong, and you usually crash. Stick it, and you'll land with appropriate praise from the audience. The kinds of tricks you can pull off vary depending on what watercraft you choose, and you can pull off stuff like a Superman, Barrel Roll, Back Flip, or Handstand. This tricking system is perhaps one of the most cumbersome I've ever played. It responds slowly, takes a lot of effort, timing, and coordination to pull off, and most of the tricks you pull will ultimately result in a crash. After repeated attempts, I still can't get a barrel roll off because my rider always slows down during the flip, resulting in a head first water landing. The only trick I really enjoyed performing was the submarine, because you just need to press forward, and let your speed carry you underwater a short distance until you crest the water.
There's eight different riders, five of which you get to play with initially, each with a different focus. There are four different attributes they're rated in: handling, engine, grip, and tricks, each of which can improve the longer you use that rider. The rider choices, in my opinion, are fairly useless, as you can customize your watercraft, and then play with those attributes as much as you'd like, decreasing one to increase another. That pretty much makes each rider just as skilled as any other. According to the manual, the rider you choose determines the maximum and minimum values you can assign to those attributes, but that's a minimal concern for the degree of change each point in an attribute gives you. As Kawasaki is one of the game sponsors, you've got all of two different craft to race with, both of which are Kawasaki vehicles. The jet ski gives you a slower top speed, but increased trick potential and maneuverability, or you can use the runabout, which has a higher top speed but lacks the same agility as the jet ski.
Wave Rally offers four different gameplay modes, not including the multiplayer features. Arcade and Championship mode pit you against other racers in an attempt to come in first over a series of courses. They're exactly the same, save for the Championship mode giving you more courses to play through, six in all. The Time Trial lets you race alone on a single course, trying to beat your previous times quickly enough to set a new record, and the Freestyle mode lets you compete against yourself, trying to pull off tricks within a period of two minutes, while you're judged on five different competencies of performance.
Controlling one of these watercraft is difficult to get the hang of, and thanks to the strange combination of wave effects and AI, you'll probably get very frustrated trying to get past each race in order to qualify for the next stage. When I started, it was only with great effort and practice that I was able to get past the first stage, so much so that I had to occasionally switch to the freestyle mode to alleviate my frustration. You can modify the wave types and race lengths, but the wave settings won't help you win the races any easier, and the game is set default to three laps, so you needn't worry about that setting.
Even with the skill that Opus Corp has obviously demonstrated with the GZWave technology and jet ski gameplay, there's a lot left to be desired. If you miss a buoy, you slow down, and must accelerate again. If you pull back on your stick just a little, you slow down, stop, and tilt back in the water. If you push forward, you nose into the water and slow down. Finally, if you hit a large bump, go over a jump, or something similar, the impact of your jump is enough to stop your vehicle in its tracks. Something makes me think they didn't refine the momentum physics all that well. Lastly, while the collision detection works pretty well, the courses are cluttered with so many small objects that you'll be hard pressed to avoid at least a few collisions. There's also a pro mode, once you've unlocked amateur mode in arcade, but I doubt anyone would want to suffer through this experience that long.
Wave Rally offers a two player, head-to-head experience, which can only be played via split screen. This is just a two player race, and the only significant feature of it is that it can let you handicap yourself or your opponent.
Although water sports aren't my cup of tea, I was really impressed at how nice Wave Rally looked. The riders are clear and distinct, riding on fully detailed runabouts and jet skis that lack only a visible form of propulsion. You've got a wide berth of water to move through on each course, and there are always a few added attractions to distract you, like the yacht in the very first stage of the game. The scaling seems appropriate, and all of the objects are well done, with the exception of the audience in the stands of the freestyle mode, who look like nothing more than the traditional blobs of human colored goo. Most significantly, while managing the players and background, the Wave Rally pushes the power of the PS2 far enough to handle water effects correctly, with nice round waves and crisp spray off the back of your jet ski. There's occasionally a bit of lag, and the submarine stunt has a pretty pathetic look when you're submerging and popping out of the water, but that doesn't stop this game from being quite the looker.
Audio effects probably weren't high on the list for development of this game, as the soundtrack is pretty bland, using generic, high tempo background music. The sound work is decent for the sounds of lapping water and jet ski engines, but there's nothing noteworthy in the entire package.
Wave Rally had some aspects that could've made it an incredible contender. The GZWave technology is really solid, and it manages to provide excellent water effects on the power of the PS2, and shows a relative lack of flaws. A good selection of riders, even if their stats don't mean anything and they can't race more than two watercraft, and courses that are attractive and pleasing to the eye could've made it a really good title. Even with all of its strengths, I still don't feel right calling this an enjoyable title, as it just feels like the same hacked out stuff that we've seen before. Lack of player choices and absurd overall difficulty don't serve well for impressing a player. It could've risen to the challenge, but instead, let its flaws pull it down into mediocrity.