Summer is approaching and that means one thing: fun in the sun. Since we can't all make it down to the lake, we give Carve a run to see if it can manage to fill the gap.
As the old saying goes, you can't judge a game by its box art, or something like that. But sometimes, you really can. Take Carve, for example: the bland colours, lacklustre, generic logo and trying-too-hard-to-be-cool character designs assemble to form an appearance that runs up to the top of a very small building and screams to the skies, "I'm mediocre, dammit!" But does this necessarily mean the game can't be any fun at all?
Designed at UK-based Argonaut, Carve has pretty much been relegated to sub-radar regions of the hype-o-meter for most of its development cycle. Despite the fact that extreme sports games are all the rage with kids these days, there's something about jet skiing that kind of deflates the whole premise. Sure, games like Wave Race and Splashdown have been good, some might even say great, but they have also largely served as tech demos with added gameplay allowing everyone to ooh and aah at the pretty water effects. Water in games is like cleavage in the real world: if you're a man (or a woman) and there's some anywhere within eyeshot, you have to look. It's a simple biological fact.
So, how does the water look in Carve? In a word: blah. The entire surface has an oilslick sheen to it, so much so that I was a little surprised to not see Greenpeace dinghies bobbing along in the background in protest. It seems that Argonaut was going for that mirror-like effect you often see on calm, tranquil lakes, since you can see partial reflections of the riders, their watercraft and the environs. There's a logical problem with this, however. If you're screaming along in a high-horse power aquatic machine, there's not going to be too much of that smooth, glassy water around.
The water behaves so-so, impeding and guiding you where it should, but there are some bizarre instances of chicanery that would make Dr Hawking's voice synthesiser squawk in disgust. In several levels there are spots where the water is actually at an angle. Now, my knowledge of hydrodynamics and physics might be a little rusty, but that's just ridiculous. This is presumably meant to be a replacement for the actual ebbing and flowing of swells, but the end result is the shattering of your suspension of disbelief. Another watery blotch on the game's presentation is the constant - and constantly annoying - water spray on the camera. Yes, it looks nice in the beginning, and yes it's realistic, but do we really have to be inconvenienced by this all the time?
Handling of your watercraft is reasonable enough, and if you've never played one of the more seminal titles in the genre you'll be fine. There's a good sense of weight to the vehicles and it takes a bit of muscle to manoeuvre them, just as you'd expect. Of course, this being an extreme sport game, a simple recreation just won't do, so Argonaut has introduced a boost option, which they've dubbed Rushing. Landing tricks off one of the myriad ramps that litter the courses sees you hurtling forward in a Rush for a few seconds. Various boost levels lasting successively longer can be earned, depending on the final tally of your trick combo. During a boost you won't be able to pull off any tricks, however, so no continuous rushing for you. You can however build up a Double Rush meter by pulling off consecutive boosts, Once the meter is full the awe-inspiring, Knight Rider-like turbo boost is at your left trigger-finger's command.
Using your turbo boost is all about strategy, so you'll have to study the courses on offer to make sure you use it at the optimal time. The track design is varied, though the colour palette used makes everything look a little bland. There are plenty of short cuts for pioneers, usually coming at the expense of a missed buoy and the subsequent time penalty, but there's usually a sweet jump that route anyway, so you'll make up the time quickly. There are two types of buoys in Carve, red and yellow, which indicate on which side you should pass by. Each rider has a specified number of buoys they're allowed to miss and exceeding this results in instant disqualification from the race.
The staid nature of the tracks is made up for by their sheer volume. The game is broken down into five main regions, each of which is comprised of various routes through the course, much like driving games that funnel you down different streets of the same general area to increase the variety. Although the most incongruous and inhospitable of the bunch, the Arctic zone is my favourite, with its ice floes, ice obstacles and ice-flavoured jumps. The game offers up dynamic backgrounds in its locations too, although it's largely superfluous, since you're not going to notice that bypassing train as you gun down the canals of a European burg.
Carve is not the easiest game out there. It all starts out manageably enough, but after the first two tournaments the learning curve pulls up rather hard, leaving you wondering why you suck so badly all of a sudden. And forget about rubber-banding saving you. Once the front runners pull away, you're going to really have to dig in to catch up. Since there's not all that much depth on offer, the increased difficulty will serve to lengthen the game's lifespan, not that you'll be all that motivated to carry on, mind you.
The game isn't all about you, though. Each of the racers is a member of a two-person team, and there's a reasonable amount of teamwork available. For instance, choosing a team with good ramming skills means that your teammate might bash opponents out the way as you storm the finish line. The effect is unfortunately rather subtle, to the point of being worthless in single player mode.
Proudly touted on the cover is the inclusion of full Xbox Live support. Theoretically, this is a good thing. There are all manner of tournaments to take part in on any of the courses, with a world ranking system rounding out the package. The problem is that there are hardly any people playing this game online. My numerous attempts to play on Live were met mostly with disappointment as long stretches of time passed with nary a challenger in sight. The rankings list over 500 players from around the world playing in the last two months, so clearly there are people playing, but be warned that you will find it a little lonely out there at times.
I've gone this far without mentioning one important redeeming feature of the game: the price. Now that the Xbox has secured itself a reasonably firm foothold, publishers are seeing fit to release budget titles for gamers on a strict financial regimen or those just looking for something different. While Carve is most certainly bland and flawed in places, a lot of this could be overlooked when taking the price into consideration. If the game was receiving better support online from gamers, I would have little reservation prompting you to at least give it a rent, but as it stands, there's very little here that hasn't been done before, and much better, by other games.
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In game direct feed footage [320x240, 1132kbps]