For the gamers who have suffered through the severe “drought” of watercraft racers on the Xbox, Carve has come along to turn the “tide”. I’m sorry; I promise not to make any more water jokes. I wouldn’t want to “drown” you in my humor.
Gameplay - Carve is a game that draws bittersweet emotions. There will be times when you have a lot of fun, and there will be times when you wonder why you even bother. For everything in this game that is good, there is something bad to round it all back to “average”. For example: the action of the races is actually pretty fun, and even intense at times – but the moment you get caught in a wake, your craft slows momentarily, causing you to lose ground Seeing as you’ll spend a lot of early laps racing in packs – it’s easy to see how this gets frustrating. But let’s take this all one aspect at a time, shall we?
The game comes loaded with every mode you’d expect to see. You’ve got your pick of a quick race (luck of the draw on characters and courses – you’re just thrown right onto a start line), arcade mode (where you run single races), tournament mode (where you compete in four race circuits of increasing difficulty), time trial mode (where you race against… yourself), and a trick tutorial to help you start turning backflips from the get-go.
The meat of the game is, obviously, the tournament mode. Winning at each difficulty level unlocks new goodies that no gamer will want to be without – things like new tracks and cheats, including the ever-popular big head mode. You’ll pick your character at the start of each circuit based on his or her stats in areas such as speed, tricks, and ramming. In the end, however, these stats mean very little outside of speed – each character seems as capable of a trick as the next. It’s not much in the way of strategy, but this game has more of an arcade feel anyway. Your character will come with a teammate that really serves no purpose save to yell at you on a transmitter, only to tell you how much they love you if you lose. At first the tips are practical – like “do some tricks” – but if you already have been doing tricks, you start to wonder just what character your buddy is talking to.
And speaking of tricks, they actually add a unique element to the game that isn’t made completely inaccessible by 15-button combos. Instead, tricks can be executed merely by pressing an overly-simple pattern of action buttons (Seriously, XYXY is about as hard as tricks get). Successful execution of a trick (or combo) will reward you with an insane boost of speed. Or at least it LOOKS insane – I never really got much of a “boost” from it, because almost every other racer gets one at the same time. Combos, however, increase your boost and allow you to get an edge up on the competition.
Actual racing plays out just how you’d expect it to. You’ll be allotted a certain amount of time in which to finish each lap – which means you can’t afford to fall to far behind. Buoys placed along the course make sure that everybody is following the same path (depending on the color of the buoy, you are to go to either the right or left of it). You’re allowed to miss up to five buoys over the course of a race, but each one you miss curbs your timer by a few precious seconds – so it’s generally to your advantage to follow the course. There isn’t really anything to the way of powerups, or even shortcuts – you’ll have to rely solely on executing combos if you’re looking to finish first. In fact, you’ll HAVE to execute combos in tournament mode, as you’ll be given a certain trick total to meet over the course of a circuit, in addition to acceptable finishes in the races themselves.
The gameplay, despite its shortcomings, is actually quite fun, if for no more than a quick arcade fix. The controls are solid, and won’t have you all over the course trying to keep control – that’s what the waves are for, and though they are few and far between (the tracks don’t feature much open water, they’re mostly in canals and the like) they are impressive and will leave you cursing every time they steer you into a buoy or wall. Cursing – but not out of frustrated anger.
Graphics - Carve has the most impressive water I’ve seen in a while. Combine this with the aforementioned wave effects, and you’ll be thoroughly impressed. That being said, the game doesn’t offer much more to the side of details; there’s just enough to make the environments look believable – if a little unreal. You’ll see crates and such lining canals, and you’ll see boats off in the distance (which is certainly good), but there’s nothing groundbreaking.
And like other games before it, Carve includes that “feature” of water drops splashing onto the camera. Unfortunately, this “feature” loses it’s novelty after a few races and becomes downright annoying on smaller courses, where so much water is flying that your view will become distorted before you can say “goggles”. Wakes look good, the sky looks good, and lighting is well done. I appreciate the fact that the sun is never glaring right into your view, especially since that combined with the droplets on the lens would serve to render you blind quicker than you can say “tinted goggles”.
Sound - Hot damn – the soundtrack in this game is terrible. It also happens to be annoying. Terrible AND annoying. And I’m talking “Backstreet Boys” terrible, and “Hansen” annoying. The electro-techno-latin-A.D.D.-drum-beat selections they play during the race will have you pulling out your hair by the end of the first race you run. It’s monotonous, and it’s annoying. As if that isn’t bad enough, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it; the custom soundtrack feature isn’t enabled in this game.
That being said, I found the game more enjoyable on another special setting: mute. Most television sets come equipped with this feature, and you will certainly want to investigate it if you hope to retain any sanity after playing this game. The sound effects are so-so, anyway, and you can certainly survive without your teammate randomly quipping at you – so go mute, not crazy.
Bottom Line - It pains me to end the main review on such a harsh note – Carve is a great arcade watercraft racer if you put the terrible music aside. With solid control, cool looking water, and simple tricks, Carve offers something for just about everyone (especially those starved of watercraft racers on the Xbox). In fact, Carve hits store shelves not only as the first Xbox watercraft racer in seventeen years, it’s also the first to boast online play. You can compete in head-to-head and team races, which adds another element to the game that can make-or-break a purchase decision. Overall, Carve isn’t spectacular, and you’ll get through tournament mode before you know it, but it’s a lot of fun for a pick-up-and-play arcade fix. It’s definitely worth a rental to see if it’s for you.