Where's Keanu Reeves?
Surfing doesn't have a history of videogame success stories. In fact, the last time I remember playing a decent game with surfing in it was good ol' T&C for the NES (8 bit baby, yeah). However, with the success of "extreme sports" games becoming more common, it was only a matter of time before the waves of surfing games arrived. Hehe.
So far, the set of surfing video games is pretty shallow. Surfing H30 and Surf Riders haven't made a big splash. Championship Surfer, developed by Krome Studios, has attempted to improve on all the areas that caused the last games to be less than stellar. Did they succeed? Yes and no.
Championship Surfer has a lot of good things going for it: a good wave engine (with some decent, but not amazing wave graphics), a wide range of tricks, 7 play modes, 8 surfers (each with their own set of boards), and enough variables to keep most math majors grinning for hours. However, it's just not very fun unless you're a hardcore surfer.
The game is hard. It's hard to control the board, hard to do tricks, and hard to stay up for more than 6 seconds at a time. This difficulty doesn't come from bad design or sloppy programming, it comes from all the intricacies that make surfing a hard sport and an even harder game.
Take the surfers, for example: there are 8 to choose from and each has stats in areas like height, weight, flexibility, and strength. Now couple those statistics with a choice of boards, which have stats in areas like length, weight, response, shape, fin size/shape, and acceleration. Had enough? CS doesn't think so.
The choice of board and surfer must best fit the individual breaks found at thedifferent beaches you surf. Krome Studios gets props for being so thorough, but for those who don't surf in real life, trying to figure it all out is a little frustrating.
Thankfully there are some easy parts to the game - like standing up on the board - and that's what will make players keep trying. Most gamers should be able to stand up on the first try, though that's about all manage. Once up, controlling the board is difficult. The speed of the board, the speed of the break, the face of the wave and your angle on the wave all effect your ride.
Part of this challenge is due to the wave physics themselves. Your location on the wave has a noticeable effect on how your board will handle and what tricks you can do. Try a 360 turn too close to the break of the wave and you'll likely get too much momentum and fall down. Try the same move far away from the break and you wont have enough momentum and you'll fall down. You'll fall down a lot.
I don't want to give the impression that new players will spend the entire time wiping out. Even new players will be able to pull off a trick or three on each wave, though they just won't know exactly how they did it. While the beginning is frustrating, most players should be able to consistently perform most of the tricks without much trouble after a few hours.
There are seven different game modes, but most players will probably only use 3 or 4. Championship mode lets you compete against the other surfers to advance in the surfing circuit by scoring points with tricks. Arcade makes you surf a wave that inconveniently has floating mines, boxes, and scuba divers as obstacles. Then there's Rumble, where you can go up against 3 other players on a wave and try to knock them off with various weapons.
There are four other modes - King of Waves, Time Attack, Trick Attack, and Free Surf - but most of these are throwaways. Time Attack is only accessible after doing a REALLY good job in Trick Attack. King of Waves allows you to compete against up to 7 of your friends (one at a time) in a championship style competition.
Championship Surfer parallels the recent ESPN X-Games Winter Snowboarding for the PS2 in its emphasis on realism over playability. It might feel like surfing, but it doesn't feel that great as a game. Both of these games could learn a lesson from Tony Hawk.
There's nothing brutally wrong with Championship Surfer, but there isn't really enough to keep the non-surfer interested. It's just wave after wave after wave. People who actually surf will probably enjoy playing as one of their favorite surfers and pulling off cool tricks when they can't get out to the ocean for real. Gamers with something to prove will probably enjoy learning ALL the intricacies of the surfers, boards, and beaches to become truly radical. For the rest of us, however, CS doesn't offer much more than a couple days of wacky surfing fun before its novelty wears off.