Version tested: Xbox
Sitting down with Carve, it's hard not to recoil at the sheer naivety of it. It's a very pretty game, it's easy enough to pick up, and it has an extremely well implemented online mode, but it's going to sell about four and a half copies (this being the half), and given Take-Two's royalty-only deal with developer Argonaut, that's not going to carve the mustard. Which is a shame, really, because everybody ought to own one good jet-ski game, and Carve is highly polished and enjoyable and challenging enough to last you the best part of a weekend. At £15-20, surely that isn't a bad deal?
Where the buoys aren't
The problem is that we already do own a good jet-ski game. In fact, we own three. Wave Race on the N64 was the first, then there was Splashdown and Wave Race: Blue Storm on the current generation of consoles, and all three of those can be had for the same sort of money. Carve isn't really as good as them either. For a start, it's slower - presumably by choice, as it's no less difficult for it in places - but alternating between Blue Storm and this, it's still clear which we'd rather be playing, and it's the Cube flavour.
There are plenty of reasons for this. Although Carve is easy to pick up (right trigger to go, left to boost, face buttons/directional movements to do tricks), instead of using the Wave Race system of rounding four consecutive buoys to fill your boost meter, here you have to concentrate on building it up through pursuit of tricks - and as you can trick whether you're coming off jumps or out in the open, and combo them up to boot, it quickly becomes tiresome work.
Which is okay at first, because on Rookie mode you're still outpacing the whole of the rest of the field, tricks or no. Move beyond the initial offering though and you start to realise how elastic the AI is, and how the AI players are able to manoeuvre into position so their craft's wake disrupts your progress and causes a lot of misery. They also seem to be able to get away with missing more buoys than you. Maybe that's just us being paranoid, but we've definitely lost races because we were sticking to task on a specific 'corner' to avoid disqualification, and the opposition clearly wasn't.
Where tricks are for kids
So in order to stay in front you rely on tricks, which - after a few hours - becomes a chore. It's not that the trick system is bad. It's a bit unforgiving at first (penalising you because you have to release tricks a split-second before you land, and not as you land), but the trick tutorial is very nicely done and ought to be a lesson to other similar titles (every extreme sports game ever, for example), so you get the hang of it fine. It's just that you have to keep on doing them over and over and coming up with more and more complex combos in order to keep gaining the same amount of boost pay-off, and it's tedious to have to do constantly.
You also have this tendency to stop dead whenever you hit something, which happens quite a lot because you're always wrestling the pad into and out of some clever trick - and the AI always seems to delight in speeding past you, notwithstanding the fact that you just came off the back of a massive speed boost, which ought to have put ninety percent of the Atlantic ocean between you and your pursuers.
Another issue is the screen furniture, the most niggling parts of which don't seem to be optional. You can turn on and off the course map and in-game tips, but the "buoy lock-on", which aims to point you in the direction of the next buoy, actually obscures vital bits of the screen from time to time, scuppering you just as much as it keeps you pointing in the right direction. At the risk of demanding the same thing all over again, Wave Race's system of arrows on the buoys themselves worked better - at least then you couldn't be forgiven for glancing at a buoy and going round it the wrong way, because colour blindness or not you'd still have a whopping great arrow in your way.
Still, it would be harsh to go through the entire review without singing Carve's praises a little. It may be pretty generic and unsurprising to play, but it looks lovely, and the online modes are quite enjoyable. We've seen the graphics described as average, but that's simply not true - the game focuses on what happens above the surface of the water rather than dabbling in the shoreline etc as Wave Race did, but coupled with the power of the hardware this means we're treated to some lovely splash and wave effects, water on the camera, storms and swells and a beautiful range of reflective effects that generally top NST's efforts on the Cube.
It handles largely as you'd expect, too, nailing the weight of the jet-ski, and allows you to hop back on after a fall with a delay seemingly relative to the ferocity of the tumble. If it wasn't for the suspect AI racers, it would feel fair. Even so, that isn't so much of a problem online anyway. The Live implementation is well done here, with a nice teamplay options to split the points between winning racers (a good idea if you have four players in a game and two are clearly that much better than the others, which is very likely), proper Friends list management and the like. There weren't that many people playing when we went on, but when you do get a game going it runs very nicely with no appreciable lag or drop in detail, even with the maximum of eight players pootling around a track.
Buoy oh buoy
Annoyingly though, you're once again asked to pull countless tricks out of the bag to succeed, and most players we encountered clearly had a far better idea of what they were doing. Playing Wave Race again earlier today, we just had more fun. Both games can be tough, and both games have their flaws, but we prefer the Wave Race formula to the alternative crafted by Argonaut, and given that we might just as well be talking about the N64 vintage, it's clear Carve ought to be doing a little more. What that little more should actually be is hard to say, but hey, we did say it was an odd game to show the green light to, especially in such a consistently low selling sub-genre. Pick it up if you've never played a jet-ski game and have nothing else in your sights at the moment. Otherwise, dig out Wave Race to scratch that bobbing itch, then get back to allocating your paycheque to new stuff...
6 / 10