In an industry flooded with first-person shooters, annual football installments, and battle royale games, it’s nice to get away from the mainstream and into some unexplored waters. We’ve seen our fair share of racing sims and skateboarding titles but the free form spirit of surfing has hardly been touched by the hands of video game developers. Climax Studios aimed to change that with their addition of Surf World Series in August. Created on Unreal Engine 4, SWS invites players to five different locales across the globe to attack the big blue in competition to be the best wave shredder this world has ever seen. Featuring six playable characters and rich customization to personalize each one, players can take their styles and skills online for up to 15 opponents to relish in all their glory.
SWS is an ambitious attempt to take the freedom of surfing and deliver it to the many who may never get to try it for real, yet it falls short in some aspects as both a surfing and a gaming experience.
Pretty on the Surface
The main menu and UI deliver a very appealing sunset coupled with a minimalistic design. Players can free surf, edit their surfer or hop online immediately for some head-to-head thrashing with just a couple taps of the R1 button. The customization tools are surprisingly in depth, and the character portraits breathe a bit of life into the models standing next to them. Surf School, SWS’s tutorial, started up by default to get me into the groove of things. I began in an artificial wave pool, but after floundering through the tutorial I arrived at the sunny shores of Peniche, Portugal for my first event. The tide bobbed my character up and down as upbeat indie rock jammed from the soundtrack. Large swells rippled forth with a shimmering crowns, crashing somewhere far behind me as I went to select my first real wave.
Before I get into the deep end I want to point out that while the menu, water and lighting effects were amongst the highlights of the SWS look, the character models and animation were lacking. Almost as soon as I began paddling in Surf School I noticed the low quality of both. They felt like perhaps someone had imported last generation meshes and animations as placeholders for the game, and then left them in because of time constraints. With each attempt to conquer a wave I felt as if I were playing the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater in a 2017 surfing remake. Moreover, the gameplay really sold me on this nostalgic feeling, but for all the wrong reasons.
Wiping Out is the Norm
As I cringed at the major drawbacks that visually plagued my screen in Surf School my instructions popped up to get my feet wet, figuratively speaking. Paddling and starting a wave was as easy as it got, because at each stage I progressively got worse at surfing. The controls are not as intuitive or responsive as they could be. I became very used to wiping out because I struggled to even ride a wave correctly, and wiping out means starting all over again. Then came jumps, floaters, and advanced tricks, and SWS just loves tossing you in with the sharks on these lessons. After about 45 minutes of an incredible amount of focus I graduated from Surf School with bottom barrel marks. I went to my first event with low hopes of enjoying my competitive career.
Perhaps I missed this part of Surf School while I was practicing my ragdolls but when you first begin to paddle, you can choose which size wave to attempt on your next run, denoted by icons that roll in with them. Bigger waves means more speed and a more difficult run, but a potentially higher score. Speed is important because as you perform a handful of grabs and spins a multiplier starts up and begins to trickle down. Repeat the same trick or run out of time and the multiplier stops. At first I was terrible at varying my tricks and keeping my speed up, so my multiplier was always at x1 or x2. After an hour or so, I was finally getting the hang of the controls and I was doing marginally better than before. To attempt an advanced trick I had to plug in a three button combination to prepare for my next jump. This was mostly a toss up of whether I timed it correctly with enough speed, or failed either portion of the recipe and gargled salt water for the thousandth time. In all honesty the overdramatic ragdolls entertained me much more than the gameplay did, so at the very least I got a few laughs.
Paddle. Rinse. Repeat.
There are only three options for playing SWS aside from the tutorial: Free Surf, Events, and Online. Free Surf lets you practice and surf to your heart’s content with no limit and Events serves as a sort of campaign. But there really is no campaign. SWS offers no narrative, no text to give direction or reason as to why you should do well in these events, and no description or purpose to change your surfer to Emilio, or Kimiko, or anyone for that matter because they all surf the same. Instead players are given a laundry list of events and objectives to beat, then expected to do them with the only reward being more customization, which is quite possibly the one feature that received the most attention from the developers. I won’t go into detail, but it is way too in depth to be of any real use or merit to the game.
I decided to slug through about a dozen events before tossing in the towel on campaign, particularly because all the events are nearly identical. With names like Big Battle and Wipeout, it may seem like these events are fun and unique, but they all boil down to the same idea: score big and try not to fall. Climax Studios seems to have forgotten that a game needs to be fun in order for people to play it. After about two hours of SWS I began to feel taxed on this whole surfing career pipe dream of mine, and decided to see what online was like. I jumped into a public match and began participating in a Big Battle event, one of the three events available for online play (there are about 5 total events in the game). There was no control to show a leaderboard, so I had no idea just how many players I was up against, but at the end I was given an answer: one. At first I thought I had hopped into an empty server, so I stuck around to see if anyone else might join the fray. After a couple of rounds, I noticed that not only was this person the only other player I would encounter, he was also idle the entire time. I left and joined another match, which was empty, and then joined another in which the only other player completely demolished me in the two events we played. Suffice to say, I have a firm belief that either everyone is still droning through the events list or SWS has no online community.
Hanging up my Wetsuit
Unlike Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater , which had a load of fun things to do that weren’t entirely skateboard related, SWS focused on the simple events and didn’t branch out enough to fill certain voids. A few minigames or events with a lighthearted spin would have gone nautical miles further than anything the core game could provide to players. SWS just doesn’t have the replay value to be anything more than this summer’s flop and I would not recommend it simply because it left me feeling frustrated by its hollow gameplay / deep customization formula. SWS is a flashy attempt to box a free spirited water sport into an arcadey 2000’s release and sell it as “enjoyable”. The cheery summer music gets old after an hour and you’ll get tired of wiping out to restart your run quicker than the waves can crash on to you. Perhaps one day a true surfing game will emerge that will change the way we view and grade other surfing game, much like the Skate franchise did for skateboading, but until that day arrives please stay out of these waters.
Do you think Surf World Series was a huge splash, or did your experience sink to the bottom? Let us hear your thoughts and check out some of our other great reviews!