There’s something so thoroughly unnerving about the sea to me. It’s so vast, so untamed and so precarious. Whether it’s getting munched by a hungry shark, getting stung by a lethal jellyfish, colliding with a ruddy big iceberg or just plain sinking to the bottom for a good old fashioned drown, the seas and oceans fill me with an intense sense of dread. And yet there are those sorts of people who go into these places willingly. I’m not talking about fishermen or people who work on oil rigs; they’re going out there so they can earn a living. No, I’m talking about the questionable fools who voluntarily go into the precarious waters in the pursuit of fun. Yes, fun! No, I don’t get it either, although Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer does as good a job as any when it comes to helping me get my head around it all.
To listen to the titular surfer extraordinaire, surfing is seemingly as much about mental discovery as it is about riding big waves. The continual quest for “the perfect wave” is like some sort of spiritual pilgrimage that Slater feels compelled to perform as he visits the most inhospitable beaches and bays that one could find in order to tackle the waves that live there. Indeed, an FMV will play each occasion that you visit a level for the first time, where Slater himself will narrate the main characteristics of the wave he intends to ride. During these videos he openly admits to his fellow surfers getting killed by tumbling off their boards and colliding with coral or getting hospitalised from contracting exotic ailments, like malaria, whilst simply walking from one beach to another.
Slater delivers these horrifying tales with a calmness that suggests he has long since accepted that potential death could be waiting for him behind every wave, and he’s pretty much gone past the stage of caring. If a Great White bounces him off his board and then decides to chow down, then so be it, at least he got one more crack at tackling a wave before it happened. This sense of almost nonchalance to intense danger exudes throughout Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer, even down to the soundtrack, which features chilled electronic beats far more than the sort of high tempo ’60s rock music that one would associate with surfer culture. It’s a game that’s very much going for “zen” over “tubular”, almost in a direct attempt to separate itself from the other extreme sports games and their pumping indie soundtracks.
It’s perhaps unfair to compare Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer to the Tony Hawk and Matt Hoffman games from this era, even though certain elements of the gameplay share similarities. For instance, whilst in Tony Hawk you can grind down some railings into a bowl and then jump up into the air to perform a kick flip or nose grab, in Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer you can ride atop a wave before riding up the wave and jumping into the air to perform a kick flip or nose grab. Obviously, the mechanics themselves differ because you are surfing instead of skating/roller blading/biking/wakeboarding, but the end goal will ultimately be the same. You want to successfully perform tricks and chain as many of them together as you can to get as big a points total as possible, it’s just that how you get there is done differently.
For instance, where as in Tony Hawk you need to use things like manuals and revert to keep chains going, in Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer you ideally want to successfully perform tricks to build your special meter, at which stage your tricks will be automatically chained together, provided you move quick enough and don’t make any mistakes, such as landing a jump sloppily or falling off your board. By pressing down on the controller, you will slowly reverse into the tube of the wave itself, at which stage a balance mini-game will begin. You will need to keep the arrow in the middle of the meter for as long as you can whilst also performing the odd trick in the tube as well, before making a safe escape. One mistake, and all your precious points will be gone like a sandcastle on the beach once a wave crashes into it.
The gameplay itself is well imagined, and it’s a decent effort at recreating the sport in a video game context. Ultimately, it was never going to be easy to translate what surfing is into a game setting, but Treyarch (yes, THAT Treyarch) have had a darn fine attempt at it, and the game is fun to play, although it can be a tad frustrating, especially when the difference between a “perfect” landing and a “sloppy” landing can sometimes feel microscopic. You start off with three levels to surf on (one of which is the indoor “Wave House” in Asia), and eventually completing the challenges on those levels will allow you to unlock others.
These challenges can range from acquiring a certain number of points from doing a specific kind of trick to taking snazzy pictures of yourself performing big moves, to guessing the combination for a special move and performing it before the special bar depletes itself. The levels in the game range from Bilbao in Spain all the way down to the frozen waters of the Antarctic, with each course having its own waves in which for you to ride. Some of the stages do look very nice, with some of the levels taking place in beautiful tropical settings. Eventually, you will be able to unlock the “perfect wave” in the Cosmos level, which sees you, quite literally, surfing through space like Norrin Rad with the Earth below you.
This isn’t the only zany unlockable thing in the game either as a whole host of boards can be unlocked along with special characters, including none other than skateboarding megastar Tony Hawk. Ultimately, the gameplay isn’t as expansive or as fun as some of the other extreme sports games due to you having to remain on the wave to perform tricks, but Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer is still an excellent stab at bringing surfing to the home consoles, and it reviewed well at the time of its release. I’d be happy to recommend the game, especially as you can pick it up dirt cheap for all of the sixth gen consoles, so you’ll certainly get value for your money.
Surf’s up, dude!