Just when you think it's safe to throw yourself willingly back into the arms of videogame developers passionately motivated to accomplish little more than narrative and gameplay excellence - we're talking BioShock and 2K Games here - along comes yet another licensed movie adaptation as a stark reminder that, these days, excellence is so often the exception and not the rule.
Nevertheless, this reviewer couldn't help but think, while pulling off the polythene wrapping of Surf's Up and cracking open the game's case: "Maybe this one will actually be surprisingly good. Maybe." Yet, having already tackled Shrek the Third, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End this summer such an outlook regarding Hollywood-inspired videogames is surely just a prime example of blind gullibility and a naïve wish to witness the impossible.
For all that pent up negativity, Surf's Up is not a game for the majority, it's a game clearly developed for, and aimed at, the younger gaming demographic - perhaps those who won't so critically assess and criticise its middle-of-the-road laziness. Sadly for Ubisoft Montreal however, Surf's Up falls into the lap of a 30-something reviewer who just so happens to think that gamers below the age of 10 deserve to be treated no differently than those of us that fall within gaming's 'sweet spot' age group.
Fundamentally, Surf's Up is far from broken and moves through the scripted points of videogame execution with a paint-by-numbers predictability, yet with Ubisoft Monteal at the helm (Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Assassin's Creed) the lack of quality is all the more magnified.
In Surf's Up, players immerse themselves into the story of Cody Maverick, a young surfing penguin who wants nothing more than to escape his uninspired Antarctic life in Shiverpool and find fame and fortune in the tropical climes and clear surf of Pen Gu Island. From the get-go, the player is given the opportunity to hit the seafaring tournaments as Cody himself, or as other members of the film's cast such as Lani, Chicken Joe, and Rory Nubbins.
Other penguin characters can also be accessed as the game progresses with the likes of Arnold, Tank, Geek, and Big Z all making unlockable appearances. Naturally, all playable characters offer up unique strengths and weaknesses, which can be adjusted through the attainment of various specialist surfboards.
To say the game follows the movie's plot in a vague fashion would be a gross overstatement. In truth, without first knowing the Hollywood plot or having actually seen the Sony Animated Pictures feature, Surf's Up the videogame only offers banal ESPN-style preambles prior to each of its regional surfing tournaments and is generally little more than a simple surf-based game that includes shoehorned movie characters.
The game's core mechanic is, of course, the trick-filled surfing action, and with little else to pad out its obvious deficiencies, Surf's Up and its gameplay promptly fall flat before the end of the opening competition in Shiverpool. Basic doesn't even begin to describe the mandatory gate navigation and execution of tricks as players attack successive waves, grab some big air, spin and somersault, ride rolling tubes, achieve speed boosts, grind along icebergs, smash through obstacles, and collect scattered items that grant access to new levels. It's all reliably shallow single-button simplicity that doesn't even require nimble-fingered combinations to pull off super moves that at least make the player feel as though they're earning their progression.
Graphically speaking, it's difficult for Surf's Up to push any specific boundaries, not least because its levels are largely presented and delivered through a near-identical formula: travelling into the screen while whipping your chosen character and board into the onrushing waves and amassing trick points along the way. There are only so many sweeping backgrounds and secondary interactive objects that can be worked in around that kind of repetitious gameplay. While the lack of original creativity can perhaps be forgiven under the circumstances, the water effects in Surf's Up really aren't what they should be given that they're the single most constant visual element throughout the game. In terms of achievement (or lack thereof) all the aesthetic touches and atmospheric effects - just like the game on the whole - adequately cover the basics, which is pretty disappointing based on the power and potential of the Xbox 360, not to mention the reputation of Ubisoft.
The overall presentation and gameplay may not be particularly memorable, but the cartoon characterisations borrowed from the source material are certainly appealing in a safe, sterile, and kid-friendly non-offensive kind of way. Yet, any opportunity the game offers players to become attached to its wide-ranging and likeable cast is abruptly undermined by its shocking lack of longevity. Indeed, at least most Hollywood tie-ins try to justify their full-price label with a healthy chunk of game time, but not Surf's Up. Perhaps Ubisoft simply ran out of ideas with a concept that offers so little scope, but even a novice gamer will be able to put pay to Surf's Up in the best part of three or four hours. Slapping on a banal jungle-based 'leaf sliding' mini-game and a multiplayer mode in no way excuses the shameless single-player brevity in Surf's Up.
Ultimately, while the likes of The Darkness and BioShock have hit the Xbox 360 this summer and brought huge helpings of double-digit gameplay hours with them (not to mention tremendous standout gameplay), time and time again licensed Hollywood mediocrity has sullied their efforts to evolve the gaming industry. Consider this reviewer's naïve attitude and eternally hopeful gullibility well and truly slaughtered and replaced by a seething and consuming hatred of anything that gets unceremoniously squeezed out of Hollywood's all-profit-no-quality bunghole.
A note to the editor: Please, no more. 54%