I grew up playing the Tony Hawk ‘s Pro Skater series, with its fantastic mix of arcade gameplay and rad soundtrack, just like many other children of the 90s/00s. When we first got a glimpse of Wave Break, an exclusive title timed “First on Stadia” that takes the familiar skateboarding genre and adds guns, “cute” animals and a heaping aid of 80s retro aesthetics, I was sold. Yet does it live up to the hype?
The skateboarding games genre has started something of a revival in the last year, with a re-release of the first two Tony Hawk titles coming in September, as well as finally creating the long-awaited Skate 4. Obviously, the time is right for a return to the starkly nostalgic gameplay, and if you excuse the pun, Wave Break will be riding the wave.
At first, Wave Break seems like the Pro Skater of Tony Hawk, with a control scheme that should feel all too familiar, A to jump, Y to grind, X to flip, B to catch, and so on. However, once you hit the water, a new dynamic comes into play, as the ocean will splash, ripple, and wave, which is completely different from the hard concrete with which most skating fans are familiar.
I noticed that the physics of the game in general, and the water dynamics in general, took a few hours to adjust to it. Even then, the controls and physics never feel as clean and tight as you would have expected, leaning more towards clumsy than accurate.
I made the mistake of spending my first few hours playing Wave Break campaign mode, eager to understand the game world and its premise. In the campaign, you are playing a (usually) cute teddy bear by Big Pin ‘s name, working through a checklist of tasks that need to be completed at a particular location.
These tasks include skating classics such as collecting all of the “COMBO” letters in one move combo, as well as proper story missions that feel like Miami Vice mini episodes. For one unforgettable example, a stolen baggie of your “product” labeled “flour” is recovered to be returned to your “clients” who are partying around a rooftop pool.
Until you get a firm handle on the physics of Wave Break, build up your muscle memory and upgrade your character, though, all of these missions are absolutely brutal, owing to the ever-present two-minute timer of the campaign and the less than clean level design of the game. While enforcing a timer was a staple of skating games for a long time, it feels frustrating in 2020 and is exacerbated by the lack of an option for quick restart.
Instead, you can choose to end a run early, after which the game processes the objectives that you have or have probably not finished, and finally allows you to reload the level. This extended loop of repetitive attempts and failures to complete the tasks of a level, only then to wait for the level to load again, gradually became my greatest source of frustration with Wave Break.
As much as I wanted to experience more of the story-oriented campaign missions — which, sadly, don’t seem to offer a way to replay them — I found that Wave Break ‘s real magic is in the other modes of play. Free Play and Time Attack helps you to spend a longer time getting to know each of the four levels and mastering the art of string tricks to rack up an extremely high score together.
Of course, there is one more thing about Wave Break that I have purposely avoided mentioning so far and that is the guns.
The Miami Vice fantasy would undoubtedly be incomplete without the ability to fire guns frivolously on other animals and boats, but at the same time the guns simply feel tackled on — in most ways anyway. You will never need to use your gun in the single-player game and in multiplayer Time Attack it feels utterly bizarre to be able to aim and kill your fellow skater literally to smash their combos.
However, the Deathmatch mode of Wave Break is a oddly fun, hybrid, arcade-style game where skating takes the backseat while unleashing a hail of bullets on your opponents, gathering money, getting better guns and repeating the process. The experience, admittedly, is not for everyone.
Throughout the game, the original soundtrack of Wave Split, full of stellar retrowave songs, manages both to cement the 80s / Miami Vice vibe and to pull you into a zen state that is ideal for pestering combos. Coinciding with the release of Wave Break, music streaming services also feature part of the soundtrack, and tracks like “Wake up! “It’s really worth listening.
I’ve developed what feels like a love-hate relationship with Wave Break over the last week. I love a fun, imaginative new take on the skateboarding genre for what it promises. A brutal and sometimes clumsy imitation of a game once loved by millions, I hate it for what it is.
All said and done though, Wave Break is a difficult game to put down, angry as it can be, because it’s just plain fun at its heart. I can very easily see myself returning to Wave Break from time to time, even if hanging out in free play mode with some retrowave jams for just a few minutes.
Wave Break is now available in the Google Stadia store as an exclusive timed “First on Stadia” at a somewhat steep $29.99 price.