Sometimes it can be hard to say what makes an action game good. One concept that has recently come under scrutiny for its possible application in the field of action-based videogames is that of 'flow'. Flow is a term describing one's state of heightened awareness and abilities while engaged in an activity, to the point where time appears to dilate. This idea has been explored in the context of both athletics and music, and it seems logical that it would apply to games. Most game players are aware of this state, which is sometimes referred to as 'being in the zone'. Time varies in either direction, with the player experiencing the game at a 'slower' pace, and feeling like they have played only for a couple minutes when in reality, hours have passed. Flow is a crucial element of enjoying a good action game. And does anything say 'action' better than 'extreme sports'?
As the stable of extreme sports becomes larger and more popular, it seems natural that videogames would follow suit. Indeed, each year we see more and more of these titles being produced, filling out the various niches of the real-world sport. One fairly well established genre of these games is the jet ski racing game, which usually offers a mix of MTV attitude with Wipeout-style racing action. Sony has had success in this area with its Jet Moto series, and Jet X20 is widely regarded as the spiritual successor to that franchise.
The overall design of Jet X20 is largely good. Rather than utilizing the smaller, lap-oriented tracks that are generally seen in racing titles, Jet X20 offers up gigantic courses with many possible routes. The scale and complexity of these tracks are second to none on the videogame jet ski racing circuit and add excellent depth to the game, considering that there are an incredible number of ways to complete each track.
Like most games that center on alternative sports, Jet X20 relies on co-opting the feel of the modern extreme sports movement. Emphasis is put on making sure that the characters are brash and 'wacky', which means that they're all essentially empty stereotypes. Some attempt is made to give these hollow archetypes personality by having them shout personal insults during the race. This attempt is marred by the phrases themselves being forced and witless, much like the rest of the 'Xtreme!' content in Jet X20. However, the graphics are noticeably clean and well done, including better-than-average textures than are usually seen on the PlayStation 2.
The controls are fairly simple, with a button for acceleration and a button for boost. The left analog stick providing control over direction, and the right controls the pitch and yaw of your craft. The major difference that Jet X20 offers is that when the watercraft is in the air, the controls change, allowing the players to pull various tricks. Combinations of pressed shoulder buttons and the square button engage the character in a series of acrobatic and often amusing antics that must be completed before the watercraft comes in contact either with the water or worse, dry land.
Jet X20 shares many elements with other racing games, but has several deviations of varying importance. One aspect that is noticeably different from the norm is the gate system—although there are gates that the character can pass through, to do so is not mandatory. Rather, the gates are entirely voluntary, but they do provide the character with more power for their boost function, to allow the craft to travel faster for a short period of time. An interesting addition is the solidity of the gate markers—even a slight touch of the pylons while going through the gate will cause your craft to go out of control, and hitting them dead on is as bad as hitting a wall.
The most important gameplay aspect of Jet X20 is that while there are options to play with only tricks or only racing in a single race, the meat of the game is contained within the World Tour, where tricking and racing are combined. At the end of each race, the characters are ranked both in terms of how they finished and how many points were earned by pulling tricks. A certain amount of points (equal for both racing and tricking) are rewarded for achieving a certain ranking, and then the two pools of points are combined to generate the standings. This dichotomy of gameplay is mandatory - it is not possible to do well in the World Tour when either tricking or racing is ignored. This creates a situation where two different skill sets are being utilized during each race. We are then faced with a number of questions: How is the racing implemented? How is the tricking implemented? Are the two implementations well integrated, providing a cohesive and enjoyable experience?
It is here where we should come back to flow. In order for a game to generate flow, it seems that certain attributes are crucial. The game must be simple enough for the commands and rules to become unconsciously internalized by the player. The game must also offer near-constant input and output, with minimal breaks in the action. There are other attributes that are important, to be sure, but these two are especially prominent and are important in analyzing Jet X20.
As we have seen from other action titles, such as Ikaruga, it is possible for a game to have multiple gameplay mechanics and still be able to generate flow. Jet X20 does manage to maintain a fairly high level of action - the levels are long and the narrative framing is minimal, making almost all the waiting involve loading times. Where Jet X20 falls short is in providing a single, consistent experience. The way racing and tricking are implemented, it is impossible to concentrate on both at the same time. Rather, you must either sacrifice competing against the other racers in order to pull off tricks or give up trick points in order to maintain the lead. While this could be seen as tactical, it winds up feeling schizophrenic, preventing the player from achieving a satisfactory state of flow and making the game an overly pedestrian experience.
Aside from the problem of integrating the gameplay, an additional issue is that neither system is implemented very well. The trick system, although offering multiple trick options, is based entirely on pulling off tricks before the craft ceases to be airborne. There is no linking of the tricks, and tricking becomes more of a matter of judgment than dexterity. The racing, although fairly pleasing on a control level, fails because of the massiveness of the stages as well as what seems to be a certain amount of catch-up programming. Since the levels are so huge, you can be neck-and-neck with the entire rest of the field yet never see them, due to the number of splits in the path, and with every character choosing a different direction. The artificial intelligence also seems to always be set up so that the only real competitive section of the race is the homestretch, which does mean that you can concentrate on tricking rather than racing for the majority of the time, but this is the wrong way to go about correcting the flaw created by the non-complementary gameplay.
One other major disappointment regarding the gameplay of Jet X20 is how the medium of water affects the game. Unlike other major jet ski titles, the water is a bit player, with only occasional nods to its unique nature. There might be a wave here or a waterfall there, but it never really feels like the player must learn how the water affects the craft. The game takes a situation where the water should be an adversary and turns it into an environmental footnote.With an action game like Jet X20, success is going to be based on the gameplay. By having an ill-matched concept at the core of the gameplay, this game sabotages itself. Regardless of the sheen of the graphics, running that river just isn't the same without the flow.