A surfing game that’s actually fun? Rad! There have not been many surfing games in gaming history. There are many reasons for this, such as the complexity of wave/water physics, the difficulty of controls, the limit of movement, etc. Biodroid, the developers of Billabong Surf Trip, said they spent almost 6 months on the algorithms for the procedurally-generated waves in this game, and it definitely shows. I’m a big video game water nerd, so when I’m impressed with water in a video, it definitely says something. Or at least I like to think so.
Before showing us the game, Billabong sent us to one of their surf camps to hit the waves ourselves. I’m no stranger to surfing (I went to school in Santa Cruz for a year), but it has been probably five years since I last caught a sick curl on a bomb and ripped through a tube . So long, in fact, that I probably have no idea what I’m talking about when I try to use words like “curl” or “bomb” in a surfing context. Yeah, not a clue.
Suffice it to say, I got right into the groove, and caught three to four decent waves despite crappy weather. At first I thought the whole surf camp thing was just a PR gimmick, but it really did put the game into the proper perspective. BST is being marketed as an “arcade-sim” title, so why not give the media some real surfing experience?
The game starts you off on the beach, and you must charge the surf and paddle out to find the best wave. An arrow directs you towards the general area of the next big wave, and you can tap to go right to that location if you want. I preferred to to just paddle to the waves manually. A big part of real surfing is just chilling on your board and waiting for the right wave to come to you. In the game, not every wave is amazing, and if you don’t time things right and start paddling, you’ll go right over it. This was pretty awesome, as no wave is the same. Each one requires different timing or you’ll miss your opportunity and possibly wipe out.
According to the developers, and some of the Billabong surfers who played the game, the wave styles and tendencies actually change based on the location you choose. One of the surfers mentioned that waves in Tahiti tend to be very large, coming out of nowhere. According to him, this is exactly what happens in BST when you’re surfing the Tahitian beach. The developers also pointed out that they spent a lot of time crafting each beach to match it’s real life location. While surfing on California’s Huntington Beach, I noticed the oil platform in the distance. Nice touch.
You use an on-screen joystick to move, and another to perform various maneuvers and aerials. There is an option to use tilt controls while riding a wave, which I actually preferred to the on-screen option. When you catch a wave, you can ride it left or right, but if you ride with the break you will get a lot more out of it before it wanes away. If you catch a particularly large wave just right, you can ride through the pipe of the wave, which changes the wave-facing camera to behind-the-player view. This is a pretty awesome experience, but was generally short-lived for me since I hadn’t gotten the knack for surviving in a tube yet. If you get enough momentum from the bottom of a wave, you can jet to the top and perform various aerial maneuvers. They are slightly exaggerated, but nowhere near the Tony Hawk genre of craziness. On each beach you must perform certain tricks within 1-2 minutes to proceed to the next event/beach in the Surf Trip (campaign) mode.
There is a store in Surf Trip that features various Billabong boards and gear and charges your in-game earnings for purchases. As expected, the different boards handle differently, and will needed to be selected based on the beach you going to. There are other items, such as wetsuits, to choose from that will also impact the gameplay. It was mentioned that if you’re surfing in a cold location, you probably don’t want to go out in just board shorts. I’m thinking this will play into the energy meter that was located on the bottom of the screen when I played, but I couldn’t really tell from my hands on.
My overall experience with Billabong Surf Trip was a good one. The waves are sweet, the controls are solid, and the various maneuvers actually require some skill and timing to pull off. It’s certainly not without it’s flaws, but what I saw was minor. While the waves look good, you can’t see them start to swell until they’re practically on top of you. Part of surfing is scouting a good wave a long distance off, then prepping for it before paddling forward to catch it. I also noticed some weirdness with the water animations/physics that I hope are polished out in the final game; namely when they wave crashes into the ocean.
I also noticed that there was no “free play” mode in the game. The mode that lets you choose any beach you’ve unlocked to surf is restricted to a 2 minute time limit for some reason. To truly get the surfing experience, I want to be able to take my time in choosing waves, then practice manuevers and tubing without any pressure or time limit. The realistic wave system would cater well to a casual surfing mode, and I would love to see that in the final version.
Billabong Surf Trip is shaping up to be a solid game for the iDevices, and will be released as a universal application sometime this month. I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect an iDevice surfing game to work at all, but I had a good time and was impressed with what I saw so far. Biodroid even mentioned that they plan on providing free updates with new beaches to surf after the release. Keep an eye out in the future for a review of the first arcade surfing sim on the App Store.
If you have any questions, I’ll gladly answer them in the comments!
I asked Australian Pro Surfer Taj Burrow about his favorite iPhone games. Check out the audio clip below!
Taj Burrow Interview (1:01)