Have You Played: Jaws Unleashed
Much like most people, I have phobias. Most of them - dead animals, heights, deep water – are rational. My lifelong fear of sharks, according to friends, family and psychiatrists, is not. I don't even go swimming. In this terror lurks a sick form of fascination, compelling me to watch great white thrillers and documentaries in a content comatose state. Some therapists would recommend facing fears to dispel them. Perform a bungee jump, tread water in the deep end at the local pool. Thanks to Appaloosa Interactive, I don’t have to swim with the shark; I can be the shark.
The title screen doesn’t fill this galeophobe/phile with confidence. The cheap splash is complimented with an even cheaper remix of the theme score, which sounds less like the iconic John Williams masterpiece, and more like a horrific polyphonic ringtone. The theme itself could never be used to the same great effect as in the original movie – the necessary presence of the shark on-screen at all times naturally ruins the suspense. Still, I’ll let that go. I’m a shark, after all – I don’t use my slits to listen to Academy Award-winning scores.
What’s my motivation to go on a manic killing spree? I’m not a vengeful parent like in Jaws 3-D, or a vengeful relative(?) as in Jaws: The Revenge. I’m a shark that has been captured, and has ultimately escaped. There might be a plot in there somewhere, but the shoddy subtitles and the awful voice acting (of the humans, not the shark) render it too flat to follow. There are no other deep sea characters to interact with (by interact, I mean anything other than kill or maul). A dialogue wheel showing me conversation choices when encountering a seal is out of the question. I remind myself that this is 2006, not 2012. And that impersonal monsters of the sea are not capable of small talk.
I'M A SHARK, HEAR ME RAWR
How does it feel to be the menacing homicidal killing machine? In a word, cumbersome. The game is blighted by camera issues from the outset, constantly hampering my mid-afternoon swim through the mundane environments. The awkward perspective single-handedly turns a minor scrap with two lesser predators into a desperate fight for survival. I have the expected shark moves in my arsenal: bite, tail whip and shunt. The ability to learn new moves and improve my stats is there via a meagre levelling up system. I successfully “learned” one new move, but there is a distinct difference between technically “learning” a move and actually figuring out how to perform it. I spent the best part of fifteen minutes attempting to belly-flop destructively onto a yacht, all to no avail.
I understand that self-betterment in games is an industry staple, a way of charting the player’s progress and making it feel worthwhile. But it shouldn’t apply here. I just want to eat everything. I’M A SHARK. I WANT TO DEFY GAMING CONVENTIONS.
I could get over this if the campaign gave me something meaty to sink my teeth into. Instead, it offers just nine missions from start to finish. The presence of the (cowardly and stupid) orca as an early boss gets my hopes up, but it soon becomes apparent that my main enemy is the human. Other orcas and giant squids are mere sideshows. In the remaining missions, I drag scientists around to get their keycards to open doors. I navigate caverns and shut down electric fences. I tackle boats, submarines, boats, divers, industrial complexes and finally some more boats with my sluggish shark moves, my flaming barrels and my torpedos. Did I fail to mention that? I can spit flaming barrels and torpedos at the enemy too. Because I’m a great white shark. It’s what we do.
But sharks aren’t about completing tasks and reaching checkpoints. We all know what sharks are about. I skulk up to Amity Beach, where families paddle and swimmers, well, swim. I slowly hover beneath the flailing legs of one victim, stealthily pulling him beneath the waves. I chomp on his limbs, enjoying the gratuitous blood and the gurgling screams. The people cry out, scream, rush to the shore. Subtlety doesn’t come easy to a shark. I gleefully chase down those attempting to flee, toying with their lives and thrashing about without a care in the world.
The problem is, I’m still doing it thirty minutes later.
The AI is appalling. Everyone is still screaming. I’ve eaten enough people to inhabit a small town like Amity. I haven't moved, but the swimmers keep on coming. The same problem is present throughout. That yacht I tried to belly-flop remained in position despite my repeated attempts to smash it into bits; inflatable dinghies replace sunken inflatable dinghies; the orca boss swims in frightened circles until I put it out of its misery. I wanted to see a derelict beach, bodies floating everywhere, a sea of chilling calm. Instead, I get waves of constantly respawning morons swimming or sailing right at me. Even a shark loses its appetite sometimes.
At the very least, I look terrifying. The character model of the shark is spot on, and the sight of the beast tearing up pretty much anything is instantly gratifying. However, I look far less terrifying when I’m flopping around on the beach, edging towards landed targets. That’s right, I can drag my bloated mass onto land for a brief period of time. This is where the out of body experience ends. Up until this point, for all its failings, I can suspend my disbelief and pretend that I am a predator worthy of the Jaws name, and wean some visceral enjoyment from the process. But watching as my desperate shark avatar comically wriggles around on a beach is the final straw.
Appaloosa Interactive have managed to do the unthinkable; turn the most terrifying creature of the deep into a barrel-tossing, torpedo-spitting, belly-wriggling, painfully impaired laughing stock. It’s almost enough to make me question why I fear the things in the first place. It almost cured me of my phobia in the most hilarious, unintentional way possible.
Until I watched the original film again. Sharks truly are terrifying monsters. Don't let this game fool you into thinking anything otherwise.