People throw around the term "worst game ever made" pretty frequently these days. So when word began to spread about the legendary, almost apocalyptic, badness of Jaws Unleashed I knew that as someone who specializes in reviewing unbelievably bad games, I was going to have to give it a try. I mean, even the title is ridiculous! How on earth would you leash a shark in the first place? They don't have necks! And what did I find by playing it? That although Jaws Unleashed is a game with massive, crippling design flaws, it's by no means the worst game I've ever played.
Among the possible reasons to make a videogame, Jaws Unleashed owes its existence to one of the strangest stories I've ever heard. Apparently Appaloosa Interactive, developers of Ecco the Dolphin, discovered that that title hadn't sold enough copies to warrant a sequel and went looking for a popular license that they could attach their swimming engine to. As a result, Jaws Unleashed is basically a rehash of Ecco, a third-person swimming game, with Ecco's adorable headbutting replaced by vicious biting, and wacky leaping replaced by jumping and biting.
Settling on the Jaws license was the first critically inexcusable flaw the game makes—thinking that people would want to play as the shark from Jaws. I can understand why they made the mistake. After all, there are plenty of games these days that allow gamers to take on the role of a despicable murderer. The main difference here is that while even the most despicable murderers can generally be stopped by a few bullets, humanity has never invented any truly effective shark fighting weaponry, leaving 30 foot great white sharks nearly unstoppable killing machines. This is a fine quality for a videogame antagonist to possess, but for a protagonist it makes the game the conceptual equivalent of a stepping-on-an-anthill simulator.
The second major flaw Jaws makes is not actually being a completed game. From beginning to end, the game suffers from horrible framerate issues whenever anything but the shark is on screen. Even worse is the shark's habit of getting hung up on level geometry. Perhaps the camera is the most grievous offender of all, as it can never seem to figure out whether it should be looking above or below the water level at any given time. This makes stalking surface prey from underwater—basically all the shark does—amazingly difficult.
The funniest problem by far is the awkward attempt at storytelling. The game tells the story of the sixth unusually large great white shark to show up in or around Amity Island. Think it's difficult to the construct a game's narrative around a character who never speaks? Try constructing one around a character who's barely capable of conscious thought [Feel free to insert a punchline concerning a popular franchise's main character here. I suggest Halo or Devil May Cry].
There's no story-based motivation for any of the shark's actions. If it was relegated to eating dogs and surfers, that would be one thing, but this game had Jaws fish up WWII-era torpedos from a rusty submarine and use them to destroy oil rigs, hunt down scuba divers through a field of mines, or ram a yacht into a floating platform covered in fireworks. After each mission is completed, players simply head to the next spot on the map whenever they feel like starting the next mission. This feels completely arbitrary and renders the game's plot as basic and meaningless as the various side and bonus missions the player can embark upon.
Perhaps all of this could be overlooked if the game didn't make players wait so long to get to the good stuff. No, that wasn't a typo, there are actually parts of Jaws Unleashed that are worth playing. Just as kicking over a small child's sand castle can be a refreshingly cathartic activity, there is some fun to be had brutally devouring unsuspecting water skiers, but the game manages to get even this simple pleasure wrong. The game requires players to power up their shark with points gained by beating missions and completing bonus objectives. By the end of the game the shark is a fast, agile and deadly force to be reckoned with. Sadly this also means that the first three hours of the game are spent playing as a lumbering underwater tank that must struggle to devour a simple scuba diver. I know developers like to save something for the later parts, but it's just ridiculous to expect a player to slog for up to four hours before a game becomes something other than a frustrating chore to play.
If playing Jaws Unleashed has taught me one thing about game design, it's that if you're going to put a single fun thing in a game it's best to put it right up front where people can see it, and hopefully trick them into thinking that the entire game is fun. All Appaloosa Interactive succeeded in doing by hiding the decent content was to ensure that the few people who would be attracted to the concept would return it to the store in disgust long before they ever got to the point where it becomes mildly entertaining.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.