Five years ago, Jaws Unleashed gave us a bloody, open-world shark simulator that, in spite of being almost uniformly mediocre, nevertheless redeemed itself by taking the aging movie shark to inspiring heights of absurdity. As the nominal sequel to Unleashed, it’s reasonable to assume that Jaws: Ultimate Predator (also released as a radically different Wii game) might deliver a similar experience – but as it turns out, this one’s all business.
Where the Wii version took Unleashed’s ridiculousness and ran with it to create a weird, cel-shaded adventure, the 3DS version is considerably more “realistic” – and and considerably less interesting. Here, Jaws (in a story told through text journal entries by the first movie’s marine biologist, Matt Hooper) is back to terrorizing Amity Island, without interference from any enemy more sinister than the Coast Guard, or from any monster more improbable than a colossal squid. And the focus, for the most part, is on gruesomely chowing down on any humans dumb enough to enter the water.
On paper, it offers Jaws fans exactly what they want: a chance to crush swimmers between powerful teeth and see their dismembered bits float by in glorious 3D. And for the bulk of its 16-level campaign, that’s really all Ultimate Predator offers, as Jaws clumsily targets swimmers and knocks fishermen off boats in enclosed ocean levels bounded by invisible walls.
Most of these levels are quota-driven, with success declared after you’ve destroyed a certain number of fish/swimmers/boats/other sharks, although a few levels late in the game are actually driven by exploration and goals other than eating. Those levels – which involve finding your way through a maze of caves, taking down a Coast Guard cutter by releasing aquatic mines and an obligatory escape from captivity – are among the most interesting parts of the game (which is not to say that they're good), but they’re offset by occasional, excruciating minigame levels that limit Jaws to a narrow area of movement as he tediously dodges mines or machinegun fire lobbed by fleeing/chasing boats.
So, that’s a little boring, maybe, but an OK foundation for a Jaws game. Like so many of Jaws’ victims, however, Ultimate Predator falls apart on execution. Your prey, whether human or fish, are all tiny on the 3DS screen, and can therefore be really hard to see, especially when they’re swimming on the near-opaque surface of the water. (Eventually, you’ll learn to spot the surface swimmers by the little ripples they make in the waves, but there’s not much fun in eating those.) Even when you spot and successfully chomp your prey, seeing the game’s stick-figure humans instantly turn into clouds of gibs to the tune of half-hearted screams gets old surprisingly fast.
Above: On the plus side, you do get to wreck a few submarines
Given the huge, murky environments, it can also be difficult to judge the distance between you, your prey and any other objects you’re supposed to interact with, which in turn makes targeting tough. Turning on 3D helps that a little, but not as much as you might think, as Ultimate Predator’s 3D is prone to frequent camera glitching and adds only a limited sense of depth to the gameplay.
As troubling as Ultimate Predator’s visual problems are, they might have been forgivable if not for the game’s biggest flaw: its controls are terrible. While the 3DS Ultimate Predator keeps it simple, giving Jaws only a few key moves based around bite, dodge and charge commands, there’s always a half-second delay between pushing a button (or tapping the touchscreen) and seeing Jaws do as he’s told. And given that anything more complicated than a bite requires jamming on multiple buttons/touchscreen panels in quick, mushy succession, it ensures that Jaws will only do as he’s told about half the time. That’s inexcusable, and not only makes taking down enemies more confusing than it should be, but also makes any task requiring precision or split-second reactions a nightmare.
Above: The four basic commands - bite, charge, dodge and quick turn - can be executed by button presses or touchscreen taps. Both options are equally unresponsive
Of course, all of this - the controls, the visuals, everything - could be overlooked if what you were doing was actually fun. Knocking people off boats and eating them is a cheap thrill, but one that wears out its welcome rapidly, and by the time the game decides to offer more, it A) is nearly over, and B) has implemented those things so clumsily that all it accomplishes is to turn bored disinterest into frustration.
Experience has taught us not to expect a whole lot from Jaws games, but the 3DS Ultimate Predator is disappointing even by the franchise’s lovably mediocre standards. The game's just not much fun; the controls are sluggish to the point of being broken, the visuals are bland, the 3D is glitchy and seeing blood in the water does little to make the bare-bones gameplay and story interesting. If it had even a fraction of the weirdness of its bloodless Wii cousin (or Jaws Unleashed, for that matter), it might have been entertaining – but hey, if all you want out of the game is to play as a shark that eats people, at least there’s plenty of that.