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Jet X2O (PlayStation 2) artwork

Jet X2O (PlayStation 2) review

"Don't pass through enough gates or perform enough tricks and your opponents will leave you in their wake for certain. Get too experimental and try tricks you can't manage, and you'll wipe out and loose a huge chunk of that carefully-acquired rocket power. Success in a race means you've learned to walk the fine line between daring and intelligent, with just enough attention to each attribute."

When you think about it, there's not really a lot of competition in the water-based racer category, just like there aren't many options if you're looking for a game that will allow you to mix music on your Playstation 2, or whatever niche activity you might enjoy. Across all systems, in fact, there are only a few games that come to mind when you even name the rather narrow category. One of those is Wave Race: Blue Storm, a launch title for Nintendo's GameCube. Another is Hydro Thunder, the arcade smash that was ported to various consoles. And finally, you have the Jet Moto series. Well, all those games should prepare to step back, because there's a new kid in town. His name is JetX2O, and he's the best water-based racer of all.

A look at the game's packaging might make you think it's just another attempt to capture the somewhat cheap thrill of rushing along water on a private watercraft, infused with a little off-beat humor and a trick system. In reality, that conception is 100% accurate. If that turns you off, it's only because you've seen too many other flawed attempts. And while JetX20 does have its share of flaws, they're all so minor that even mentioning them seems pedantic.

The most important area of any water-based racer is, as Wave Race: Blue Storm unfortunately proved, the gameplay. While Nintendo's flagship racer was beautiful, it wasn't a whole lot of fun. The same is most definitely not true of JetX20. It's beautiful, sure, but it's also a blast. This is largely the case for two reasons: course design and the trick system.

There are eight courses in this game in all, each quite lengthy and with a satisfying amount of downstream rushes and steep drops over rapids (something the developers of Wave Race: Blue Storm never seemed to consider all that important). A quick race through a course is going to take around 5 minutes on average. This is not a game where you make several laps around a track. Instead, you follow the course as it heads through the area de jour. Strip away the pretty graphics and scenery and the courses for the most part boil down to rather straight lines, with the occasional arc to the left or right. However, there are shortcuts in each of them, and you'll have to memorize these shortcuts in order to keep up with the competition. Miss that ramp that allows you to fly over the rocky ledge to the right and it's going to cost you anywhere from three or four seconds to ten or fifteen. On the earlier levels, not every opponent is going to take the shortcuts. But when you reach higher difficulties, survival is dependant on your ability to recall where each time-saving deviation from the main course waits.

The whole time you're racing, you're also going to be concerned with executing tricks. At first, this might seem like a mode simply tacked on for appearance. However, a half-hour or so of play quickly makes it obvious that the trick system is as important as the time you spend navigating the course. When you launch off a ramp and hit the air, you dang well better be kicking your legs this way and that, performing hand stands and barrel rolls, or whatever it is that you can before you hit the water again. This is made difficult by the placement of the ramps. You have to hit them from the right angle and you have to know how much time you have left in the air before you drop back down to the water's surface. If you're in the middle of a roll and you strike, you're going to lose valuable turbo and your points will not properly materialize.

Turbo plays a huge role in the game, by the way. You pick up the turbo in two ways. One is by performing crazy tricks, which happens most easily if you already have turbo boosts in reserve. The other way is to pass through the many gates on the course. These are simply pairs of buoys. Pass through such a gate and you get a small acceleration boost and a slot or two on your turbo meter. Fill up that meter most of the way and when you pass through the next gate, you get an extra charge that you can utilize until you drop back down to a certain level. It's a cool system in that you have to apply strategy to how you use it. Don't pass through enough gates or perform enough tricks and your opponents will leave you in their wake for certain. Get too experimental and try tricks you can't manage, and you'll wipe out and lose a huge chunk of that carefully-acquired rocket power. Success in a race means you've learned to walk the fine line between daring and intelligent, with just enough attention to each attribute.

Once you find the appropriate way to race, you'll find the game rewards you on multiple levels. The main part of the game is the World Tour, which allows you to race through more and more of the 8 courses depending on which difficulty level you're playing (the other modes are simply single races focusing on combos you can score, or tricks, or racing speed). As you complete each course, you rack up points for your placement in the race, and also for the number of trick points you've gained. This means that even if you never finish a race better than third, you can still come out on top once the tour ends if you've been working hard and performing some good tricks. It also means that even if you come in first on every race, it's possible to lose in the end. The game takes its trick system very seriously.

Another thing it takes seriously is presentation. This shows in both the audio and visual departments.

Visually, you've seen better if you played Wave Race: Blue Storm. The water here isn't quite as pretty. Race along a cliff that drops into the water, for example, and the rock seems to end at water level. No murky view of it extending below you toward the riverbed. No glimpse of plant life swirling below. However, what's above the water looks quite nice. Hazy mountains rise into the distance. Trees line the water, sporting their multi-colored autumn leaves. Glaciers spike upward. Each course has a general theme which is supported fully throughout its duration. Backdrops are painted with vibrant colors and pop-up isn't in evidence. Neither is slowdown.

The visuals extend beyond course design, though, to the actual riders. Each rider has a unique look, from the moment you select him or her to the second you decide to perform a trick while gliding over a rocky island. It's fun to watch your rider hang on for dear life as his feet fly upward, or to see him handplant his seat just before wiping out on a shoreline. There are also subtle but appreciated differences in pose as the riders slide over the crest of a particularly large wave, or bump against another rider.

Speaking of those other riders, they'll not let you forget where they are. Not only do they race aggressively (and moreso as the difficulty level you access increases), but they also let you hear what they think of you. Some will shout for you to get out of their way. Others have other things to say. Each character has a unique voice you'll be able to recognize as you go, and the sound separation is such that if you have a good setup, you can tell what direction the comments are coming from.

The other racers aren't the only ones doing the talking; there's running commentary from an announcer. It's the same guy for every level. When you first access a stage, the camera swoops over the majority of the course and you get to listen as two announcers shout a bunch of nonsense. Some of these phrases are so stupid you wonder how they got into the game, yet somehow they make everything more fun. There's a high level of energy driving the immature comments that feels like a perfectly formed jigsaw puzzle piece. By itself, it would be horrific, but somehow it fits into a bigger picture and works just fine. What doesn't quite work so much is the in-level commentary. Eventually, even though it is fairly diverse, the dialogue grows tiresome. The good news is that the developers tried to make things context-sensitive. The downside is that because of all the shortcuts the course can take and the frequency with which your position in each course can change, you might hear the commentator yammering on about how you've lost your fourth place position and dropped into fifth, only to glance at your indicator and see you're actually placing third. It's an understandable problem, but there just the same.

The last minor flaw in the game is its difficulty, and this might even be seen as a plus. When you first start racing, you're going to have trouble placing first on anything beyond the first course. The other drivers are quite the competition. And tricks? You won't likely be ready for those for a while. This can be frustrating when all you want to do is experience that next level. It seems like things are just a smidge too challenging. However, the positive spin here is that the game never really hands you anything. If you want to unlock new riders, wetsuits, watercraft, challenge levels, or stages, you're going to have to practice. And the more you practice, the more rewarding the game becomes. What some may find too challenging, others may find just about perfect.

All this combines to equal a package you'll definitely want to try. The only question remaining is the one you should ask before trying any game: rent or buy? The answer here is the standard one. Rent the game if you only casually enjoy racers. You'll definitely have a great time with it over the weekend. If you love the genre, though, don't hesitate to pick this one up. It's been developed so that the more you play it, the more you enjoy it. And there's enough depth and unlockables--not to mention a two-player mode--that this one is far less likely to collect dust than any other racers you may have in your collection. JetX20 came out of virtually nowhere, but it ended up being a pleasant surprise any serious racing fan should definitely own. Highly recommended.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (February 04, 2003)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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