After watching many of this past year’s E3 conferences and multiple developer interviews, one game in particular caught my eye that promoted some very cool and unique ideas that haven’t been explored too much in the gaming realm. While Hydrophobia’s interactive environment isn’t something new being brought to the table, the ability to manipulate water in a realistic fashion proved to be quite interesting and really carved a place in my most anticipated titles of the second half of 2010, even with its episodic nature.
Yet, where there’s much promise, there is also equal room for disappointment. Does Hydrophobia live up to Dark Energy Digital’s ideal of a successful AAA title being released over XBLA?
Hydrophobia is set in the mid 21st century aboard a massive ocean vessel, the Queen of the World, housing the world’s more affluent populace during what is called the “Great Population Flood,” where population growth has exceeded resource production and the rest of the non-seafaring citizens have been thrown into complete chaos. Those upon the Queen prosper until a group of terrorists known as the Malthusians (after Thomas Malthus, who predicted the “Great Population Flood” hundreds of years ago) begin a hostile take over by bombing the ship, and they promote their ideology of “Save the World – Kill Yourself” all over the giant vessel.
As Kate Wilson, you’ll play the reluctant and inexperienced hero trying to discover the truth behind the attack. While the ideals may come off as a bit preachy, the story is pretty solid. It combines a good deal of history and fiction to create a fast paced narrative that will keep you wanting more. The “Great Population Flood” provides a superb backdrop for the aqua-intense gameplay, with both feeding into each other as the plot unfolds.
As expected, Hydrophobia’s gameplay heavily revolves around the water-engulfed environment through third-person-action mechanics. You can destroy much of your surroundings to flood the ship’s corridors and change the area drastically, allowing you to choose how you want to tackle each encounter with the Malthusians. However, the controls aren’t the tightest, and this is hazardous to the game’s fun factor. Most of the combat must be taken head-on underwater or behind cover, yet you can only duck behind or stand against objects when you have your weapon out, which proves to be frustrating as you fight to survive.
Shooting is just as mediocre and frustrating, as you’ll have limited direct damage ammo. You’ll rely mostly on the environment, such as fuel barrels and loose electrical wires to kill your foes, or you can simply stun them multiple times until they drown. Enemy AI also feels unbalanced, for the first few waves are fairly simple, yet as you progress to the second and third act, they prove to be completely overpowering, hitting you at seemingly impossible angles when you have not so much as your elbow unprotected by cover.
Besides combat, you’ll also search the Malthusians and narrow corridors for ciphers in order to progress using Kate’s engineering tool, the MAVI. Because of the hostile takeover, all of Kate’s security access has been wiped, and you’ll need to use the MAVI to hack into consoles or unlock doors with the ciphers you’ve collected. Hacking involves a minigame where you’ll need to match wavelengths utilizing the dual analog sticks. The first couple of times are pretty entertaining, but it quickly becomes tedious as each one feels exactly the same and provides no real change in difficulty. The MAVI can also be used to access the ship’s CCTV cameras, allowing you to open doors to progress through alternate routes or flood rooms to help with the overwhelming Malthusians. The cameras proved a slight strategic edge when attempting to confront the terrorists, but most of the time it just gives you a preview of the frustrating massacre that lies in wait.
Unsurprisingly, the most impressive feature of Hydrophobia is the flow of water due to Dark Energy’s HydroEngine. I’ve never seen water in a game that follows the laws of physics so precisely, flowing freely from cracks in the wall and when submerged rooms are opened into empty hallways. I stopped multiple times to admire the aqua effects; it’s simply a realistic beauty. Yet it’s undeniable that most of the developing effort was put into the HydroEngine, while other aspects are just mediocre, such as the hit or miss voice acting of Kate and the supporting cast, respectively. Yet, the sound work is rather exciting, as the rush of water and exploding fuel mains boom from even the weakest of speaker systems.
However, the coolest part of the game, having complete control over the flow of water, isn’t unlocked until you finish the game and begin the challenge room. Thankfully, the campaign won’t last any longer than 3 or 4 hours, which is a bit short for a 1200 ($15) MSP asking price , even if it’s the first episode, and particularly because the challenge room is just a horde mode with the same frustrating combat with the added, although super-awesome, Hydro Kinetic powers.
While not exactly the AAA title Dark Energy had envisioned, Hydrophobia does amazing work with the HydroEngine and unleashes a wicked ability in the challenge room, yet it’s a shame you don’t have access to the Hydro Kinetic powers in this first episode of the campaign. If the same effort had been utilized throughout the entire developing process, Hydrophobia might be on the top of the list for XBLA game of the year, if not game of the year in general. Hopefully with the next installment we’ll see more use of aquatic powers and an improvement in combat in general. However, as it stands, it’s simply a beautiful mediocre third-person-shooter. Until then, I’ll see you in the challenge room leaderboards.
I've never seen water look so realistic in any game, yet the same can't be said for the rest of the game.
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The somewhat awkward controls combined with run-of-the-mill shooting mechanics definitely doesn't help it's cause, but the Hydro Kinetic powers in the challenge room are a blast to use.
Voice acting is spotty at times, but the sound effects are pretty impressive.
While the campaign is on the short side, the Challenge Room will provide a good extension of the game, especially with the control over the flow of water.
Hydrophobia shows a lot of promise, but doesn't quite get every aspect of it's gameplay down. Combat proves to be frustrating and the campaign is relatively short, but the Hydro Kinetic powers in the Challenge Room save it from becoming a real mess of mediocrity.