Hydrophobia Review

by on October 1, 2010

Game: Hydrophobia

Developer: Dark Energy Digital

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

Available On: Xbox LIVE Arcade Only

“Water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink! About, about, in reel and rout the death-fires danced at night.  The water, like a witch’s oils burnt green, and blue and white.

Do you like water?  How about water in videogames that looks unlike anything you’ve ever seen? Spectacular, incredible looking and used as a functional mechanic in a game full of action, explosions and intrigue?  If the answer to any of the above is a curious “yes” then read on to find out why Hydrophobia might be something you’ll want to try.

[singlepic id=264 w=320 h=240 float=left]Hydrophobia takes place in the reasonably distant future in a reality where the world has plunged into a chaotic state due to “The Great Population Flood”.  Situated on an enormous ship the size of a city called the Queen of the World and this is where our (and Kate Wilson’s) story begins.  After you wake up on your night off you’ll see news reports filling you in on the state of things, setting the scene nicely and letting you know that this is most certainly not a nice time to be alive.

Kate decides to check on the network whereby her otherwise normal night off is suddenly interupted by explosions everywhere, terrorists are attacking the Queen of the World.  Terrorists you’ll quickly find out are part of a group called the “Malthusians” so named after Thomas Malthius, a politician that predicted that the world would one day end up this way, the great population flood would ruin everything.  They have a motto, “Save the World : Kill Yourself”. Cheery, you’ll no doubt agree.  Rather than spoil the story of the game, let’s just say it will hold your interest without ever really excelling or delving outside the standard bounds we’ve grown used to.  The main attraction to Hydrophobia though is the gameplay and environment.

Obviously the game revolves around water, but you’ve never seen water in a game like this before.  The tech created for Hydrophobia’s water is something we’ll be seeing in games in the future, it’s that good.  Created especially for this game, the HydroEngine is entirely dynamic, you won’t see the same thing twice.  The game is pretty nice looking in general (though there are definite inconsistencies, with some parts looking pretty rough), but the water is the star of the show here, it’s absolutely stunning.  Watching Kate struggle against an oncoming tide of water is a sight to behold and one you need to see to believe.

[singlepic id=265 w=320 h=240 float=right]Taking place over three acts, you will see Kate start out very vulnerable, but slowly she begins to understand she has to fight back.   Act 2 sees you take control of the LP4 security pistol, which isn’t a “gun” in the tradional sense and you won’t really be trying to get head-shots, this is more of a puzzle/problem solving device in the form of a gun.  The LP4 security pistol is best used for environmental takedowns which the game will help you with by showing you where to aim for “something to happen”. However, if you get in real trouble then a fully charged stun-shot will send an enemy into a state of unconciousness, which if used around water will mean they will drown.  A clever use of the environment and one that if used correctly will trigger multipliers for scoring on the online leaderboards.  Be inventive and you’ll be rewarded with bigger scores, drown enemies repeatedly and you’ll be bottom of the leaderboards.

The lack of traditional weaponry actually benefits the game. Kate isn’t a super-soldier and having her suddenly popping enemies heads off just wouldn’t feel right.  Kate is an engineer and she uses her brain to get past the enemy.  People sick of action games being standard fare might find the LP4 security pistol an interesting change of pace, but if you are intending to attack this game trying to use the pistol in a traditional manner, you’ll find the action sorely lacking and pretty frustrating.

In terms of mechanics, the other main idea at play here is Kate’s “MAVI” which utilises some form of augmented reality, allowing you to see otherwise hidden messages and encodings. To add to that, it also gives you the ability to hack consoles and doors.  You can’t just whip the MAVI out either and expect the world to wait, you need to wait until it is safe and use your judgement for when to do so.  If you get stuck, the MAVI will usually hold the solution.  In water it seems inconsistent as to when you can use the MAVI, floating atop the waves you can’t use it, but swim under water and you can use it just fine.

[singlepic id=266 w=320 h=240 float=left]One area the game does let itself down is the voice-acting.  Kate has a companion with her (in her earpiece anyway) called Scoot who has a rather odd Scottish accent and for a while it’s hard to place Kate’s accent as well (she’s Irish). It’s great to hear British accents being represented in a game, but they may not translate so well abroad and honestly, they aren’t the highest of quality.  Scoot’s character is quite intrustive truth be told and despite the attempt at making light of the situation, his character comes across as slightly irritating and more often than not you’ll just want him to shut up.

At times the game can be disorienting due to the water being so realistic, almost distorting your vision. When you combine that with some frustrating signposting issues and a map that isn’t very useful, it can become a very big problem.  This problem is confounded by the fact that the game occasionally gives you a very clear waypoint then doesn’t give you one at all!

At 1200 points you’ll get about 5-6 hours (on normal difficulty) of story to play through and there is a challenge mode along with plenty of collectibles  to get on subsequent visits to the main game.  However, in truth once complete you may well not be inclined to play it again.

Hydrophobia is worth investigating though, especially as XBLA games have free trials. However, some may find the lack of signposting a very real and frustrating problem, one that may well hamper their overall enjoyment of the game.  Downloadable games have an extremely high bar set for them nowadays and due to some issues that really could have been avoided (despite the game being so obviously a labour of love), Hydrophobia falls just short.

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