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Aqua: Naval Warfare

10:5706/06/2010Posted by Simeon PaskellNo Comments

Having some nice looking water in your game can be a huge selling point – for example it worked wonders for Nintendo’s Wave Race 64, while the Xbox 360’s up coming H20-fest Hydrophobia is betting the farm on it being a crowd puller. Games Distillery’s Aqua: Naval Warfare also has plenty of the wet stuff, but it doesn’t attempt to wow you with the fancy liquid physics routines; instead, it relies on good old fashioned gameplay and sharp visual design – but does it still manage to stay afloat?

At heart, Aqua is a twin-stick shooter, a statement that may well have many of you rolling your eyes with fatigue or just plain indifference. Let’s be honest, twin-stick shooters are currently ten-a-penny, with the roaring success of the Geometry Wars series bringing a flood of imitators, wannabe’s and also-rans; it is a sub-genre that is in danger of reaching saturation point of First Person Shooter proportions. To dismiss Aqua as ‘just another twin-stick shooter’ would be unfair however, as Games Distillery have done much to differentiate the title and explore what can be achieved within the genre’s basic framework.

Set in a world that has been flooded with water (much like the movie Waterworld), you assume the role of Captain Grey of the Emperean Empire; a war hero who, after helping bring victory in a long and bloody clash with the Samureans, finds his naval skills are needed again to defend the Empire against the aggression of former allies, the Gotheans. This plot is told through in-game banter between characters and some rather lovely monochrome, comic-book style cutscenes, all delivered with boys-own adventure gusto (Grey himself seems to have a rather unhealthy obsession with adventuring and heroism!). While it’s all pretty clichéd, characterisation is solid (with the evil Gothean’s being suitably dastardly), and is only spoiled slightly by some weak voice acting. Grey’s dialogue can be particularly cringe-worthy, but within the context of a swashbuckling adventure, the cheesiness of his delivery does actually become strangely endearing over time.

Games Distillery have crafted a cohesive aesthetic for the game world, its characters and ship design, blending Victorianism with futuristic elements with interesting results and the whole thing is crisply rendered and definitely one of the better looking downloadable titles we’ve seen. Small touches, such as the little ripples that follow your ship, some rather lovely weather effects and subtle colour palette changes show that a lot of attention has been lavished on how the game looks.

Aqua does an admirable job of mixing its twin-stick mechanics with elements from other genres, such as real-time strategy (you frequently have a flotilla of small ships at your command) and more traditional shooters (see the boss battles!). Breaking out of the traditional single-screen layout that has become a genre staple, you must guide your little ship around fairly large maps that are full of hidden areas and collectibles that add to your fully customisable arsenal. At it’s best, Aqua shifts styles with an assured confidence; one level, for example, sees arena based conflicts giving way to white-knuckle pursuits before moving on to combat on the open seas. The weapons at your disposal are also pleasingly varied, with each having a specific strength against specific enemies e.g. Dolphin boats can submerge themselves underwater when hit and must then be taken out with a torpedo. Such rock-paper-scissors design means that you must constantly stay on your toes, mixing weapon types and dropping mines to maintain control of the battlefield; it works well and keeps the game feeling pretty fresh throughout.

Though far from lengthy (the game could easily be clocked over a weekend), the single player campaign is a satisfying experience. Boss battles are well designed, and even when you re-encounter the same enemy, the game forces you to change your approach meaning that they rarely feel stale. Collecting all the hidden in-game items also extends the games longevity, as does the challenge of completing the game on high difficulty settings.

Aqua also includes an enjoyable, if slight, two-player competitive mode, with ‘chase’ maps (in which you must race to check points as they appear) and ‘Arena’s (where increasingly difficult waves of enemies must be beaten back as you compete for points). The latter mode also makes up the single player skirmish mode that will no doubt appeal to all the high-score fanatics out there.

The biggest criticism that can be levelled at Aqua (aside from the voice acting) is that despite the slickness of the production and the solidity of the gameplay, it doesn’t always sizzle or have the same sense of urgency as genre benchmark Geometry Wars. That being said, direct comparisons with Bizarre Creations’ modern classic are probably slightly unfair, as Aqua is a far more narrative focussed experience, and it has definitely found its own little niche in the twin-stick shooter market.

Games Distillery should be applauded for creating a well balanced, slickly presented shooter that, while it may do little to break down genre barriers, is occasionally inspired, always solid and consistently entertaining. The game’s ending hints that there is more to come…and we’d be more than happy if that was indeed the case.

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