It’s been a long time in development, but Dark Energy Digital’s foray onto Xbox Live Arcade has finally arrived, armed with the dynamic water-based HydroEngine in tow. The concept is simple enough, pitting woman against environment in a desperate bid for survival against the machinations of the nefarious ‘Malthusians’, but while the plot may be standard sci-fi fare, Hydrophobia suffers from a host of insurmountable flaws likely to have you screaming in frustration. The developers may have instilled unlucky protagonist Kate Wilson with a fear of water, but most players will find themselves terrified at the thought of wading through any more of the game’s irksome design issues.
The ‘never-before-seen dynamic water system’ is, to be fair, quite spectacular. As the enormous sea-faring vessel ‘Queen of the World’ buckles under the pressure and begins to succumb to the power of the ocean, Kate must do everything in her power to make it through alive, battling the rapidly changing environment as well as the terrorist threat within. To its credit, Hydrophobia does an apt job of submersing you slowly, easing things gently rather than dropping you in at the deep end. Hallways become literally engulfed as you run, impeding Kate’s progress and forcing you to adjust to the situation at a moment’s notice, while shooting out the window of a room can result in a swift change to the water level. Great stuff on a mechanical level – it’s just a shame that this dynamic environment never becomes an enjoyable place to explore.
One of the game’s biggest flaws is its lack of direction. True, there are moments when a specific waypoint is given, plus a map is on hand should you find yourself up the creek without a paddle, but all too often you’ll be allowed access to a number of rooms with only a vague idea of how to progress. Throw in flooded areas, too few air pockets and an unforgiving checkpoint system, and what you end up with is an experience more likely to bring your blood to a boil than entertain for long – or indeed any time at all. The environment may become a foe at any given moment, which might have been good fun otherwise, but when Kate can be sent to Davey Jones’ locker at the drop of a hat (or more literally, the mere lick of a flame) then things can get incredibly frustrating, very quickly.
The story is told on the fly through a number of well-rendered cutscenes, which heavily resemble something from the original Xbox console. Not bad for an Arcade game on the graphical front, but you won’t have heard voice-acting quite this grating for some time; reminding us of the voice work in Rare’s Perfect Dark, though perhaps made even worse thanks to the panicked tones of the main character and the incessant blathering of her overweight friend, Scoot. Much of the tale unfolds off-camera and is explained via Scoot, who relays information and keeps her up-to-date with events outside the confines of the lower decks – fair enough, but it’s far from immersive stuff.
Far from just wrestling with the water as it jostles you about, you’ll also find yourself doing battle with the controls on a regular basis. It’s all a bit too clunky and unresponsive, with the Y button being the jump and climb button rather than A; it’s a strange departure for those of us accustomed to the likes of Assassin’s Creed, but then movement in Hydrophobia is so clumsy that such comparisons are best avoided altogether. For a game with such a heavy focus on water, it makes little sense that swimming has been done so much better in previous games, as well as the animations themselves. Taking cover behind a wall and aiming can also be a hit-and-miss affair, so be prepared to soak a few bullets from the identical grunts you will inevitably run into.
The crux of the third-person action is as you might expect, should you have spent at least a few minutes with the likes of Gears of War or Uncharted 2. Pop-and-stop gameplay could be considered derivative after so many years (though we now look to Vanquish for some inspiration there), but that also means it should be difficult to get wrong. Hydrophobia is therefore of great interest due to such a screw-up – its lack of quality is something of an anomaly given the number of strong games it so readily apes, as if some dastardly programmer chose to take what had succeeded before, flush it down the toilet then send it back to the masses on a soggy plate. It might not be completely broken, but that doesn’t mean you should touch it either.
Kate gains access to automatic rounds and explosive gel rounds later in the game, but the bulk of the combat will be handled through use of the awful stun gun. Charge it up then shoot, rinse and repeat. It’s anything but good fun, although some could argue that battles are more about using the environment – such as leaking gas pipes, explosive barrels and exposed cables – to devastate the enemy. There are times when this isn’t much of an option however, resulting in galling cases of having to bunker down, charge your shot, then do it three more times just to ensure that a single, unconscious enemy stays down. It’s also a problem when Kate suffers an instant-death after a heated gunfight, sending you rocketing back to a previous corridor and into the thick of battle all over again. Had the combat been a little more playable then this issue might have been alleviated, if not eradicated, but with the combat system as cack-handed as this, it’s just not something we’re prepared to overlook.
When you’re not swimming, shooting or wading, you’ll either be hacking or scanning thanks to the Mavi tool. Hacking works in a similar fashion to the device found in Arkham Asylum, only things are slightly trickier here. Trying to find ciphers on walls can also be a challenge and this becomes a primary method of progression – usually requiring a scan to open an inconveniently locked door, while most others have simply malfunctioned due to the intake of water. Later on you’ll need to raise or lower the water level in order to make it through alive, but we would refrain from calling any of it clever. It’s functional, but it’s just not much fun, which also sums up how we feel about Hydrophobia in a nutshell.
Technically, the HydroEngine may be a step forward for water physics, but everything else has taken numerous steps back in Hydrophobia. At 1200MS points, we weren’t expecting something especially long, but quality should never suffer this much irrespective of price. The game looks nice, even if the environment is very one-note, the behaviour of the water is spot on and the production values are impressive. Controls are sluggish, the cheesy dialogue is delivered extremely badly and the game lacks any ability to hold your attention thanks to the complete omission of fun – and when a game isn’t fun, it really isn’t worth playing. Tragic in unused potential and perplexing in design, Hydrophobia never becomes more than the sum of its parts. There’s more to come, apparently. We suggest you go for a swim instead.
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