Hydrophobia - Xbox Live Arcade

When Dark Energy Digital first announced Hydrophobia, we were promised the most dynamic water ever shown in a video game, one that interacts and works with the environment it’s in, moving and turning based on the amount of water and the things moving around it. The water became the focal point of the game, and Hydrophobia was built around that basic idea. The real question became, would the game hold water? Or would it sink under the expectations of the gaming world.

In Hydrophbia, you play as heroine Kate Wilson, an engineer aboard the majestic Queen of the World, a city-sized luxury cruise ship. The world has become grossly over populated, and the smartest people in the world have been collaborating for the past few years to try to find a solution to the problem. Nanocell, the company behind the collaboration, runs the Queen of the World and is the focal point of trying to find the solution to the worlds biggest problem. Our heroine is deathly afraid of water, and creepy flashbacks in the introduction show us the root cause of her hydrophobia as her sisters screams in agony after being swallowed whole by water. Of course, being so afraid of water Kate instinctively signs up for a job on the ocean. Maybe that’s something you’d want to avoid? With Nanocell about to announce a breakthrough to the world, terrorists known as Neo-Malthusians infiltrate the Queen of the World in attempt to destroy or take it over. These terrorists believe that the only solution to the worlds overpopulation is to take matters into your own hands: “Save the world; Kill yourself.” With bombs exploding, your mission of escaping from the trenches of the Queen of the World and discovering the Malthusians plot is overshadowed by the water, the real villain in the whole title. 

Hydrophobia as a title has existed for around three years now, but the time spent in development has clearly gone into the real tech on display; HydroEngine. HydroEngine is the impressive piece of Hydrophobia, showing dynamic water moving around in realistic ways. Water will sleep in from a freshly blown glass container, filling a room with water, extinguishing fires, sweeping enemies off their feet and so on. The water moves with the room, and opening doors can lower the water levels or fill them up again depending on the situtation. But it’s not just the water that's impressive, enemies, objects and even the protagonist herself react realistically in the water, moving and floating around it in a genuine way. Although all effects relating to the water are impressive, the chracter models themselves and most other design aspects of the title leave something to be desired. The characters move at a weird pace that seems to go between full out sprinting to brisk walk, with not much in between. The models also look like something out of a Japanese anime where hair gel is used profusely; I guess it is the future. 

Getting around isn’t much better either. Kate is being guided by Scoot, her boss who is held up in a security station on another deck. He can tell her where to go and guide her around, but since everything looks the same and no mini-map is present in the on screen HUD, you don’t have any indication of where you’re supposed to go. The sections of the ship also look completely identical, and the only real way you can tell if you are moving in the right direction would be that an on screen message is displayed letting you know that a checkpoint has been reached. Yes, there is a map in the menu screen, but its so impossible to read that it makes itself completely useless. You get a 3D rendering of the levels that are more like wire-frames, but nothing is distinctive, and certain sections though appearing like you can access them don’t quite allow you do so.

Access is another issue that is prevalent. Rather than having keys to access different sections, Kate uses a device called a MAVI is used to hack into the door and open it, but certain frequencies are required to be scanned off the walls in certain rooms. Using the MAVI, you can see these invisible key codes on the wall and record it on the device, but finding these codes can be more than a pain. The rooms can be large or spread out over several corridors including one area where it forces you to swim down to an area following directional markers that can only be seen in MAVI scanning mode (meaning you are required to stop and scan every few feet to see if you are still going in the right direction). Eventually this leads to the code and access to the door, but this treasure hunt feels more like a way to extend the game time than anything. 

All of this would be fine if the combat was any good, but unfortunately we are doused with sloppy controls that make the battles more difficult than they should be. Pressing the right button will pull out Kate’s gun with an unlimited supply of sonic pulses. Pulling the right trigger fires these pulses, and holding the right trigger will fire a stronger pulse. Later on, you can unlock exploding gel rounds, electric rounds, and standard single and multi shot bullets. The best way to take out enemies is to use the environment, and at first it seems rather simple. Enemies standing next to barrels or electric boxes can be taken care of with a simple powered sonic shot to the barrel, destroying it and the Malthusian in a fiery explosion. Unfortunately, as the game goes on, you’ll find yourself in many situations where there just aren’t enough barrels or environmental devices to take out your enemies, and your forced into a firefight with nothing but sonic rounds and many enemies all swarming you at once. So you die, over and over again. Have I mentioned that all the Malthusians are identical to one another. The lack of variety would be interesting in a normal situation, but with Hydrophobia it just shows how much the water is the main focus and everything else is just splashing around in the kiddie pool. This coupled with environmental puzzles that are more than just guessing if something is going to kill you can really take the wind out of an interesting concept.

The best part and real star of the title is the water, and clearly much effort went into designing a game that took advantage of a core idea: "Water has never been represented realistically, let’s do that!" Unfortunately, sloppy controls, poor location recognition, and a complete lack of direction doesn’t quite make up for the interesting story and amazing water effects.