Picture this, I’m happily browsing the internet looking for the gaming news of the day and I come across an article stating that Dark Energy Digital has been on the defensive over reviews of their game Hydrophobia, to the point they have been actively contacting websites because of low scores and accusing them of playing the game wrong. “I’m glad that’s not me" I thought to myself as I get half way through reading it. Then my editor contacts me with a review code for Hydrophobia that he just received and wants me to review it.
Still, time to blot out the propaganda on both sides and find out if it’s worth your time and money...
Hydrophobia, a survival adventure game available on XBLA, is the first part in a series of episodic releases that comprises of 3 acts. The action takes place on a city-sized vessel ‘The Queen of the World’ which acts as the last bastion of hope for an overpopulated Earth. Unfortunately there are a group of terrorists known as the Mathusians who believe that the only way to save humanity is to kill anyone they see, thus restoring the status quo, and they’ve decided to bring their unique brand of problem-solving to the Queen. Enter Kate Wilson, our heroine, who is a systems engineer for the ship. She’s minding her own business when all of a sudden bombs go off throughout the vessel; pandemonium kicks off as water starts flooding in every which way. With her security clearance compromised Kate and her colleague Scoot are forced to start from scratch as they attempt to regain access to the ship and ultimately escape the carnage.
The main feature of the game, and one it clearly prides itself on, is the dynamic water technology of the HydroEngine which allows levels to change on the fly depending on what the water is doing. For example, open a door and water may pour through it knocking you back and flooding a compartment that was previously fine, causing items to wash past you with the force of the water. Shooting a wall that’s leaking could lead to you and any enemies nearby catching some unwanted waves without a surfboard. Walking through waist-high water will slow you down whilst swimming submerged or walking in shallow water will be faster. It’s an interesting concept and definitely adds a new layer of gameplay on top of what would have been a rather mundane title without it.
The gameplay mechanics are a mixture of stealth, exploration and gunplay which are heavily reminiscent of mainstream titles such as Splinter Cell and Uncharted but as expected with an Arcade title don’t quite match either. The controls are fairly easy to grasp (although they appeared to be a little clunky to begin with) as you control Kate’s movements and the camera in typical third person style, with the exception of when you are using the handheld Mavi Computer to find clues in first person to scan your surroundings and view hidden cyphers (which act as key codes) to gain access to new areas.
Climbing also plays a part in moving around to enable you to move up and down the environment, reach different levels and avoid the dangers that surround you like a budget Lara Croft, although it isn’t the only way to get around though. You’ll be swimming a great deal in this game giving the player the most freedom while moving. It’s not a perfect control scheme however as there were several times while swimming (especially whilst in combat) that had me banging into things or going the wrong way around objects, however this was probably amplified by bad camera angles during those moments. Just be wary that it’ll take a bit of time to get used to the controls.
The stealth aspect is fairly basic, pressing in the left stick to go into crouch and then hide out of sight. It might have been due my play style but it seemed fairly impossible to evade enemies making the stealth part essentially a way to delay the inevitable combat and give you time to set up a trap for maximum damage. The combat which is introduced in act 2, while again basic, fairs a little better mechanically. Kate’s survivability isn’t particularly great, taking about three shots before sleeping with the fishes, so you are eventually given a gun to defend yourself. Your weapon initially starts with sonic rounds which are non-lethal ammo, but that doesn’t stop them from being deadly. You can use light shots to nudge objects in the environment, such as boxes or explosive barrels, or charge up shots that can cause explosions or knock out an enemy which can lead to them drowning. You can also use the charged up shots to break glass, rupture walls or cause power cables to fall into the water, allowing the player to get creative in the slaughter. Of course, my first foray with a firearm wasn’t a good one; I didn’t have enough time to respond to the incoming enemy and died very quickly, although one restart later and it all went to plan. Later on you get access to various other types of ammo to keep things interesting but I would say it’s possible to go through the entire game with just the sonic rounds.
The developers have also thrown in a few features to give the game as much longevity as possible. Firstly, there are the items you can explore for throughout every act, some of which are notes with additional backstory and others are random items like souvenirs. In getting these you score points, which brings me nicely to the arcade-ness of the points system. In addition to picking stuff up, you score points for dispatching enemies in creative ways, so you’ll get more points for rolling a barrel towards an enemy and then causing it to explore compared to just shooting them in the face, allowing you to build combos and score big. Everything is tallied at the end and put onto an online leaderboard that creates that sense of competition that otherwise wouldn’t be there in a single player game. There is also a challenge mode which unlocks once you have completed the single player which has you trying to kill as many enemies in a five minute time period, but in addition to the gun you also have access to some sort of water manipulation ability that allows you to play with the water which again is non-lethal but depending what you do with it can cause fatalities to happen. This is obviously a hint towards where the game is heading in future instalments and an interesting teaser.
Hydrophobia has glaring faults though, lots of them. The game suffers from too many unnecessary cutscenes which could have been placed as in-game audio. They come fast and heavy at the start of the game and it breaks up the flow of the action far too regularly. The same goes for picking up key cards throughout the game; every time you pick up an item the game pauses and informs you of your latest snatch when a simple pop-up while the game continues would be enough. The game also doesn’t always clearly indicate where to go, what to do or if something has happened. You will have to rely heavily on the map to find your way around and, once again, causes breaks in the action. There are bugs still present such as when I paused the game after surfacing and had the rather creepy breathing of Kate in the menu. There was also a part near the start when the elevator has just fallen in a cutscene only to magically reappear and then disappear when the game started back up. Even one of the cutscenes was missing audio (and I assume video as well) during the reveal of the antagonist in the final act. Of course, these are all cosmetic issues but it distracts from the immersion for the player, making the game feel rushed and unfinished.
However, even with these faults the weakest part of the game is its audio. The soundtrack is comprised of fairly uninspired loops that will eventually grind at you, although they do give you a decent indication of when enemies are nearby to not make it totally redundant. This isn’t the worst assault on your ears that the game gives you though; no, that prize is deservedly won by the voice acting. Not only is the delivery hit and (mainly) miss with horribly punctuated subtitles adding confusion but the accents baffled me a large portion of the time. The Scottish accent of Scoot (and his horrible, horrible jokes) is so hammed up it’s almost embarrassing and I have absolutely no idea if Kate was meant to be English, Irish or American at times. It’s almost as if they felt they had to throw in as many stereotypical accents into this game as possible, neatly rounded off by a tough-as-nails American and a Russian called Roddrick Morton (yeah, I’m still mighty confused by that one.) As such I’m fully expecting Spanish, Australian and Japanese accents in the next instalment.
But to the important question; even with all these issues is the game worth the 1200 MS Points? Just barely, and it’s only just clawed its way over the line for that answer. It’s not a bad game, it’s just not a great one either. It has clearly been built around the HydroEngine and it plays well into the gimmick allowing you to create some interesting moments but without it Hydrophobia would be a below average game. You’ll get a day’s worth of action out of it which for the points may seem a little underwhelming but it’s a bold attempt at mixing up survival adventure, it’s just not the best attempt.
- The HydroEngine works well at creating dynamic and interesting encounters
- Online leaderboards create a sense of competition and longevity for the game
- Creating ways to dispatch enemies never gets old
- Horrible, horrible voice-acting
- Controls can take some time to get used to
- Single Player is a little short for the price
The Short Version: Hydrophobia and its water based action can be frustrating to control at times but it’s an interesting concept that just about pulls it off. If you can get past the god awful voice-acting and the average mechanics it worth a look, although if you waited for the price to drop no one would blame you.