Hydrophobia is one of the most ambitious new titles for XBox 360’s XBox Live Arcade. Using the HydroEngine to power the game, Dark Energy Studios creates a dark future with some of the most impressive water technology ever seen in gaming. Taking a third person shooter and adding it to this new environment, Hydrophobia attempts to reach new levels of a download only title both visually and in terms of technology.
Hydrophobia isn’t a standard third person action shooter. Employing a cover system similar to that of Kane & Lynch 2 or Alpha Protocol, Hydrophobia is a thinking man’s shooter. Fans of running in guns blazing will quickly feel how fast they can be gunned down in a flicker of glory.
Starting off with a pistol that shoots non-lethal stun rounds, Kate must navigate the halls of her hijacked vessel using the environment as her weapon. She can ignite gas canisters and venting pipes, break glass walls holding back gallons of water and unleash electrical surges on her unsuspecting opponents.
The controls for this system haven’t been perfectly honed yet and players will find times where they cannot properly move will in the cover system despite an enemy flanking them in to a corner. More times than naught, certain gameplay aspects like the actual cover provided by a cover object or a jump in an opposing direction don’t work as well as one would hope which leads to a string of repeated deaths.
There are also times the gameplay can hit dead ends when certain objectives either aren’t explained thoroughly enough. The difficulty can be somewhat reminiscent of titles from the NES days that the difficulty became more frustrating than rewarding for beating certain areas of games.
Hydrophobia follows a somewhat standard video game story of the unlikely protagonist thrust into a treacherous situation where they are forced to become a hero. A systems engineer, Kate Wilson must navigate the Queen of the World, a massive ship that she has been living on, as it is under attack from the Malthusians, a sect of zealots who believe that the population of the world has exceeded the range which the planet can support and the only way to deal with that is to start taking people out.
Kate is guided through by her friend Scoot who takes on an almost Cortana-like role. Scoot provides both tension and lighthearted joking when needed and ends up becoming a more likable character than Kate.
When working on the game, Dark Energy Digital posed the idea of a tangible future. They didn’t want to create a world filled with magical powers, aliens or unrealistic antagonists. Instead, they took the Malthusian concept and turned it into a religious movement while taking into effect scientific concepts like Global Warming and basic technological upgrades that are within the realm of reality.
As a byproduct, gamers experience a game that could actually come to pass instead of a fully escapist storyline like that of a Halo or Singularity.
Hydrophobia is one of the most visually impressive games released on the XBox Live Arcade yet. The amount of effort taken into the look of the game shows a labor of love from the development team over at Dark Energy Digital. Years ago. Half-Life 2 showcased the next generation of technology with its water effects.
Now, someone has been able to take all that and not only add to it visually with constantly moving visual effects but made those effects part of the game’s physics as well. While the levels themselves are not super impressive art styles like that of a Bioshock, they are great interactive environments to explore both under and out of water. Floating oil slicks on fire and constant electrical currents alongside gas pouring from lines and the underwater particle effects give creedence to the impressiveness of Hydrophobia’s coding which compresses these next-gen visuals in a file only 1 GB in size.
The audio is also very well done with some great sound effects for a ship collapsing in on itself. Pipes burst and walls creek to give players a great immersion into this world. The stark change in sound effects when players go underwater and the world muffles around them does a fantastic job of adding to this immersion as well.
If nothing else, Hydrophobia is nothing short of ambitious. Though the gameplay carries with it a high level of difficulty and some areas can be terribly uncomfortable due to control snafus, Hydrophobia is full of visual feats unseen yet in the world of XBox Live Arcade. Instead of going with the “less is more” mentality of a game like Limbo, Hydrophobia believes that “more is more” in its presentation and this belief works well in setting players off into this new realm of a tangible future. Seeing and feeling the level constantly changing around you differently each time is something no other game has done yet. The potential of where this technology can lead will be Hydrophobia’s real legacy.
XBox Live Arcade
Developer: Dark Energy Digital
Publisher: Microsoft Games Studios
Price: 1200 Microsoft Points ($15.00)