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Review: Hydrophobia

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Hydrophobia review for Play2Compete.com.

Dark Energy Digital are attempting to broaden their horizons having mostly dabbled in pool and snooker games in the past, and their flagship no-white-ball game is survival-adventure Hydrophobia. 3 years were spent lovingly crafting and shaping Hydrophobia’s dynamic HydroEngine, the first fluids engine focussed on modeling free-flowing water with a high degree of realism. Special care was given to make sure it would interact with the Havok physics engine so inanimate objects could be swept away in the flood of water, making the liquid characteristics as authentic and life-like as possible. Boy oh boy did they succeed there.

Set on the ship named “The Queen of the World”, Hydrophobia puts us smack dab in the middle of the 21st century, where the world’s biggest problem is overpopulation. People breeding like rabbits and creating more mouths to feed without creating enough food to feed them all has made earth a desperate place. In order to create a haven from this pain, the Queen of the World was created by insanely wealthy men known as The Four Founding Fathers. It’s the biggest ship ever made, the size of a city, and was created as refuge for the richest of the rich. Underneath all this grandeur and lavishness, an uprising is rippling beneath the surface. Terrorists calling themselves Neo-Malthusians (after Thomas Malthus, an 18th century political economist who predicted one day population growth would occur so rapidly that ensuring sustenance for all those people would become impossible) have stormed the ship on her 10th Anniversary bash to start their ambush, with the main aim being to curb population growth in the good old fashioned way, genocide. A game with an incredible physics engine needs a great premise to go with it, a reason to show it off. Boy oh boy did they find it.

We meet Kate Wilson, our dread-locked protagonist, in her apartment getting ready for work. She’s a systems engineer for the ship and is in almost constant contact with her Mouse-esque colleague Scoot, a Scottish engineer, via earbud. As the game progresses you are witness to some shockingly pretty graphics, the first glimpse of an exploding water drum or shooting the glass door of a water filled tank and watching the water cascade out of the opening is enough to make you sit back and make some impressed non-vocal noises with your mouth. As the game progresses further however…. the novelty wears off. The game play has been struck down with a crippling case of the Samey Sames. Boy oh boy did they cock that up.

Such promise! It’s pretty, it has a good story, how can you mess that up? A few ways. Clunky awkward controls, boring repetitive level design, a dull main character, overly-tense sound, and lacklustre voice acting. Every mission you were sent on seemed to involve needing to go through a certain door, which was encrypted by the Malthusians. You needed to find a “frequency key”, then find a cipher the Malthusians left to communicate with each other. Once you found the frequency key and the cipher you could unlock the encrypted door. I lost count of how many times I had to do this, it felt like it was all I ever did. Even the dialogue acknowledged how boringly repetitive the game was being: “Kate you need to go through the door to the loading bay, and guess what! It’s encrypted!” Scoot says in a tone that just makes you want to punch him. Every corridor looked the same, every mission was roughly the same. You can’t do X because of Y, so address Y then achieve X. Rinse and repeat. Most likely using lots of that pretty-but-fairly-useless water lying around everywhere. The music was overly tense to the point of me catching myself tightening my stomach muscles while playing or lifting my shoulders – even at a point where the game play was not exciting or particularly difficult, which gets exhausting after a while. The combat was interesting for the first few hours, mainly using environmental items in which to take out any rogue Malthusians. You could shoot gas tanks to make them explode, use the water to your advantage, shoot electric lines to make them drop onto unsuspecting victims, and of course shoot the classic red splodey barrel. But after a while it just became clunky and the cover system was mediocre. You had to wait for a “Toggle A to Cover” sign to appear on screen before you were actually allowed to cover, and this didn’t come up until you tried to move through the wall, sometimes not knowing which wall you were wanting to lean against. Very irritating when a pissed off terrorist is slowly approaching to not be able to cover and find yourself just standing there. Using the Mavi (a device used to scan for ciphers, it picks up the invisible ink the Malthusians are using to communicate with each other) was a nice touch but overused when using it for detecting ciphers AND hacking consoles, which involved you wiggling your 2 control sticks to bend wavelengths to match each other.

Kate Wilson herself was anything but inspiring. It was fantastic to see a strong female character that wasn’t sexed up, but she was still just beige. The opening cinematic shows her as a young girl almost drowning, giving her a morbid fear of water (hence the name, despite Hydrophobia not being a fear of water at all, that’s aquaphobia). Yet she decides to work on a ship surrounded by it. When the ship is attacked and starts going down you would think she would start having some sort of fit, but for someone who has had a near drowning experience she’s surprisingly calm. In one mission she needs to swim for a long way underwater, holding her breath, with no room to surface for air until she’s at the end. This would be utterly traumatic for the best of swimmers let alone Wilson, but all she says at the end of that between huffs and puffs is “s**t!”. Just when I got excited to see a strong female character, she ended up needing saving too. Sigh.

Hydrophobia does many things right, but not enough to excuse its wrongs for me. For a title that took 3 years to develop there should be a stronger polish than this, there should be a stronger story to our resistant protagonist who just found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. There should be more love in the details. Hydrophobia is episodic, and there wasn’t enough to impress me in this game to play any further adventures. It was pretty, and if you subscribe to the “good for an XBLA game” mentality then you’d most likely be impressed, but looking at things on a level playing field (the developers want you to, they refer to it as a AAA quality title) it has not rocked my socks. Side effects may include: A monotony induced controller slam, the urge to write on your walls with invisible ink, an uncontrollable desire to see how long you can hold your breath underwater, and ‘meh’.

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