Review: Hydrophobia

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A new brand of survival horror has arrived with Dark Energy’s episodic Xbox Live Arcade title, Hydrophobia. Gone are the zombies and other undead creatures. Gone are the psychological tricks, pop-up scares and buckets of gore. Hydrophobia is a third-person action-horror game that plays on real-life fears of water, darkness and claustrophobia rather than paranormal oddities and unbelievable monsters. And for the most part it succeeds at generating this unique sense of fear and tension, thanks to a groundbreaking water simulation engine and a game world rich in graphical detail and atmospheric audio.

Hydrophobia takes place on a massive “city-at-sea” known as the Queen of the World and stars one of the ship’s engineers, Kate Wilson, who is forced to face her fears of water after a terrorist group attacks the ship and sends it sinking to an explosive, watery death.

There is a deeper story somewhere in here, but sadly it’s buried underneath such lousy writing and voice acting that I just couldn’t get myself to care as much as I desperately wanted to. The less-than-satisfying way the game comes to a close doesn’t help matters either. This is the first part in what’s planned to be an episodic series spanning three parts, so I was fully expecting a cliffhanger after my five to six hours with the game before I even started. However, what I got was a Kane & Lynch 2 style ending, where the episode abruptly cuts off without getting you jazzed to see what happens when Kate’s underwater dilemma continues.

The game itself has issues of its own, but definitely fares much, much better than the plot setup suggests. Hydrophobia is a third-person shooter based around a standard issue cover system and the typical survival-horror mechanic of skulking down dark corridors lit only by the cone of a flashlight. Basic platforming and exploration play large roles as well, as navigating the sinking ship requires Kate to climb up and shimmy across pipes, tight-rope narrow beams, swim through flooded hallways, and leap between ledges. The game also throws the occasional hacking mini-game at you, and from time to time you have to hunt for ciphers to unlock doors using a hand-held augmented reality device to scan walls for the invisible codes.

What sets Hydrophobia apart from other third-person action/horror games is the HydroEngine, a proprietary physics engine created over three years by Dark Energy specifically to simulate dynamic water flow in video games. I’d say they succeeded, because this game’s water effects are by far the most realistic I’ve ever seen. But the water is more than just the pretty special effect it’s used for in other games. In Hydrophobia, the water is an interactive character that you are constantly at odds with – in addition to being a pretty special effect. Sure, you do fight against actual bad dudes with guns, but water is this game’s real antagonist. Yet in certain situations it can also be a trusty sidekick. It’s an intriguing dichotomy.

With the game so obviously built to highlight the HydroEngine, it’s no surprise that every aspect of the gameplay is impacted by water. Puzzles are diverse and interesting, regularly requiring you to think of ways to use the surrounding water to your advantage. Say, opening a nearby door to allow water to drain into the next room, shooting out glass barriers to unleash the water waiting to bust loose behind it, or using water to put out fires. Water can also be used as a weapon to kill terrorists in dynamically sadistic ways, whether you want to drown them, float an exploding barrel their way and blow it up as it flows by, or shoot exposed wires or circuit breakers and have the electrical charge fry them up real nice. Once you’ve complete the game, you also unlock a survival arena mode called the Challenge Room, and in it Kate actually has the ability to kinetically command water to suit her every whim. Needless to say, this is very cool to play around with – but it’s a shame it wasn’t incorporated into the core game.

As a direct enemy, water presents many challenges. The water realistically flows back and forth in waves based on the state of the environment and your actions within it, so as you are moving along you have to be prepared for the current to shift and potentially knock you around or suddenly fill the area. You can be walking along fine, and then “wham,” in the blink of an eye you’ll be fully submerged in the wet stuff. Oil fires spread across the surface of the water too, so you better be sure you’re in a safe place before you blow up any barrels.

This simulated flow of water, unfortunately, can be as much of a nuisance as it is a dynamic gamplay enhancer and impressive graphical flourish. Since you are constantly being knocked around by the shifting H20, the camera tends to jostle around too much with it and the constant rattling and shaking of the perspective can become disorienting enough to almost make you seasick, which in turn can cause you to lose track within the cramped, labyrinthine network of corridors you are so regularly swimming through. I’m sure part of this is by design, and in small doses it’s great for building immersion. But it does become overkill at certain points.

The weakest part of the game, though, is the combat. The developers tried to spice it up with optional ammo types (the main attack is like a taser gun, but you can get ammo like automatic rounds and explosive gels) and a scoring system which rewards you for creative environmental kills and combo chains. But these accouterments aren’t enough to mask the unnecessarily complex control scheme, awkward cover system and dirt-dumb enemy AI. The gunplay isn’t terrible mind you; it just lacks the polish of a true AAA title and mostly feels like an afterthought.

Taking these errors into account, Hydrophobia’s chief problem quickly became clear to me as I played: it is trying too hard to be both a game and a tech demo for the water physics engine, and this split focus takes away from some of the game’s “gamey” aspects. I’m sure that wasn’t the intent; that’s just how it comes across.

But the good news is that the gameplay, although flawed, is plenty playable, and the HydroEngine is impressive enough to carry the game home. If you can put up with the control and camera quirks, Hydrophobia is a game I highly recommend checking out and hope gets the chance to sustain itself into future episodes as planned. Just play the trial version first to be safe.

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Pros:
+ The most amazing water physics ever; the water is a character rather than a special effect
+ Using water as a weapon and puzzle solver is dynamic and exciting
+ Tense, claustrophobic atmosphere scares you in a new way
+ Impressive all-around audiovisual production

Cons:
– Weak acting, writing and ending kill what could have been a compelling storyline
– Stiff, overly complex controls
– Disorienting camera shakes and turns

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Dark Energy
Release Date: 9/29/2010
Genre: Survival Horror
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!