The quality of games that are delivered over a digital distribution service has grown by leaps and bounds over the past five years. At first, it consisted of casual puzzle games and time management titles. For those seeking older titles, the digital download space was also their new destination. There was the occasional experimental game here and there, but generally, digitally distributed games kept it simple.
Developers of digitally distributed games have started to get ambitious and are making larger games that look just as good as their disc-based counterparts but bring something new to the table. Hydrophobia, a title developed by Dark Energy Digital for Microsoft's Game Feast promotion, is such a title. It tries to look like a scaled-down version of an average Xbox 360 title, but it offers something different: the physics of water. No one will deny that the water behavior in this title is grand. Is the title worthy of being placed in the spotlight?
Hydrophobia's story is pretty standard, though it is spiced up by the inclusion of politics. It is set in the distant future, where the world is grossly overpopulated and the earth no longer has the means to sustain all of the life forms on the planet. On board the Queen of the World, the largest vessel the world has ever seen, is a group of businessmen known as the Five Founding Fathers. These five men have survived some of the more turbulent moments and are ready to unveil a device that would allow the rest of the world to live without fear of starvation and lack of clean water.
On the day of the unveiling, a group of terrorists invades the ship. Calling themselves the Neo-Malthusians, after the politician and economist who predicted a resource/population imbalance would occur in the future, the group is bent on the destruction of the device and the murder of the ship's inhabitants so that nature may balance itself through the thinning of the human population. You play as Kate Wilson, a Security Engineer on board the Queen of the World. Like many action heroes before her, she just happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Despite your own fear of water, you take it upon yourself to stop the terrorists before their plans succeed.
At first glance, Hydrophobia is pretty similar to Tomb Raider, except it's set against a futuristic backdrop instead of old ruins. Despite being a civilian, Kate is pretty adept at shimmying across ledges and jumping great distances. She also excels at walking across narrow beams and swimming, despite her apparent fear of water, so she's quite an acrobatic engineer. Her stealth skills are basic, as she can take cover behind walls and walk slowly while ducking, but don't expect her to hide in lockers anytime soon. During the middle of the game, she gains access to a pistol with interchangeable rounds. The pistol gives her access to regular bullets, rapid-fire ones, gel bullets that act like remote mines and so forth, but since they're limited in supply, you'll have to rely on the default sonic bullets. You have an infinite supply of the non-lethal ordnance, and while you can eventually kill someone by plugging them with 10 of the fully charged variety, your better option would be to use the environment to do the killing.
Environmental kills offer the player a chance at creativity and fun. While you can access much more powerful ammunition as the game progresses, it is more satisfying to force your enemies to drown in knee-high water or set them on fire with exploding barrels. Positioning said barrels to explode near the enemy, while tricky, requires some good planning and foresight — something that few shooters ever attempt. Another fun aspect comes from the Challenge Room, which is unlocked after you beat the game. The room is essentially a survival mode where you try to survive wave after wave of enemies using whatever you have at your disposal. While your gun and available ammo are still a good way to dispatch enemies, you're also given the power to control water. You can raise towers of water in the room, shift barrels into position, knock large crates into enemies, or just use it to trap enemies inside and drown them. The added power, while slightly tricky to control, is fun to use, so hopefully we'll see Kate use it in the future.
Short gameplay time has become common with current games, though it doesn't affect a downloadable title as much as it does a full disc-based game. What affects Hydrophobia is the pacing; it feels like certain sections are only devoted to one kind of activity. The first act is all about dexterity; you try to shy away from combat and prevent yourself from getting killed amid the stray electrical wires and fires. The second act is more balanced, as you have a nice mix of puzzle-solving, platforming and gunplay. The third act, also the shortest, is purely a shooting act with barely a hint of platforming. While the transition from acts one to two feel smooth enough, the transition from two to three feels rough and rushed, especially the way act three ends.
The third act also brings up the issue of HUD, or lack thereof. Unless you change your ammo often, you never get a good count of how much of one type of bullet you have in reserve. Consequently, when swimming, you have to experiment with the various levels of red tint you can get before Kate completely drowns since there's no visible meter for how much air she has in her lungs. The HUD-less screen makes for a prettier title, but in a few cases, it would have been nice and less frustrating if we had an option to determine the display of these important meters.
Graphically, Hydrophobia is mostly impressive. As stated earlier, the water is the big highlight and behaves rather realistically. Water rushing in from an open doorway or a broken window will knock around objects and people, making it a great weapon in bad situations. It also looks great in all situations, from the small leaks throughout the ship to the flooded rooms. Other particle effects — like fire, gas and electrical sparks — also look good, especially since they seem to be everywhere at all times.
The environments look decent, though they tend to look the same since you're surrounded by metal corridors for most of the game. By the time you finally get to the open plaza of the ship, everything is so ruined that you don't really get to enjoy the neon lights. For the most part, both the heroes and enemies look good and animate well enough, whether they're jumping, getting shot or getting knocked down by giant waves of water. Where the graphics begin to falter is when the Havok physics kick in. More often than not, the figures behave fine when the rag-doll effects occur, but you can create situations with your sonic bullets where enemies go through stairs and walls or they fly high enough to get stuck on the overhangs. The fact that you can do this quite often is a sign that there were collision issues that weren't fixed before the game's release.
The game makes a few odd choices when it comes to the controls. Jump, for example, is mapped to the Y button instead of A, like most other games. You also have the ability to holster or equip the pistol with the right bumper, though you can just use the right trigger to fire off a shot. In the Challenge Rooms, your right analog stick is used to throw around your water powers. The issue is that the same stick also controls your camera, so everything is confusing in the heat of battle. Beyond that, the controls are pretty responsive most of the time, though there were a few situations where Kate didn't want to climb up to another ledge until the right spot was found. There didn't seem to be a reason why she was obstructed from jumping up, but it is something to note if you want to perform a series of rapid leaps.
Despite some minor issues, the sound in Hydrophobia is quite engaging. The music does a good job of mirroring the tempo of the game, going faster once a place is being flooded or enemies are afoot and slowing down once immediate danger has passed. There's rarely a moment when music isn't playing, and the balance of volume between that and the effects is done well enough that one doesn't overpower the other.
The effects are also good. The gunfire is fine, the rush of the water sounds great, and the sound of glass breaking has a nice pitch to it. There is a constant hum to the ship through most of the game, and you start to tune it out until you pause the game or pick up an item when things go silent and you notice just how loud everything is. The quality of the voices varies. The enemies sound the same, but they get the job done. Most of the time, you'll just hear them scream but when they do talk, their lines fit well enough. Your boss, Scoot, has a heavy Scottish accent, and while he still understandable as he speaks to you, there are times when his vocal inflections seem off for the situation. The same can be said for Kate, who has a mix between an American and British accent. Her delivery is quite good most of the time. Overall, the vocal performances are good enough that you'll be fine with a few bad deliveries here and there.
Hydrophobia is a good title that doesn't last for too long. The controls may not suit everyone's tastes but it excels graphically and audibly and raises the bar on the technical proficiency of downloadable games. The story is interesting, though some more background about why Kate hates the water — or showing her express some real fear about the water — would have gone a long way in strengthening it. It would have also helped if the ending didn't feel so abrupt. Hydrophobia is a pretty good title that should improve in a few areas by the time the second episode rolls around.
More articles about Hydrophobia