Midway games may be no more, but that doesn't mean its heritage can't live on. Before the iconic publisher was swallowed up by bankruptcy proceedings, one of the little-known deals it made was to license the Hydro Thunder name to Microsoft. Microsoft was interested in the IP because it was working with Vector Unit, a small northern California startup led by two industry veterans, on developing a prototype water racing game into a full title. Although the team at Vector Unit didn't work on the original game, they did have experience with water-based gaming in the form of Blood Wake for the original Xbox. It also didn't hurt that they were fans of Hydro Thunder.
With Hydro Thunder Hurricane nearing completion, Vector Unit invited a group of gaming outlets to join them for a few rounds of competitive multiplayer on the water. Given that it was our first chance to check out a playable version of the game, we jumped at the chance.
Thankfully, the biggest question we had was answered right out of the gate: Vector Unit nailed the control scheme of the original game. This doesn't just look like Hydro Thunder. It is Hydro Thunder through and through. From the floaty jumps to the liberal boost power-ups and the sliding turns, everything that players loved about the original arcade game is back. Don't mistake Hydro Thunder Hurricane for a remake, though. While it may look and feel like the original, everything here is brand-new.
Taking inspiration from the original, every track in Hydro Thunder Hurricane is completely over-the-top. One track had us racing through Area 51, jumping into a portal that looked mysteriously like a Stargate, and continuing the race on an alien planet before returning to Area 51 to complete the track. Another started us off in a Scandinavian village, only to be accosted later on by Thor himself. Finally, there was the nice, mellow, tropical island course. It wasn't all that strange on the first lap, but when Nessie appeared later on in the race, it was a nice surprise, not to mention a creative obstacle. P.S.: Don't ask how she got out of Loch Ness. Even sea monsters need a vacation sometime.
With up to eight human players on the track, races were a blast. Boats could interact with each other physically, allowing for a rogue player to cause a four- to five-boat pileup as well as indirectly. All of the water physics are independently modeled, so the chop from an opponent's boat will have an effect on you if you're racing close behind. Boost is available to all players all the time, so you don't have to worry about missing out on a power-up simply because the boat in front of you grabbed it. The game balances the boost distribution by decreasing the amount available in each pickup to the front runner and increasing the amount available to those in the back of the pack, but other than that, there are no behind-the-scenes shenanigans affecting the outcome of the race.
Aside from your driving skills, the only other major impact on performance is going to be the boat that you choose for the race. Hydro Thunder Hurricane ships with a number of boats (and even more just waiting to be unlocked), all of which handle differently. Learning to master some of the more advanced boats will give you an advantage, but it's also easier to screw up in a twitchier boat. Although our sample size was small, our initial play session seems to indicate that Vector Unit has nailed the balance part of the game because quite a few tracks had the top three or four players all finishing within one second of each other.
Perhaps the one area where we were a little underwhelmed was in the matchmaking. Unlike a lot of other online games that have spoiled us with fancy matchmaking lobbies, automatic playlists and veto power for maps, Hydro Thunder Hurricane is decidedly old-school. The host controls all here. It's simple and direct, but a little less flexible than we would have liked.
System link is not an option, but split-screen is available if you just want to game on the couch with some friends. Up to four players can jump in on a local split-screen race. If you feel like mixing it up with more than four, you can combine split-screen with online play via Live. This is an option that more games should offer.
Since the event was multiplayer-focused, we didn't get a chance to check out the single-player component, but we did get a quick heads-up from Vector Unit on what to expect. Single-player mode offers the traditional arcade race option, as well as Ring Master, Gauntlet and Championship modes. Ring Master has you racing around a track while going through all of the ring gates. Because the gates are preset, it also serves as a sort of training mode that reveals some of the best lines (and shortcuts) through each track. Gauntlet is a time trial, with the minor addition of exploding barrels as an obstacle. Finally, Championship mode combines the previous events (Gauntlet, Race and Ring Master) into a series where you face off against a full set of AI opponents.
As a XBLA exclusive, Hydro Thunder Hurricane has spent the last few months running under the radar, but there's no reason for this gem to stay hidden any longer. Barring any unforeseen issues, Vector Unit appears to have hit its target dead center and looks to be delivering a worthy sequel. If you're not into arcade style racing games, then Hydro Thunder Hurricane isn't going to do it for you, but for fans of the original as well as classic titles like San Francisco Rush, this is one game that should be on your watch list.
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