In: Reviews by Nick "Alsop Live" Dinicola27 Sep 2010
The story revolves around Kate Wilson and the hijacking of the Queen of the World, a massive boat that puts the Titanic to shame. After reading through all the in-game documents I collected over my playthrough, I think the Queen of the World is supposed to be a nation unto itself, a wonder of technology that proves humans can live in a world flooded from climate change. Its police are concerned with border security and people smuggling, and the hijackers vandalize the walls with graffiti that states “Save the world. Kill yourself,” which sounds like ecoterrorism. This makes Hydrophobia seem like a politically minded, futuristic Die Hard. It’s a fascinating idea, but the actual story falls way short of that. I’m making a lot of assumptions in my synopsis because so little is actually explained in the game itself. It’s a good story idea that ends up less than half realized.
The controls and camera are fidgety, which makes some of the platforming sections annoying, but this isn’t actually the deal-breaker it is for most games. While Hydrophobia may look like a third-person shooter, it’s not. It’s more of an adventure game with lots of environmental puzzle solving and some occasional combat. And that’s a good thing. If this were a twitch shooter, the controls would ruin the experience, but as it stands now they’re just annoying. When you’re hiding behind cover the camera and controls cease to be a problem because you’re not moving.
Combat revolves around you getting into cover and analyzing the environment. The environmental interaction and water physics come into play here, and these are the best parts of the game. There’s always something in the world that you can use to kill an enemy: Explosive barrels, electrical circuits, wires, gas tanks, and even windows to flooded rooms. Shooting out the glass and watching a bad guy get swept off his feet never gets old. This is a great mash-up of genres, it’s a cover-based puzzle-shooter that works and is fun, and I hope to see more games imitate it. But it’s also the only thing Hydrophobia gets right. Well, apart from the awesome hacking mini-game.
Even the combat feels half-realized when you start picking up new ammo types. There are five types of ammo, and most are unnecessary. There’s an explosive gel ammo that’s certainly handy and fun, but then there’s another ammo type that explodes with electricity instead of fire, which just seems redundant. Then you’ll pick up real bullets, semi-auto and full-auto ammo that turn the game into a standard third-person shooter, which is exactly what it shouldn’t be. The developers should have just stuck with the default sonic rounds. Sometimes less is more.
The graphics are good, but a poor art style leads to much frustration. Everything looks the same; it’s all engine-room grey all the time. This does makes sense since you’re actually in a big engine room, but when you’re swimming through hallways that could literally have been copied and pasted from each other it’s easy to get lost and drown and have to start over. Again and again. It doesn’t help that the game never gives you proper directions, leaving you to fumble around the repetitive environment until you finally find the right door.
The poor art even affects combat. The enemy uniforms have a similar color scheme as the walls, which lets them blend into the background so effectively that I may as well be fighting cloaked enemies. I’ll get shot and look in that direction, but I won’t actually be able to make out the bad guy until he either moves or shoots again.
Somehow, all these flaws still don’t totally ruin the experience. If this is all the game had to offer it would still be worth playing, though not buying, but Hydrophobia’s ultimate undoing is its ending: There isn’t one. It’s “to be continued.” Now, this isn’t the first game to end on a cliffhanger, but even Assassin’s Creed and DeathSpank provided some resolution before setting up their sequels. Hydrophobia offers no resolution; in fact the ending comes out of nowhere, as if the developers played a game of darts to determine where their game should end. It’s that random and unexpected. The only logical reason to end the game where they did is that there wasn’t enough development time to make a full game, which then begs the question, why release it at all?
Things get even weirder when you beat the game and unlock the Challenge Room, where Kate gets the power to control water. It’s definitely a fun element of the game, lifting waves and drowning people in them, but it begs another question: Why wasn’t this in the main game? One gets the feeling that it was meant to be in the main game, but the story never reached that point. The developers rightly knew this was too cool a power to pass up, so they created a contrived challenge room to let players mess around with it.
As you play Hydrophobia you’ll probably feel like this is a game filled with half-realized good ideas, but once you hit that ugly ending you’ll realize that it’s not just a game filled with half-realized ideas, it’s quite literally half a game. The simple truth is that Hydrophobia should not have come out now.
Dark Energy Digital/Microsoft Game Studios
Xbox Live Arcade Marketplace
Available September 29