REVIEW / Hydrophobia (XBLA)

The water level. Bane of experienced gamers and crutch of lazy developers, the obligatory backstroke through a drowned, hazard-filled passageway has been a much-maligned staple of videogames ever since a certain Italian plumber first deigned to dampen his moustache. Which is why it’s so surprising developer Dark Energy Digital has made a game that’s essentially one great big water level. Their downloadable third-person action adventure, Hydrophobia, takes place on a massive super ship called Queen of the World, a futuristic floating city whose advanced technology can possibly alleviate the world’s crippling overpopulation problem. In the midst of a massive party celebrating the vessel’s 10th anniversary, it is beset by anti-technology terrorists who want to thin the population the old-fashioned way, through mass murder. As Kate Wilson, a systems engineer turned reluctant heroine, it’s up to you to stop their insidious plot as the ship floods, outsmarting and outmaneuvering the terrorist as you navigate corridors, stairwells and elevator shafts turned potential watery graves.

Though she may look the part of a futuristic freedom fighter, Kate is no soldier. Modeled after Ellen Ripley from Alien, with just a pinch of  Isaac Clarke from Dead Space, Kate is a working class civilian. A working class civilian with a pathological fear of water, hence the game’s name. With two strikes already against her on the would-be heroine checklist, Kate has to play it smart. Hydrophobia favors exploration over confrontation, so when you do go up against the gun-toting terrorists, you will need to use the environment to your advantage. Pretty early on you’ll get access to a pistol that shoots non-lethal sonic rounds, which though not deadly are enough to down electrical cables, ignite gas pockets, burst fuse boxes and move explosive barrels into place for strategic detonation. Later on you’ll gain better ammunition and some super, sci-fi water manipulating abilities, but in the beginning it’s all about chaining together the environmental kills.

It’s good Hydrophobia is not a straight up shooter, because as a straight up shooter the somewhat imprecise targeting controls and awkward camera angles would really sour the entire experience. But the simple cover system, which allows you to take time aiming, combined with the need for stealth, as a soggy tank top doesn’t do much in terms of shielding against gunfire, actively deters the run and gun approach. No, the best way to handle the game’s firefights is to douse them with water. You can change the water level by shattering windows, exploding walls and opening doors, the sudden influx of a few hundred gallons of sea water into a tight corridor or compartment aiding in drowning, electrocuting or unbalancing enemies long enough to gain the upper hand. You could even flood a room entirely, allowing you to engage in underwater combat, as long as you remember that flooding one area may make passage to another harder later in the game.

Dark Energy Digital’s HydroEngine, the physics engine created specifically for rendering Hydrophobia‘s impressive water effects, makes for water that looks good and moves even better, naturally flowing where it wishes based on changes to the environment.  The same physics engine also controls the gas, smoke and electricity,  which all react realistically and dynamically, ensuring a slightly different experience each playthrough. The combat may not be as satisfying as the sneaking and exploring, but at least it isn’t canned, possessing an organic fluidity that belies the stealth genre’s usual rote memorization of guard routes and security cameras. That being said, there are still plenty of annoying genre staples present – like the massive wooden crates and highly flammable barrels scattered throughout the supposedly high-tech facility. And are we really to believe that the same brilliant minds capable of building and sustaining a city-sized ship thought to install public payphones but not rebreathers? Please. There is some high-tech gadgetry on display in the form of your Mavi, an augmented reality device that’s like a dumbed down version of of Batman: Arkham Asylum ‘s “Detective Vision.” It allows you to remotely open doors, hack security cameras and reveal creepy graffiti painted by the Mark Eko-inspired Malthusian terrorists. Many times getting past a locked security checkpoint means first using your Mavi to find and follow a trail of glowing arrows left by the sleeper agents who planned the attack, leading you to a Cypher that will crack the door code.

These little scavenger hunts, mixed with a frequency-matching mini game used to break into lockers, are fun at first but get more than a little tedious as the game progresses, especially when they send you through submerged passageways. Hydrophobia handles in typical third-person shooter fashion until you’re underwater, and then it’s all awkward camera angles and aggravating dive controls. It doesn’t help that the color scheme above and below the waterline remains a colorless industrial complex grey throughout, which through realistic doesn’t do much to make navigating tireless hallways any less tedious. The developers would have done well to take a page from Mirror’s Edge, highlighting points of interactive interest in a high contrast color. You get something similar when you’re in Mavi mode, but whip it out while underwater and its funeral at sea.  Hydrophobia might not be a rooftop racing game,  but time is just as much of the essence when you’re holding your breath as when you’re being chased by a helicopter.

In terms of looks, Hydrophobia is one of the most impressive downloadable titles available on Xbox Live Arcade, managing to cram into Microsoft’s stringent size limitations the kind of polished graphics and physics engine you’d expect to see in a disc-based release. But beneath the shiny surface, it’s a pretty standard third-person action adventure. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a bad game, especially considering the sheer amount of content you get compares to a boxed release, it’s just that said content isn’t particularly original once you look pass the game’s neat mechanics.  It would have been nice to see more of the Challenge Room’s Hydro Kinetic muscle flexing incorporated into the actual campaign, which has you mostly running back and forth before just fizzling out like a wet firecracker. I don’t know why backtracking to fetch codes and open doors is so much fun in Shadow Complex and yet so tedious in Hydrophobia – perhaps that Metroid magic just doesn’t translate from 2D to 3D – but whatever it is I hope Dark Energy Digital figures it out before the release of the next installment, which is already in development. With a little more personality to match the game’s impressive physics, Hydrophobia could be known as a great game rather than a great technical showcase.

+ Impressive water physics, thanks to HydroEngine
+ High definition graphics, thanks to Infinite Worlds engine
+ Enormous for a downloadable title

– Repetitive code collecting
– Awkward camera when swimming, terrible aiming in combat and no melee attack
– Story just stops. No cliffhanger. No dénouement. It. Just. Stops.