As the standard for download titles continues to rise, especially now that Microsoft have lifted the restrictive size cap on XBLA titles, you can’t help but wonder exactly where it will take us. The ambitious Hydrophobia from Dark Energy Digital Ltd undoubtedly offers a glimpse of where we’re headed.
The year is 2051 and the world is on the precipice of environmental disaster. As the population continues to grow, two ideologies battle for supremacy; the Malthusians believe in a radical policy to reduce the world’s population by whatever means necessary, while the Cornucopians believe technology will ultimately solve all the planet’s ills. As usual the rich have found a way to escape the chaos and are ensconced aboard the Queen of the World, a floating City-state that provides refuge from the world’s struggles. It’s this opulent venue which forms the backdrop for the action that unfolds within Hydrophobia.
You play as Kate Wilson, a security engineer aboard the Queen of the World. After what appears to be little more than a series of minor malfunctions aboard the ship, she soon realises that there are more sinister forces at work and the Malthusians have hijacked the ship. It’s up to Kate, who`s assisted by her boss Scoot via two-way radio, to find a way to defeat the threat and uncover exactly why this has happened. Is there more to this incident than meets the eye?
Split into three acts, Hydrophobia is best described as an action adventure game with its eye firmly placed on the spectacular. The games title alone suggests that water plays a large part in the unfolding adventure and the action literally ebbs and flows throughout the game. The vaunted HydroEngine creates some superb, and interesting, scenarios with its physics based manipulation of huge bodies of water. You can feel the resistance that knee-high water creates as Kate puffs and groans to fight her way through it. This also extends to the feeling of panic as the player fights to find an air pocket during an extended dive, helping to ramp up the tension by preying on primal fears which we can all relate to. The entire game is a case of constantly keeping an eye out for potentially hazardous encounters within the environment, since Kate is never more than a glass partition away from imminent danger.
Armed with nothing more than a LP4 pistol which initially fires only sonic rounds to incapacitate enemies, Kate soon finds other types to inflict pain on her foes. It would be wrong to assume that the bulk of the gameplay focuses on combat, as even encounters with gun-toting enemies become environmental puzzles. See the glowing barrel handily bobbing its way towards some enemies? Shoot it with a charged up Sonic round and…BAM! The enemy is now floating face down. But this isn’t a one way street, since Kate is just as susceptible to a stray barrel explosion as much as the terrorists.
While the LP4 certainly comes in handy, the most essential piece of kit at the players disposal is the MAVI (Mobile Automated Visual Interface) hacking module. Bearing a passing resemblance to the Scan Visor from the Metroid Prime games, this is used to access everything from security cameras, to helping to uncover hidden documents and coded ciphers scattered around the ship. It’s also used to hack into control panels by aligning the analogue sticks to a sine wave, but you only have a finite amount of time to do this before you have to start again.
Accessed by simply pressing down on the d-pad and selecting with the right analogue stick, the player will instinctively reach for MAVI every time they enter a new area. The ability to use CCTV cameras even allows you to indulge in rescuing some of the trapped inhabitants of the Queen of the World too. For example, opening a door in a partially flooding compartment will spare the lives of fellow security officers who are about to be summarily executed and the way these sections are handled means Hydrophobia has a similar feel to that cult classic from the PS2-era, Disaster Report.
There are one or two issues that can eat away at the enjoyment of Hydrophobia. The map, which can be viewed in both 2D and 3D, feels ever so slightly like someone’s CAD project gone awry and, when there’s a heavy combat section, it can be a struggle to get Kate through it in one piece as the game tries to artificially create tension that isn’t needed. After all, being on a boat that’s sinking fast already makes for a frantic situation.
Although by far the worst offender here is the voice acting, with Scoot in particular coming in at the top of the list. Here is a man with a Scottish accent so dubious it would have James Doohan laughing in his grave (if he hadn’t been fired into space after his demise) on account of there finally being someone with a worse take on the Scottish brogue than he ever managed in years of playing Star Trek’s Scotty. It actually sounds Chinese on times and if playing with the subtitles on, there are some unintentionally funny moments which bring to mind the time Americans where provided with subtitles for the theatrical screening of Trainspotting. Even Kate can occasionally suffer from a bad case of Penelope Pitstop-syndrome, taking the player out of the moment all too easily.
But these slights are only really an issue because there’s a genuine sense of quality to the rest of Hydrophobia and it’s the only reason you notice the annoyances. When a game mostly delivers on its pre-release hype, it can be hard to fault it for having ambitions, especially when it mostly succeeds in reaching them.
Hydrophobia brings to mind that period in the 80’s when filmmakers were experimenting with big budgets with varying degrees of success. While it doesn’t manage to hit all its targets, it manages to provide a quality experience while it lasts, with the cliffhanger ending merely serving to whet the appetite for future instalments.