Review: Hydrophobia

Xbox Live Arcade Review

Much has been made of the technical achievements which power Hydrophobia. And rightly so, there are a number of things which, behind the scenes, make this game a remarkable feat of digital wizardry. Ultimately, though, the success of the game will rely not on the technology behind it but on the narrative and game-play mechanisms which that technology facilitates.

Hydrophobia is set aboard an enormous floating city (the Queen of the World), built and managed by five large corporations seeking a way to solve the planet’s massive problems with over-population. The proposition is that, no matter how great the number of humans on Earth, technology will provide a solution.

In stark contrast to that are the Malthusians, followers of a political ideology that assumes a population cull is required in order to prolong the existence of humanity. The action kicks in when the Malthusians infiltrate and attack the Queen of the World, bent on proving their theory is correct and halting any progress made by the corporations.

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Save the world, kill yourself. It’s a stark statement that is daubed on walls, projected on video screens and espoused by terrorist figureheads throughout the game. That one sentence effectively sums up the disregard for individual human life that the Malthusians hold.

The game starts in the protagonist’s (Kate Wilson) apartment. She’s an engineer with a night off to enjoy the ten-year-anniversary celebrations on the ship. But she’s a workaholic who quickly decides, much to the amusement of her boss (Scoot), that her night off is not as important as investigating why the television signal has gone down. This investigation leads to catastrophe and Kate finds herself faced with a terrorist infiltration and a sinking ship. Luckily she has a background in climbing and a comm.-link with Scoot to help her through.

For the first section of the game you are without weapons, relying on your agility to see you through some of the climbing and platforming sections which set the scene for much of what is to come. The limited contact you have with enemies must be negotiated stealthily and quickly. This introduces another of the tenets of narrative in Hydrophobia: the vulnerability. I’m sure many people will draw comparisons with Ripley in the Alien movies but it’s not quite as simple as that.

Kate’s vulnerability is a very human one. She’s not living in some far-flung space-ship avoiding aliens and using mech suits. We can easily empathise with her plight because it is believable. The technology featured in the game, from the flexible-screened MAVI to the ammunition types she eventually finds, are all things we are on the cusp of seeing in the real world. Even the population projections and the political stances are not entirely without basis in today’s reality. So, we can envisage this near-future and that makes the story all the more believable and Kate all the more sympathetic.

Your weaponry, when you attain it, consists of a pistol which is capable of firing several different types of ammunition which are suited to particular situations. Ammunition is in short supply though so you are actively encouraged to use your Sonic rounds (a kind of chargeable pulse weapon) to make the environment itself into a weapon. Your score is even multiplied based on environmental kills and combos and there are leader-boards for each act as well as an overall board to ensure that you will want to return to beat your friends’ scores.

The game’s pacing is brisk and involving. There is always another waypoint to reach or an area to move through and it never feels laboured, even though you are backtracking through previously visited areas on occasion. The AI is smart and relentless but, after an initial period of acclimatising, you will become comfortable with using the environment to even the odds a little with plenty of reliance on explosive barrels, gas leaks, electric circuits and gushing water.

Enemies will advance fast and hard on you while you’re staying in cover. Use the floating patches of oil fires to set them alight and they’ll rush you in an effort to take you with them. They’re not only largely fearless, they’re focused and intelligent. Enemies will sometimes use the explosive barrels or gas leaks against you in much the same way that you’ve been using them. There is no let up in certain sections and the listing ship, continuously sloshing water and multitude of explosions and electrical crackling really add to the atmosphere – and the pressure.

The addition of the augmented reality view that the MAVI gadget offers is cleverly done. Rather than supply you with a visor switch as in Halo: ODST or Detective Vision as in Batman: Arkham Asylum, Hydrophobia gives you a flexible screen which assists your vision and shows hidden messages. There is a clear cost/reward mechanic to this as you can’t fire a weapon, take cover or jump while the MAVI is in use. You have to choose when it’s safe to use it (you can also open doors and control CCTV with it) and when it’s best to keep it in your pocket.

It’s not all glowing praise though, on occasion the voice acting with Kate and Scoot can be a little overdone and it sometimes seems to sit too clearly in the audio mix so it can sound a little removed from the environment. While it is refreshing to hear Scoot’s Scottish accent, Mancunian enemies and Kate’s Irish lilt in a video game (without the all-too-common rush to stereotype) it might not work so well outside of Britain and Ireland.

The game ends a little abruptly. Although it is at a sensible point for the storyline it seems to cut the third act slightly short. There are rare issues with signposting too; it’s not always entirely clear where you’re heading and the map can be difficult to decipher. These small points are easily forgiven when set against the array of things that the game gets so right but it shows that there is still some room for refinement in the second episode.

Weighing in at around five to six hours for a normal difficulty run through, this game has enough narrative length and replayability to be considered alongside many modern disc-based games. The unlockable challenge room hints at further storyline developments as well as providing a horde-mode style of game-play, an extra leaderboard to compete on and just a fun area to play with the physics and those beautiful water effects.

Pros:

  • Great atmosphere and emotion.
  • Stunning technology means no load times and entirely dynamic water.
  • Imaginative use of the engine to enhance game-play rather than rule it.
  • The most full-feeling experience yet available on this distribution model.

Cons:

  • Voice work is a little rough in places.
  • Seems to stop very suddenly.

Hydrophobia is a really good game in comparison to all the recent examples in the genre. The water tech and lack of any sort of loading times will grab headlines but when you push those to one side there is an extremely competent game here too. It compares favourably with the full, disc-based retail games but within the download space it is completely without peers. This game has the potential to change the way we think about downloadable titles and the way publishers think about selling them to us. It would still be a bargain at twice the price.

Score: 9/10

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28 Comments

  1. Looks quite interesting CB.

    Now to get an Xbox…

    • wait for the full PS3 release.

  2. I know there’s a perpetual debate about reviews on this place, but Edge – who are hard in their reviews – wouldn’t give it a 3 if it wasn’t fairly poor. Looking on Metacritic, it’s sitting with a 67 which is no great shame, but also a score/game I’m comfortable missing out on.

    The other critic reviews over there aren’t really glowing either (mainly barring the “official” mag ones).

    Suppose it’s all about opinions and for the weight they carry, a reviewer is still only a single opinion.

  3. Uh oh, once I heard this was heading for a retail release once all the downloadable episodes were up I wondered if it was just going to be a full game broken up into bits as some sort of experiment, and the review stating the sudden stop nature of it has me thinking this may very well be the case.

    Either way, I AM looking forward to playing it for myself at some point. It looks very nice.

  4. might download the 360 demo and wait for the full PS3 version.

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