Downloadable games that are not legacy titles, i.e. titles that bring back warm and fuzzy nostalgic feelings of when they were originally released a decade or so back, usually don�t get my hard-earned cash unless there is something truly unique about them. As such my time at E3 2010 was mainly composed of taking as many of the seemingly endless triple-A titles as possible. However, on the final day as I was about to actually leave the show for my flight back to Austin, I stumbled across a singular console in the Microsoft booth in the South Hall in what I discerned to be a collection of XBLA-bound games. This console was running the oft-mentioned but rarely seen Hydrophobia, a game that I had heard about before but didn�t really stick with me as a must see. Wondering along the aisle with my forty pound backpack that held my camera and my large tripod I decided to capture some footage of the game (which you can watch here) given that I could not recall actual gameplay having been show of it before. It was then that I was approached by Peter Jones, one of the producers of the game. After a conversation about it he agreed (much to my glee) to allow me to capture some footage while he walked me through the game.
Walking away from that half hour demo I was actually excited for it and gave it my rating for the top new IP of the show. Now that the game is here however do I still feel that same way? Row, Row, Row Your Boat
Hydrophobia introduces us to a world that sounds a little too realistic to ignore: a near future where the planet is suffering under a population boom amidst dwindling food resources. In the middle 21st century Earth is experiencing what is called the Great Population Flood where resources are strained to the breaking point and is on the verge of complete chaos. To help separate the wealthy from the affected countries, the fortunate live aboard the Queen of the World, a city-sized vessel that wanders the oceans away from the worries of the rest of the planet. NanoCell, a philanthropic company dedicated to answering the resource question, is set to announce a revolutionary way of producing clean drinking water for countries suffering from the Flood aboard the ship on the Queen�s 10th anniversary.
Enter Kate Wilson, a young systems engineer who is one of the lucky ones to be able to serve on the Queen. Kate suffers from hydrophobia however with fierce memories of her drowned sister haunting her whenever she closes her eyes. After a perceived glitch occurs in the network she maintains she decides to forgo the evening�s festivities and heads below deck to fix the problem, much to the lamentations of her friend and coworker Scoot who is at work himself. As her elevator descends below decks an explosion rocks the ship. The elevator goes into freefall before stopping temporarily thanks to its emergency brakes. Kate scrambles out just in time and discovers the ship has come under attack. Neo-Malthusians, radical follows of Thomas Malthus who believe that the only way to solve the population problem is to eliminate it, have infiltrated the ship and are taking over. Cut off from her network and only the voice of Scoot in her ear Kate has to escape from the engineering decks and somehow make it off the ship alive.
The story of Kate�s journey through the bowels of the Queen of the World is something of intrigue wherein we explore the depth of her trust in Scoot, her paranoia of having to fight the Malthusians, and her constant fear of the water. The combination of these three elements coinciding with the events happening aboard the Queen of the World should theoretically combine in a catalyst of intrigue but the overall delivery of the story ends up being a lacking affair. Most of the story elements are told on-the-fly and don�t allow for much speculation as to the state of the world beyond the Queen, much less anything else happening onboard. Most of the background events can only be discerned from collecting documents littered throughout the game but even these are short and their contents don�t really offer anything of worth to the average player. The Malthusians, probably one of the most intriguing sets of characters in the game come across as your standard angry enemies and there�s little to no depth to them.
The one thing that really got to me about Hydrophobia�s character design and storytelling was that it was delivered in a very flat manner. This is something to expect of many games nowadays but for a planned trilogy of games you would think that the story would actually keep you occupied and driven toward your next goal. Sadly this is anything but true. Character conversations are dry and the accents are both far stronger than anticipated or needed. This may be the hick Texan coming out in me but half the time I was thankful the game has subtitles enabled by default because I very often had a hard time figuring out what the heck Scoot was saying. Kate isn�t much better though her panicked delivery of lines at several moments in the game were very believable. It is also fair to say that I was a little disturbed when the ghostly voice of Kate�s sister came out of nowhere in the middle of an underwater section but since the voice is only used but a handful of times it doesn�t exactly reinforce Kate�s hydrophobia like it should.
The most disappointing part of the story however is sadly the most important part when planning out a series: the ending. Simply put, while the section leading up to it is fraught with tense moments and excellent set pieces the actual ending of the game is one of the biggest cutoffs since Halo 2. You literally meet a character you saw earlier in the game, are given a goal, and the game fades out to a �to be continued� screen. With so much going on at the time and the promise of multiple hours of story gameplay I�d hoped for a lot more than this. One can only hope that Dark Energy improves on this crucial aspect but I�m not crossing my fingers. Gently Down the Stream
The elephant in the room that has to be mentioned is the technology Hydrophobia is made on. Dark Energy�s Hydroengine is something of a marvel in modern gaming (and gaming history in general) thanks to the fact that it is the first game engine out there to actually calculate the physics associated with the flow and movement of water and objects therein. Rarely does water serve any other purpose than to be a cosmetic effect with little more power than to delay and funnel invading army in a strategy game. The Hydroengine however is the real thing and I�ve got to say it is a thing of beauty.
Utilizing physics calculations and theorems I can�t even begin to fathom Dark Energy has someone created something that is both functional as well as properly implementable to a video game. Imagine if you will that you are in a corridor with shotgun-bearing Malthusians coming after you. With little more than sonic rounds in your gun you can only but hope to temporarily stun them but that�s when you notice that window holding back a roomful of water. Charging up your shot you fire and shatter it, watching as hundreds of gallons of water come rushing into the corridor, crashing against objects in the way and causing the enemies to slip and fall. This is no scripted sequence or a one-time event; this is something that occurs quite often within the Hydrophobia gameplay formula.
To put it simply this engine is probably one of the biggest advancements since high dynamic range lighting or even Volition�s GeoMod technology. The movement and power of water is not something to be underestimated in this game: you will live and die by the flow of it. The Hydroengine is also capable of diffusion of other liquids based on their properties so if you cause a barrel filled with oil to explode you will see the remaining oil burning on the surface of the water and you can watch as it moves with the waves. If you find yourself in an underwater combat sequence and get shot you will see blood erupt from your wounds and disperse in the very same manner you expect it to in real life. It�s simply too good to be true and yet it delivers. Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily
Had the game been based entirely around the manipulation of water you could have expected far better reviews of the game but then there�s the gameplay itself. While the Hydroengine is a significant advancement, when you center all of your energy on making it work without complementing all that energy upon the way you actually want players to experience the game you know you are in for some trouble. The basic description one could attribute to the Hydrophobia experience is that of a third person shooter and puzzler. Unfortunately neither of those seem to be properly implemented into the gameplay.
One of the reasons why is how the controls work. Now with a controller like that of the Xbox 360�s there are plenty of buttons to utilize but sadly Dark Energy has seen fit to include an obscure control scheme that doesn�t fit in at all with many of the standards adopted by the development community. For example to select a different type of ammo for your weapon (the game utilizes different ammo as opposed to different weapons which makes sense) you have to hold down right on the d-pad, select your ammo with the right stick, and then depress the d-pad in order to complete the action. The Y button corresponds to jumping which is obscure in this day and age and despite being a cool tool the movement of your perspective when using Kate�s MAVI (a transparent datapad) is quite sluggish.
Movement in the game overall is a mixed bag. Composed of either running or walking the game actually has trouble figuring out when exactly to engage one or the other. Often times I found myself having to return the left analog stick to its original position before pushing it forward all the way just to get Kate to start running. Couple this with a cover system that doesn�t like to work but when you are in just the perfect position and you will find yourself having quite a few retries of various areas that are filled with guns that kill in just a handful of shots. Even if the cover system worked properly the aiming is a problem because the perspective doesn�t reflect the actual direction the shot will go in while in cover. Often times I�d be charging up a sonic round shot and unleashing it only to have it hit the cover I was using and kill myself despite have the targeting reticule clearly lit up red on an enemy or object. Please fix this Dark Energy.
The overall design of the map offers a small dose of intrigue while bathing in a sea of dullness. Almost 90% of the Hydrophobia experience is a corridor crawl with sporadic combat with 5% devoted to larger, more open areas and the remainder devoted to obscure puzzles that are sometimes broken before you enter the room. One section that frustrated me for a good half hour requires you to climb up the wall in order to activate a switch and put out some broken pipes that are ablaze before proceeding. The problem was that a barrel had exploded when I entered the room and much of the oil that was on fire was sitting atop the vending machine I was supposed to climb up on, resulting in my instantaneous death every single time. Efforts to move the oil elsewhere did nothing to fix the problem so I was forced to reload the beginning of the Act II and replay through that entirely before I could actually get it to function properly. I understand trying to demonstrate the power of a water engine but when it can end up breaking the game you need to set up safeguards for the player just in case. Life is But a Dream
Dark Energy�s Hydrophobia is a game of mixed promises. While it clearly has the makings of greatness the end result is a game with a terrible cliffhanger ending, weak controls, and a game design that needs a lot more to it than corridor crawling. Do I look forward to the inevitable sequel? Absolutely. But am I satisfied with what I have right now? No. Fix the issues I mentioned above and you could have a solid experience I�m willing to drown myself in but don�t count on me coming back for seconds if you can�t get it right next time around.