It was all going so well. For over an hour you’ll love hydrophobia – its unique setting, gorgeous water physics and the fact it is trying to do something different should all be admired. It isn’t until the stagnant gameplay and repetitive corridors begin to seep in that you realise you’ve been engulfed in a sea of monotony.
Should Xbox Live Arcade games receive special treatment – after all, extending what seems like a physics demo into a fully fledged game is no mean feat. Lasting roughly 4 hours on the medium difficulty setting, you can expect a range of emotions. First up is intrigue as the story begins to unwind and then it’s the game’s water system that yields a response. It ends with the urge to throw yourself overboard as Hydrophobia fully reveals itself.
Wet T-Shirt Competition!
But, before we get to that, let’s start with the much discussed water. The first time you release a torrent of water in an enemy’s direction, only to see him knocked off his feet into its wet embrace, is wonderful. We’ve never been able to unleash the power of the ocean so effectively in a game, to dispatch troublemakers, have we?
It isn’t until you use the same approach for the thirtieth time that you realise it’s nothing more than a cheap gimmick. Fire and electricity (no, this isn’t the Last-airbend-phobia) are put to equally effective use. The more imaginative you think, the more points you’ll earn (which hold no purpose bar bragging rights and achievements).
The whole concept runs on multiple playthroughs. First you learn how to play the game and then you have another crack at it, utilising the concepts you’ve learned in an effort to better your score. The game tots up your progress at the end of each act (of which there are three) and at the end of the game. It’s a bit like the rank given to you in Metal Gear Solid.
However, anyone attempting another playthrough should be advised that it’s an ill choice. If you’re adamant on going through the game again, you definitely deserve a medal for your patience. The reason behind such a damning statement is the fact that there are only so many times you can dispatch a faceless clone in the same, supposedly imaginative way, before tedium begins to creep in.
We mustn’t be too hard on Hydrophobia though – it’s extremely noble of the art design to take us away from the dreary post apocalyptic browns we’re all so used to. Confined to the underbelly of a preposterously sized luxury liner, you’ll trek through your fair share of pipe-covered hallways avoiding all manners of explosive barrels and boxes as the game does its very best at drowning your unlucky soul.
Someone better call the plumber
And drown you will, by the bucketload in fact. Without a breath meter, you never know how close to death you are. The screen does helpfully fade, slowly covering in blood as your lungs reach bursting point, but it’s extremely difficult to gauge just how much time is left before you sink like a stone. The checkpoint system is a small mercy, because despite drowning more times than you can count, you’ll rarely be far from where the game last autosaved.
Throw in a confusing map system, complete with sluggish response times when controlling the map (how hard is it to scroll?) and you’ll find those concrete shoes looking more and more appealing as time goes on.
Story wise, it’s nothing too imaginative. Think Speed 2, but with some easy-to-spot twists. Anti-establishment organisation thinks it’s wise to conduct an act of terrorism to get its message across. And then there’s the end. Without giving too much away, it’s obvious and cheap, leaving the player deflated.
However, once you look past the dank corridors – oh wait, you can’t, because aside from a twenty minute change in location at the end, it’s as though the environment has been copy and pasted. Sure the water, (especially when you consider Hydrophobia is a XBLA game), is pretty clever and the graphics for such a compressed title are impressive, it’s still an outright unattractive game.
Facial textures are dated, character design; repetitive and bland. The level design leads itself to repetitive environments, but in stellar games, it’s the small details that go far. Hydrophobia has nothing that gives off the impression that the design’s been thought of – it’s merely a grind from enemy to enemy through an exhausted concept. You’re drip fed the environmental methods of dispatch mentioned above in a blasé learning curve. Several ammo types gradually reveal themselves and they all have the same end result – death.
Physics at work
Most areas involve finding a hidden code on the wall (using your swank PDA) and then finding a frequency key on a nearby motionless enemy. Rinse and repeat. Collectables, medals for achieving certain objectives and a replayable challenge room round off the package. A simple hacking mini-game finishes of the package.
Despite having the potential to plant the gamer into a modern reimagining of The Poseidon Adventure, (but with less tidal waves), Hydrophobia falls short of its promise. It’s a wasted concept and it’s let down by lazy execution. It’s a shame that another intriguing concept has been squandered, but such is the life of an XBLA title. If you make the effort to play it as intended (using the environment rather than your pathetic pistol), kudos, but any other way will be painfully droll.
Top Game Moment: The first time you kill someone with water.