It's an easy cop out when it comes to designing game environments: taking a pinch of aqua blue from the color palette, painting over an area and calling it 'water.' Sure, this practice made sense in the 8-bit era, but in today's richly conceived virtual biospheres, aquatic elements barely amount to little more than lethal water hazards—consider ourselves lucky when we get an animated bath in which our avatars can splash about.
However, it's hard to fault developers and programmers. General physics involve belabored computations that can bog down processors; fluid dynamics, the interaction of free-moving molecules in relation to those physics, are only more taxing. That is unless you have a Bob the Builder mentality, like Dark Energy Digital. Their Xbox LIVE Arcade game (nonetheless), Hydrophobia, shows us just how dehydrated videogames have been over the years, even if the entire experience comes off as little more than a tech demo.
Thanks to the studio's proprietary “HydroEngine,” that which is usually more of an environmental effect in most games delivers as an impactful gameplay element here. As systems engineer Kate Wilson traverses the belly of world's largest floating city, flooding corridors excite feelings of claustrophobia and urgency. The engine's ability to produce expected, unscripted reactions to movement and displacement creates believability throughout these troughs. With waves knocking you and your enemies down, impeding your forward progress, and floating objects to and fro, Hydrophobia's environment plays an integral part in the five-or-so hour story.
The only thing rivaling this deceivingly lifelike reproduction of fluid mechanics is the game's fiction. While other stories tell the tale of world powers vying for precious resources in an apocalyptic future, Dark Energy instead factions the human race between those who use science to artificially outpace the depletion of agricultural resources (Cornucopians), and those who wish to see nature take its course by letting mankind wipe itself out (Malthusians). Self-preservation is a powerful sentiment, and by choosing to create an enemy out of those who would challenge it, Dark Energy presents an interesting conflict grounded in Thomas Malthus' legacy.
Unfortunately, both of these elements never really reach their full potential when experienced in Hydrophobia. Conceivably, Dark Energy are trying to pack too much in such a small package. With most of the attention paid to the water effects, the rest of the game's design turns out repetitive and underwhelming.
The first part of an episodic storyline, Hydrophobia introduces us to the philosophical conflict in play, but almost exclusively through text that has to sought out. A few cutscenes and a cliffhanger ending are meant to build tension for a sequel; but after spending hours uncovering who has infiltrated the “Queen of the World,” these ultimately fizzle without properly allowing the player to get a hold on characters or what's happening.
To get to the end game, however, you have to suffer through three repetitively structured Acts of wayward platforming and dull action. Environmental traps make up the bulk of the later, thanks to your handy sonically charged, non-lethal pistol. Gimmicks like floating combustible barrels towards lurking sentries or splitting live wires into the pools around your enemies via sonic busts are enjoyable the first few times they're employed, but are harder to accomplish and lose their sheen when more than one dimwitted AI run at you with actual bullets. You can drown your adversaries, but without a melee button, this is only achievable by shooting them multiple times while they're already knocked out—also ineffective when teamed up against. There are a few secondary, lethal ammo types, but by choosing to use them, even in their scarcity, the game turns into an everyday third-person shooter.
Without the option of flight, you'll have to fight to make it through the game. This is usually the only way to scrounge up specialized keys, which lead you to find invisibly painted codes, which unlock doors, which bring you to—similarly skinned passageways and a need to repeat the process. Your futuristic PDA, a MAVI, acts as your tool for following these cyphers' trails. Yet, in situations where you're required to scan walls underwater just to figure out where you're going, you'd better be prepared to restart from an ill-placed checkpoint. Needless to say, it's all a tiresome and cumbersome routine.
In addition to Kate's story, finishing the game will net you an extra mode of play. Not exactly a carrot at the end of a stick, the Challenge Room pits Kate against five waves of enemies in a room where she can manipulate it's floor of water. There isn't much challenge since swishing the water around at a distance will effectively take out your attackers. It is timed, and there is a Leaderboard, but there aren't any incentives if you don't have much of an ego.
Save for its prominent aqua-effects, there isn't much to look at in Hydrophobia, no matter the mode you play. Each corridor is as uninteresting and empty as the last, where you'll only face off against a few nondescript enemy types. Also, though hard to complain about screen tearing, framerate slowdowns, clipping issues, and plain old bugs in an Arcade game with such demanding physics features, they're prevalent.
Not to mention, the game can be almost as unrewarding to listen to as it is to play. The script isn't able to convey the drama it looks to conjure, and the actors speaking such lines are neither afraid of water nor uncomfortable enough to deliver a convincing sense of fright. A short-looped soundtrack for varying states of action is equally uninspired.
For all of its technology, it's obvious survival-action in bite-sized Arcade chunks just isn't the proper delivery for Hydrophobia. There's a good bit of potential in the game, but it would be more well-suited for a full-on AAA release, imagine: BioShock with a tsunami plasmid, or Just Cause with zip-lining surfboard sequences. Dark Energy has undoubtedly created some impressive technology and fiction, but neither are expressly enjoyable in what's playable.
At least water, here, thankfully, is more than an instant deathtrap.
Duck or rock: How would you describe yourself in water? Can you think of a game in your library where you'd appreciate better liquid physics? Tell us on Twitter @gamers_hell