When I first saw Hydrophobia at PAX East 2010, it grabbed my attention more than any other downloadable title at the expo. Dark Energy Digital’s survival/adventure offering stood out visually among the other Xbox Live Arcade titles, and looked to offer plenty of combat options, but the real draw was the highly touted HydroEngine, and its strikingly realistic water physics. It quickly became one of my most eagerly anticipated titles of the year, but could this seemingly unique title live up to its early promise? In a word; No.
For the most part, Hydrophobia is set up like a standard third person shooter. Players control Kate, a systems engineer with a spunky haircut and a distinct lack of personality, as she fights her way through the “Queen of the World,” a vaguely futuristic city-sized luxury ship that has been attacked by terrorists known as Malthusians. The attack has left the massive ship crippled, and water floods its many corridors and chambers. Assisted by a remarkably annoying disembodied voce named Scoot, Kate can run, jump, crouch, swim, shoot, take cover, and climb, as well as utilize her MAVI, a transparent computer screen that reveals hidden elements of the environment and interacts with computerized doors and cameras.
Whether she’s above or below the water, controlling Kate is a maddening chore. The standard camera isn’t the worst in recent memory, but it’s in no way good, but the “down the sites” view is simply terrible. Kate constantly gets stuck on environmental elements, especially while swimming, and the wonky, unresponsive controls result in far too many drowning deaths caused not by failure to find the route, but by Kate’s constant underwater backflips, which seem to happen randomly, and awful collision detection.
Despite the ship’s alleged enormity, the world map isn’t particularly big, and backtracking is constant. The majority of the game’s structure is a repeating pattern of finding keys, scanning codecs, and decrypting doors to get from one section to the next, with bits of wall climbing, item collecting, and puzzles involving raising and lowering the water level interspersed throughout. Using the MAVI for these puzzles is somewhat cool, if a bit familiar, in the beginning of the game, but it quickly grows tiresome, and due to the game’s terribly inconsistent and misleading use of guideposts, increasingly frustrating. This lack of guidance becomes a recurring theme for the majority of the game, and leads to endless, exasperating searches for nondescript ventilation shafts and climbable walls. For example, one puzzle requires the player to destroy a specific high-pressure pipe to fill the room with water. This pipe has a large “High pressure” sticker on it. There are dozens of pipes just like it that would be of great help at other points in the game, but for some reason, they don’t do anything when shot. It’s just one example of the game’s consistently shoddy game design, lack of polish, and attention to detail.
Hydrophobia isn’t all about terrible puzzle solving and archaic backtracking, though. Kate will frequently need to take out groups of Malthusian fighters, and to do so she receives a pistol early in the game. For the first half of the game, the pistol fires sonic rounds. These rounds aren’t lethal, but can be used to blow up explosive barrels, knock down electric wires, and shatter windows to take out enemies. Ostensibly, Hydrophobia’s combat is about using the environment to dispense with opponents, and set up chain reactions for bigger combos and higher scores. The problem is that enemies are rarely in position for these chains to be effective, and their stubborn AI frequently keeps them from approaching until Kate has left cover and run into unsafe areas. As a result, the best strategy in most situations is to repeatedly stun enemies with the sonic gun until they drown. There are moments when everything comes together, and a well-placed shot can take out several enemies in a glorious series of explosions and sweeping floods, but they are far too few and far between. Hydrophobia utilizes a cover system that attempts to mimic that of Gears of War, but fails miserably in doing so. For some reason, Kate can only take cover while her gun is out. Without her pistol drawn, the same button that normally takes cover sends Kate into a tuck roll towards the enemy. When players actually do get into cover, the inorganic and uncooperative control scheme makes it overly difficult to target enemies, and getting out of cover requires no less than three separate button presses. Enemies, with their utterly random AI, vacillate between charging headlong into the fight, ignoring fire, explosions, and anything else that might instantly kill them, and staying under cover indefinitely, never letting the player get a clear shot. At times, these enemies will take paths that are seemingly impassable, making strategic movement a joke; why bother slowly clearing out an inaccessible area if enemies can simply overrun it from impossible angles, or even spawn in completely sealed off sections. Of the two main elements of the game, combat and puzzle-solving, it’s a toss-up as to which one is more disappointing.
The main draw, and only saving grace of Hydrophobia, is its HydroEngine. Water floods rooms, splashes against itself, and puts out fires realistically, and also slows Kate’s progress at times. There are plenty of sequences involving long underwater swims with no breaks for air, and these would be somewhat intense if it weren’t for the horrendous swimming controls and collision detection. As it stands, these are more frustrating than fun, and without a breath meter, feel unfinished. The water looks good, though, and is fun to mess around with for the first five minutes of the game. After that, it simply becomes the only mildly appealing element in a game otherwise bereft of anything remotely interesting.
Hydrophobia has very little to recommend, but it’s at least a nice looking game from a technical standpoint. For a downloadable title, there are some nice lighting effects, texture work, and character modeling, but there’s a distinct lack of variety to the environments, and a serious deficiency of style and polish. Most of the game takes place in a series of nearly identical grey hallways, which makes the already difficult path finding even more frustrating. The cast of characters in Hydrophobia are similarly uninspired; Kate is basically a punked-up Jade from Beyond Good & Evil, except without any of the personality, while her narrator/assistant Scoot features one of the most irritating Scottish accents his side of Shrek. Even small elements that might have made the game more immersive and charming are handled poorly; Kate frequently coughs and struggles to regain her breath after emerging from the water. This would be cool if it happened after a long swim, but instead, she does it randomly, including times when she never actually submerges. Even worse, her coughing and panting can frequently be heard while she is completely underwater.
There is so very much wrong with Hydrophiobia that no one should download it. It’s not so bad that it’s completely broken, but it’s bad enough that even players who get the game for free shouldn’t bother with it. It’s archaic, it’s sloppy, it’s entirely uninspired, and it’s just not worth the time or money. At around six hours, there’s actually a lot of content, including a Challenge Room that allows Kate to manipulate the water using hydrokinesis, but it’s all garbage, and when you think about it, is getting a whole lot of garbage really any better than getting a little garbage?