Monday, September 27, 2010

Hydrophobia Review

Despite all the advances in gaming technology, from advanced graphics to ever-improving physics and game engines, videogames have continually struggled to realistically represent water. Too often in games, water seems to have no mass, and walking through it produces no slowing effect on the character. Even while under water and swimming, most characters don’t seem to find the experience too difficult. Dark Energy Digital aims to bring water effects to unseen levels of realism through their HydroEngine, and in the regard, Hydrophobia succeeded beyond all my expectations. Unfortunately, the rest of the game’s design dulled the euphoria of the HydroEngine’s spectacular capabilities.

Hydrophobia takes place during the mid 21st century aboard a city-sized luxury vessel known as the Queen of the World. Earth’s population has exploded to the point that the demand for food outpaces agricultural production, and thus competition is fierce for what food remains. While the corporate entities who built the Queen of the World live like kings, the desperate global conditions have given rise to a terrorist organization known as the Malthusians, who intend to right the global balance by killing most of the world’s human population. The tension is set early on, as protagonist Kate Wilson finds herself escaping from an elevator after an explosion within the first few minutes of the game. Soon after, she comes across electronic signs flashing the slogan, “Save the World, Kill Yourself.”

Most of Hydrophobia’s storytelling is handled through collecting documents scattered throughout the game, meaning how much players glean of the story and background depends entirely on how much effort they’re willing to put in searching for it. Without collecting documents, Hydrophobia’s plot follows a depressingly “go here, do that” formula, with Kate going from one place to the next, crippling systems to disrupt the terrorists, and interesting plot developments are few and far between. Then there’s Scoot, the only character in recent memory to give Jar Jar Binks a run for his money in a “Most Annoying Character Ever” competition. Scoot is a treasure trove of terrible jokes and bad one-liners wrapped in a grating accent, that come across as both shockingly immature and impossible to believe in the context. The ship has been attacked by terrorists, people have been killed, and Scoot’s going on and on about how he hopes Kate makes the chief look bad... what? Are you five?

Little hope can be found in Hydrophobia’s ending either, which severely disappoints. I get that Hydrophobia is part one of an episodic game, but this is the wrong way to deliver episodic content. Instead of releasing a game with it’s own episode story arc tying into a larger whole, or at least some sense of conclusion, Hydrophobia’s ending comes completely by surprise, slapping a “To Be Continued...” across the screen when I thought I was in the middle of a mission! That’s an extremely unsatisfying way to leave fans waiting for what’s going to come next, which will likely make gamers feel like they bought one-third of a game, and not a complete stand-alone experience.

Exciting combat could have saved Hydrophobia, but that can’t deliver to its potential either. Use of the environment to kill enemies through fire, water, electricity, or gas had potential, but combat often boils down to waiting for an enemy to wander too close to that cliche red barrel and then pulling the trigger. Players will find multiple different types of ammo throughout the game, including some regular ammunition that turns Hydrophobia (briefly) into an ordinary third-person shooter. For every sublime moment like attaching a sticky gel round to an enemy’s back and detonating it when he gets too close to another enemy, there’s a dozen moments of waiting for an enemy to obligingly wander near a trap. Rather than making players feel like they’re being inventive with their use of the environment, combat quickly becomes a slog, which the level design does not alleviate, as each corridor looks a little too much like the last, with not enough differentiation to make different parts of the ship distinct from each other.

Hydrophobia’s water effects are outstanding, with waves rolling across the ship like an ocean in a bottle, and Kate gets tossed around by them realistically. Unfortunately, the game’s fascinating core concept gets wasted in poor storytelling through bland (and in Scoot’s case, obnoxious) characters, and gets married to a combat system that feels dated rather than innovating. Episode 2 has a lot of work to do to atone for the opening act’s failings and unsatisfactory conclusion.

Overall: 6 (out of 10)

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