|System: Xbox 360|
|Dev: Dark Energy Digital|
|Pub: Dark Energy Digital|
|Release: November 16, 2010|
|Screen Resolution: 720p-1080p|
by Steve Haske
Late in Metal Gear Solid 2, Raiden, the game's protagonist and would-be Solid Snake-in-training, has to rescue a girl from the bowels of the Big Shell, a massive offshore marine decontamination facility. Those of you familiar with MGS2 will remember that the section of the Big Shell in question here was flooded, requiring Raiden to swim through passages blocked by twisted metal and loose debris. Despite the (for its time) impressive luminescence, visual water distortion, and physics effects, navigating through the submerged struts of the Big Shell was a tedious process of directional positioning and negotiating your own disorientation. Not only is it hard to see underwater, but MGS2's basic map (which generally worked fine) couldn't take into account the added layer of depth that swimming brings to finding open pathways in an otherwise visually-or-otherwise obstructed environment. The result, even in this relatively short section of gameplay, was a frustrating trial-and-error searching process—one complete with regular interruptions backtracking to air pockets to regain your breath before diving again.
Hydrophobia is essentially an entire game of this.
It all sounds good on paper: billed as a "survival adventure," Hydrophobia is powered by the perhaps revolutionary HydroEngine, which utilizes never-before-seen water physics that dynamically interact within a game environment. As Lara Croft-lite Kate Wilson, an engineer on a city-sized ocean liner that just happens to have been attacked by a terrorist group, this could make for some interesting gameplay. Kate is (of course) an excellent swimmer, and since the terrorists decided to breach a gigantic sea-faring vessel, chaotic scenarios with compartmentalized corridors and rooms rapidly filling with water are common. To the developer's credit, the water effects are really pretty impressive: walls in the ship creak and break against intense water pressure, causing huge waves to gush forth and fan out, mixing, lapping against any nearby obstructions or objects and raising water level of whatever room you happen to be in. Open a door to a dry room from a half-submerged one and water spills out realistically. The buoyancy of loose boxes and barrels floating on the surface in a flooded room is spot-on, as are most of Kate's animations, though she wades perhaps a little too easily through half-filled areas and transitions to swimming aren't always the cleanest. Needless to say, Hydrophobia's water is, as it should be, the star of the show. The real problem is that any gameplay is basically buried under all of it.
Hydrophobia was actually first released in late September of this year, and a lot of critics slammed the game for its myriad bugs, glitches, and overall flaws. Last week the game was given a significant patch, overhauling everything from camera problems, textures, and lighting to navigational issues, as well as improvements to the game's physics and core game mechanics. In essence, the patch is a re-release of the game, but for all the improvements, Hydrophobia still leaves a lot to be desired. Try as they might, Dark Energy Digital wasn't able to correct the most glaring flaws in the game, namely the terrible navigation system and woefully inadequate combat.
On its surface, Hydrophobia may look something like a low-rent Uncharted with a female lead, and honestly, if it was like Nathan Drake's adventures on a somewhat smaller scale, I would probably be ok with that. Instead, Hydrophobia either feels like a half-polished, generic third-person shooter with great water effects or little more than a glorified tech demo with some obligatory, half-assed gameplay thrown in. When I started playing it, the combined focus on clambering around and exploration (such as it is) over combat felt much more like Uncharted than Tomb Raider, which had me excited. It's a thrill, at first, to be caught in a wounded ship filling with water, and there are times when swimming for your life or frantically finding an exit in a rapidly flooding hall is pretty cool. However, much like Raiden's misadventures in the flooded areas of the Big Shell, Hydrophobia quickly establishes the precedent of rarely making it easy to figure out where you're going.
Your map, which can be viewed in top-down 2D as well as a rotatable 3D model, is only really useful in 3D, where you can take a better stab at understanding where you're located in terms of depth. Unfortunately, all you can do is rotate and scale the map itself, which means it can still be hard to see exactly how far down, over, or near you are to your next destination. The on-screen waypoint, similar to what you generally see in an FPS, is also little help, giving you the direction and relative position where you'll ultimately end up, but not generally indicating at all how to get there. This isn't uncommon with this kind of directional pointer, but the problem is exacerbated tenfold since you so often end up swimming underwater, and fiftyfold because the entire ship looks the same. A typical scenario in the game, whenever you feel like you're getting somewhere, generally introduces a new area, which then floods to one degree or another, after which you either need to find the way forward or do some backtracking. Progress grinds to a halt seemingly every few minutes, which only serves to artificially extend the length of an otherwise two-to-three hour game.