Aqua Review for Xbox 360

Aqua Review for Xbox 360

Fire on the Water

The past decade or so has seen a lot of developments in the action genre, from dual-stick controls to closely spaced checkpoints to voice acting in cutscenes. No one has been very successful, however, in bringing these innovations to the classic, top-down, multidirectional shoot-’em-up genre, a situation that Aqua, a $10 XBLA title, hopes to rectify.

Aqua screenshot

At its best, Aqua is a lot of fun. With a lot of shooting and a little bit of strategy, players blast their way through a few hours’ worth of water-based action, much the way they’d shoot through a modern first- or third-person shooter. But thanks to some gameplay and technical problems, some serious and some merely annoying, Aqua is not the Gears of War of the top-down “shmup.”

The basic setup here does a good job of infusing the genre with a modern flavor. You move and shoot using the two-joystick setup that Geometry Wars popularized, fire torpedoes and lay mines with the trigger buttons, and activate your speed boost, switch weapons, and call in air support with the face buttons. Between missions, you can outfit your ship with different weapon types that you’ve unlocked, or even change ships entirely. The weapons include flamethrowers, Gatling guns, shotguns, and machine guns, and the ships vary in speed (with the faster boats unable to carry the more powerful weapons). All this makes for deeper gameplay than most arcade classics provided, but it’s remarkably intuitive to learn.

Since Aqua is set on the water, as the name would imply, the levels aren’t particularly intricate, but they do allow you to roam the high seas and navigate various rivers, hunting down bad guys, infiltrating enemy compounds, and exploring.

The missions here are nothing special, either: protect this base from waves of enemy attacks, escort that ship from point A to point B, and fight your way through hostile territory. Nonetheless, the game never loses sight of its purpose in life, which is to let you mow down different types of baddies at a rapid pace. You don’t pause to think about originality when you’re dealing out copious amounts of death.

Aqua screenshot

There are some squad-based missions, and you can have your compatriots follow you, attack the enemy, or protect allied bases and ships. There’s even some very basic stealth. This adds a thin layer of strategy on top of all the shooting, which is a nice distraction and doesn’t detract from the core gameplay. A deeper game would do more with this, but we’re fine with it the way it is.

The biggest problem with the gameplay is that the difficulty isn’t particularly well-balanced. Even on the medium setting we found the first major boss to be virtually unbeatable. That is, until we figured out what seems to be a glitch in the programming: If you drive away from him at an angle and keep him barely on the screen, he won’t shoot at you often but you can shoot him. Later in the game, there are some major problems with the spacing of the checkpoints, which can result in some thrown controllers. There’s nothing more obnoxious than finally finishing that long stretch of fighting you were having problems with, only to realize there’s another stretch to go before you can die without starting all over.

Aqua screenshot

The steampunk-influenced presentation here isn’t bad, for the most part. The in-game graphics aren’t jawdropping, and we would have liked to have seen some more realistic-looking fire and explosions, but the visuals get the job done. Similarly, the sound effects could have a little more punch, and don’t even get us started on the voice acting; when you’re busy taking out waves of bad guys, you won’t focus much on the bells and whistles.

The biggest problem with the technical side of the presentation, however, is that far too often, it goes glitchy or freezes. We dealt with some serious screen flicker, and it froze our Xbox several times. We’re hoping these issues will be resolved in an update, but they really should have been handled before release.

Aqua screenshot

Between missions, there are some cutscenes that tell a story, along with some very well-done comic-book-style illustrations. The illustrations are a visual treat, but the story is a rather pointless distraction. Evidently, the land of Aqua is caught up in a war between two naval powers, and as Captain Benjamin Grey, you must manipulate the two sides to save the world. Your smart-aleck female companion, engineer Polly Edison, provides air support.

There are some competitive and co-op multiplayer modes here as well; though, aside from leaderboards, they’re only local, not online. There are six maps total, and they fall into two categories: “Chase,” in which you race between checkpoints and kill enemies, and “Arena,” in which you fend off waves of enemies. These are a nice additions by all means, especially Chase, which plays a little like an old-school top-down racer, but they won’t extend the game’s life by too much; they’re just too simple to turn you into a full-blown addict.

All in all, Aqua is fun. There’s no denying that. The question, however, is whether you should spend your time and money on this game as opposed to another one, and between the short length, gameplay problems, and freezing issues, it’s hard to say that you should. Hardcore fans of free-roaming shoot-’em-ups shouldn’t let this chance to visit the genre pass them by, but even they might want to try the less ambitious (but also less frustrating) Exisled, an amazingly fun Xbox LIVE Community game that sells for $5, first. We’re interested to see what the developers do next, but we hope they focus less on telling a story, which is not their strong suit, and more on honing the basics.

The between-mission illustrations are nice, but the in-game graphics are just so-so, and we encountered a lot of flicker and freezing. 5.0 Control
It’s a two-joystick setup, with some other functions mapped to logical buttons. 2.3 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The sound effects could pop a little more, and the voice acting is terrible. 3.6 Play Value
This is a very simple game that’s a lot of fun, but it’s very short, and there are some technical problems that hurt the gameplay. 3.6 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.

Game Features:

  • Try your guns in the epic campaign of explosive steampunk naval warfare!
  • Follow the story of Captain Benjamin Grey and his trusted fellow engineer Polly Edison in their struggle to save the Aqua world from a treacherous conspiracy, pulling the strings behind a massive conflict of two rivaling naval empires.
  • Try out new ship types, weapons, and upgrades, and perfect your tactical skills with four different squad types.

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