There are many good things to be said about Vector Unit’s debut game, but let the first be this: it handles like butter. Hydro Thunder Hurricane‘s a comeback for a much-loved series, a breezy and cheesy powerboat racer with an arcade heart, and a winning one. It’s a great combination of polish and funfair sensation, but everything works for one reason: the controls are right.
They’re also simple. You steer, brake, and accelerate. Picking up a boost powerup enables a boost and a jump. From these bare elements is teased out a handling model of real subtlety, one that demands restraint as well as aggression. The Beginner class boats start things off gently, moving at a decent lick but staying manoeuvrable. Maintaining speed is the focus of your juggling act between acceleration and boost, toggling to almost skip your boat across the water, steering to meet the landing and boost out of it in a new direction, or judging momentum just right as you try to snap back and forth through an S bend. The Pro class is a good stepping stone and then moving up to Expert is where it all starts to unfurl. Boost becomes an enemy, countless walls are smashed into and oversteering is your greatest fear.
As you acclimatise to the sensitivity of the fastest boats, though, driving them becomes a joy. By the time Rad Hazard gets involved (a coaster/UFO hybrid boat that’s the fastest in the game), you’re skiting it across the water at incredible speeds, squeezing out a drop of boost at just the right angle to launch out in the right direction. It’s a high-speed game of guiding rather than reacting, with the craft’s nose almost never pointing in the direction it’s going.
Straight up Racing events are old school: you start at the back of the pack, there are shortcuts all over the place, and the key is slipstreaming other boats. Hydro Thunder Hurricane introduces each of its eight tracks in this mode first, and it’s clearly the best showcase for their idiosyncrasies. They’re either B-movie rides or multi-lap speedfests, and at their best have bits of both: the Tsunami Bowl is slick and dangerous, tempting reckless boosts before introducing sharp corners, and full of skilful shortcuts. It’s naked racing. But a big part of its appeal is the atmosphere – an audience watching, an over-excited bit of Japanese commentary when you pull off an awesome trick, and simple pleasures like turning on a wave machine halfway through the first lap.
Ring Master events have you steering through rings on a pre-defined route through the stages, and double up as a guided tour through the alternate routes on each track. The challenge spikes when you start hitting the barrier between Pro and Expert, but here the mode’s twist to the boost mechanic becomes a fascinating new toy – in Ring Master, if you hit all the rings, you’ll never run out of boost. The temptation to hit breakneck speed wins out too often over boring old steering.