Release: September 29
Developer: Dark Energy Digital
When water is introduced in a game, it’s usually done so through the filter of a simple adjustment to gravity and character animation. Think deep-sea scavenging in Mario’s Jolly Roger Bay or Lara Croft’s awkward, linear cave diving. With its adaptable, formless properties, it’s more regularly been the enemy of game design than its accomplice, but with Hydrophobia an attempt has been made to make water count, to make it affect your journey through a thirdperson shooter – and, at the very least, to represent it accurately.
Dark Energy has succeeded on the latter count. When channelled by an exploding wall section or granted entry by an opened door, the water of Hyrdophobia gushes, laps and lurches through the corridors of the ill-fated city-on-the-sea that is your home for this first XBLA episode. Rather than face the challenge of a flooded hallway or rising water level, however, you’ll be worrying about your battle with the shift in contrast and the awkward camera angling as you transition from the dull grey walls of the dry environments to the murky blur below the surface. Realism might be the defence, at the cost of being bland and confusing.
Remove water from the equation and you’re left with a sub-par, archaic thirdperson actioner. Seeking out keys and scanning for door codes in the dreary, indistinguishable tunnels – occasionally offing a few identical NPCs who are constantly looking the other way – is grind-work after the first of three repetitive acts. Combat (you have one weapon, an energy pistol) is unresponsive and tiresome, and charging your weapon to repeatedly shoot an unconscious foe’s body is a poor substitute for an actual enemy engagement of substance.
The trimmings do little to sweeten the deal. A relentless backing score aurally mirrors the misjudged pace and derivative tones of the overall journey. Protagonist Kate Wilson is a forgettable nonentity as she whines and wails her way through every linear section. The maps themselves are multi-tiered chores that require little initiative to navigate, the storytellers all too eager to intervene with a directional soundbite or, worse, a piece of the story that involves hackneyed terrorists and a perpetually raving, arrogant Scottish mentor.
The bugs that inhabit the waters of Hydrophobia are another concern. Ranging from fatal scenery clipping to an awkward inventory display that implies a lack of ammunition until a weapon is equipped, it indicates a title either unfinished, unpolished or simply unprepared for a world of digitally delivered games that is home to such robust titles as Shadow Complex and Lara Croft And The Guardian Of Light.
An experience lacking flavour, with a transparent design, the game shares many qualities with its elemental subject matter. It is entering a super-competitive environment, and its premium DLC will need to be something special to turn things around.