Saturday, May 14, 2011

Review: Hydrophobia: Prophecy (PC)

Hydrophobia is an episodic action/adventure developed by Dark Energy Digital, in late 2010 for the Xbox360, with a PC version followed in mid 2011 released on Steam and a PS3 version later that same year. The game is set in the near future and puts you in the role of Kate Wilson, a systems engineer on the city-sized ship 'Queen of the World', who after a terrorist attack has to fight for her survival and stop the terrorists.

The game currently exists under three names, "Hydrophobia", "Hydrophobia: Pure" and "Hydrophobia: Prophecy". The first one was the original Xbox360 release, Pure was the name of large patch for the Xbox360 version that fixed not only a few bugs, but also reworked large parts of the game, such as the controls, while Prophecy is the name of the PC and PS3 versions, which are mostly identical to the Pure version, but contain additional tweaks, a new short section after where the Xbox360 version ended and completely recast and revoiced one of the main roles.

The core exploration gameplay of Hydrophobia is very similar to that of Tomb Raider, with all the jumping, climbing and swimming that that implies. The shooting on the other side follows the direction of modern cover-based shooter. What makes Hydrophobia special are its water physics, which unlike other games aren't build on pre-scripted events, but follow actual physics, thus if you have a room filled with water and open up a door into an empty room, water will flow from one room to the other and the created waves will splash you around. This is essentially the first game to ever try that.

The story of the game is mainly delievered through constant voice communication with your operator, who provides you with information on what to do next and what the terrorist are currently doing. Where needed the game also falls back to classical cutscenes.

The gameplay follows mostly a linear structure, but containts a bit of backtracking and gives you the option to hide the objectives marker, which forces you into a more exploratory style of play. This works reasonably well, as a lot of times you can navigate the world simply by hints from the voice communication. If needed the game also provides a map
and a log of your next objective. The game also provides a way to remote control CCTV cameras or remotly open doors, which is used for a few puzzles, but otherwise not all that impactful on the game overall.

Overall I very much enjoyed Hydrophobia. It is by no means a perfect game, as there are still quite a few bugs left, which the developers are currently working on with a new patch on an almost daily basis and the performance of the game isn't so great. But the water physics of Hydrophobia are pretty much unmatched, they essentially put an advanced form of what Wave Race did with water physics into a Tomb Raider-like world. Making the whole world feel much more dynamic and interactive then your regular static game world, as opening a door or shooting a glass panel can flood the room and completely change the way you have to fight.

The biggest problem I have with Hydrophobia right now is that it still feels kind of like an incomplete game, it is planed to be episodic in nature and the 4-5 hours it takes to complete it seem appropriate, but it doesn't really feel that way, it feels more like the first third or so of a regular full game and thus the story ends rather abruptly with not much of a conclusion. There are also numerous gameplay elements that are under used. You for example have numerous types of ammunition, but the basic sonic rounds, of which you have an unlimited supply, work the best most of the time, leaving little need to ever switch to anything else. A few subplots are also not only go without conclusion, but really never even fully opened up, they are kind of hinted at, but then never go anywhere.

Aside from the performance issues the game also has some trouble with the audio, which currently seems very chaotic and badly mixed. The dialog between characters comes out fine, but for example the sound of enemies shooting at you is often muted away by background sounds, making it hard to spot and react to enemies.

In the end, even with those issues in mind, it is however still a fantastic game that leaves you simply wanting more. It is one of those rare games that moves the gaming world a step forward and provides you with a way to interact with the game world you haven't seen before.

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