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Hydrophobia (Xbox 360) artwork

Hydrophobia (Xbox 360) review


"There’s now enough going right to subtract from the things that go wrong in Hydrophobia’s increasingly damp world. Survivalists may want to get in on the action early while the genre-curious might want to hang on and see what the completed product can offer."



You've probably never heard of Dark Energy Digital, and that's a shame. They’ve been around a while, but first started making waves (you'll appreciate that pun shortly) back in 2007 when they started talking about Hydrophobia. Then a planned full release, they spoke fondly of the new engine they had fashioned which would allow a never before seen level of realism to large bodies of water. They spoke of swelling ripples, of surging waves and of numerous ways to drown soggy protagonists. The future looked bright for them; it also looked damp for us.

But. Forced to try and claw back some revenue, tactics were changed and the first third of the game was released as an XBox Live Arcade title. It wasn't very good and got pounded by critics and gamers alike for being clumsy and repetitive. Based inside an increasingly deteriorating super-liner, protagonist Kate Wilson found herself trapped between evangelical terrorists, faulty electrical wiring, flash fires and the constantly growing floods that slowly tore the ship apart. To this end, when she’s not swimming, she’s free running or shooting or hacking or sneaking or searching or burning.

In its attempt to cover so much ground, the old cliché about trying to do everything but mastering nothing held partially true. Hydrophobia was cluttered with overly busy areas and oft-annoying solutions. Kate’s ever-changing accent was almost half as annoying as her supervisor, Scooch, and his awful comedy Scottish accent. Overly-difficult tasks were married up with poor checkpoints so that failing a particularly tricky set-piece dropped you just behind an annoying cut-scene you knew you’d be stuck watching at least another half dozen times.

And so, the world complained. And Dark Energy Digital did that rarest of things: they listened. They collected all that feedback, then went to work on correcting their game as best they could. Poor controls were re-mapped, location way-points added and the in-game map reworked to stop players getting horribly lost. Cosmetic and physics quirks were addressed, more information on the world at large included and the price slashed almost in half.

Before this, in the opening hours, Kate is forced to run a timed gauntlet of lethal obstacles including dead drops and burst gas pipes set alight by dangerously flickering sparks, capped by her first meeting with the Malthusians, the eco-obsessed terrorists trying their darnedest to kill everyone on board. After chatting about them for some time with always-annoying Scooch, the objective was to stay out of their way until they leave the area. The scene ends, and you find the enemy have magical X-Ray powers. You die, and listen to the conversation again. And again. And again.

Now the annoying cut scene is abridged mercilessly; the oddly-impossible hiding mission completely nuked. The end result looks and feels ragged around the edges, but it obliterates the biggest stumbling block most people had within the first hour of the game, and one that probably stopped a lot of would-be players dead in their tracks. Hydrophobia was allowed to rely on its strengths.

With some of the fat trimmed away, we find a game that’s more about trying to survive your conditions than battle the bald-headed cultists that litter the sinking barge. Battling them is a serviceable addition, as is the ability to rack up different combinations of ways to kill them. You could blast the wall of the ship they’re standing next to and watch them get washed away from the resulting waves, drop live cables in the water and watch them fry, or ignite fuel fires by blowing up the ever-present explosive barrels, and watch the tide carry burning death their way. Really, the star of the game is the floods, and DDE’s brave boasting about their new engine really holds water.

Okay, last pun. Promise.

Hydrophobia is one of those games that basically tasks you from getting to checkpoint-to-checkpoint, but makes it very hard to stay in one piece along the way. Much of your time will be spent trying to keep your head above the radically unpredictable water that may do as little as make your shoes soggy, or as much as trap you in a rip tide and hurl you, squirming and struggling, into its depths. The water will slosh realistically, collecting, pooling and moving as an entire body. And it’s everywhere; thankfully, marathon lung-busting swims are strategically spaced to stop them from getting old, so when you’re forced to dive down a flooded elevator shaft, dodging debris and hearing the muted childish giggles that signal your phobia winning over and your lungs giving out, it’s an exhilarating moment. When you’re having to battle goons in scuba masks while you blow holes in the wall to let in more and more liquid to swim over steel fences, it’s clever.

Kate’s multi-talented: she might be an unwilling hero, but she’ll have to scale the ruined architecture, shimmying up pipes and swinging over chasms. She’ll sneak through air-ducts in order to avoid clunky firefights, stealthing around would-be battles by hacking into security cams and plotting out safe routes. Played as an engineer way over her head and trying her best no get out of a nightmare situation, the game’s highlights are allowed to shine. Kate’s not a soldier; she doesn’t handle the gun she finds early on brilliantly, and so instead wages war as best she can. She’ll avoid direct confrontation and any fight she can’t avoid should be waged with her head rather than a gutsy assault. You can charge in guns blazing, and you’ll probably win, but it shies away from what the game does so right and stumbles back into the clumsy mire DDE have tried so hard to steer it away from.

As such, the game’s still far from perfect, but it’s amazing how much better one little 4mb patch has made the overall experience. Now that you’re not trying to wage war with the various design flaws, you can appreciate the little details, like the secret messages hidden on the walls by the eco warriors, or seeing their slogan -- Save the World --Kill Yourself! -- spraypainted in a room littered with dead bodies. You can appreciate scaling shafts before flaming elevators fall on your head, or plotting a parkour path through flames and debris to reach terminals or unlocked doors.

You wouldn’t have been able to had DDE decided to not cull their game on the advice of their fanbase. As such, Hydrophobia becomes not a mangled, unrealised game and instead is turned into a solid foundation for the rest of the title to be built upon. I appreciate that level of dedication -- and so should you.

Rating: 7/10

EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (April 14, 2011)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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Feedback

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Masters posted April 14, 2011:

Nice review for a game I was always interested in when I would come across it on XBLA.

And having read this in its early stages, I can confirm that you also did the rarest of things.

You listened! Muahahahaha.

I know this was a mini-breakthrough for you, of the recent and uncommon Emp-writer's block, so kudos! Keep 'em coming.
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EmP posted April 14, 2011:

Thanks, Marc. I had a hell of a lot of trouble getting this one written and seeing it fnished and posted is a huge relief. Hopefully, the next one won't be so hard.
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overdrive posted April 15, 2011:

Writer's block. I feel that.

Good review that answered a lot of questions I had about this game. I knew it was being promoted as this revolutionary deal due to the water physics...and then it dropped off the face of the earth as far as publicity, with about all I knew being that it was disappointing. I now know why it was disappointing and that the designers improved it to make it a worthwhile play.
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WilltheGreat posted April 15, 2011:

Much of you time will be spent trying to keep your head above the radically unpredictable water that may to as little as make your shoes soggy, or was much as trap you in a rip tide and hurl you, squirming and struggling, into its depths.

"Do" instead of "to"?
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bloomer posted April 18, 2011:

I found the content of this review extremely interesting, but there was a bit too much confusion in the writing for me to give it a RotW slot, basically because of tense issues.

The body of the review has lots of little changes of tense, often within the same idea or paragraph

E.G. "Kate found herself trapped" (then)
and
"When she's not swimming, she's free running" (now)

are back to back in the section talking about what she did in the old game, which necessarily needs to all stay in past tenses.

Of course you didn't make life easy for yourself in this review by talking about a past game, how the future looked back then for the past game, talking about what developers did in the past after the first past but before the present, and then talking about the present :)

Also watch out for looseness in other areas:

EG "In its attempt to cover so much ground, the old cliché about trying do everything but mastering nothing held partially true."

The trick in this sentence is it looks like you're saying it was the old cliche which was trying to cover the ground, as 'its' is dangling at this point, and doesn't necessarily mean 'Hydrophobia's'.

Good work on the changeups of your style in this review, though.
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EmP posted April 18, 2011:

Thanks for your thoughts, Bloomer. I had such a hard time with this review that, when a finished draft finally came to the point where I was somewhat happy with it, I just wanted it released and done. The idea of going back and forth between old and new versions seemed like such a good angle in my head, but turned into a nightmare when trying to get it down on paper. It's certainly something I want to go back to and tighten up in the future but I'm not sure I can face it just yet.

If you have access to it, I would reccomend Hydrophobia to you. You seem to be its target audience.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted April 21, 2011:

Indeed, indeed. Good review! :D
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wolfqueen001 posted May 02, 2011:

Despite the fact that you hardly need me to leave you feedback anymore because Marc's doing it all, I will anyway because I'm nice like that. Let's start with the bad first because we know you like to focus on that and only that. For the love of God, I hope you don't just focus on that. I swear. Otherwise I'm going to stop proofing your stuff altogether. >_> I mean, lordy, there isn't even that much wrong with it in the first place.(P.S. If I sound snarky in this paragraph, then sorry. It's because I'm still a little disgruntled about the last review in which I left feedback for you.)

Anyway, as hard as it was for you to write this, and as much as you hated it, I really do think this turned out well. The comparisons between the old version of the game and the new work very well, especially because you clearly define which one you're talking about. I didn't really notice any issues with tenses, but skimming through again shows that, in at least one instance, they're still there. However, to me, it's not a big deal because you used other methods of delineating which version you were talking about. Perhaps you went back and made sure this was clearer in the first place; I don't know. In any case, you should be happy with this. From the title alone, I was interested in this game, and now I'm even more so interested.
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EmP posted May 03, 2011:

Thanks for those catches. The review's okay and it's not like I'm deeply ashamed of it, but it didn't come out as well as I had hoped for.
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Masters posted May 03, 2011:

You get ones like that, where you struggled just to put something out there. Initially, those are hard to swallow--the content is usually disappointing. But with time away, those are the among the most rewarding: knowing you got through the sludge and immortalized the experience.

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