Review: Hydro Thunder Hurricane

Remember Yaris for Xbox Live Arcade? No? Good. It was undeniably the low point for downloadable racing games on Xbox 360. Finally XBLA gets something to wash the taste from your mouth for good: Hydro Thunder Hurricane. Upstart developer Vector Unit didn't actually start out making a Hydro Thunder title, but Microsoft liked what it saw, licensed the rights to HT and made the (what's turned out to be excellent) decision to resurrect the franchise.

For the uninitiated, Hydro Thunder was an arcade game from the late nineties that drew in crowds with its transforming, jet-powered speedboats and courses that felt inspired by amusement park thrill rides. Hydro Thunder Hurricane doesn't deviate from that blueprint, and while gaming hardware has changed, fun hasn't -- and Vector Unit was clearly keeping that at the forefront in designing Hurricane.%Gallery-92281% Powerboat racers are, in this day and age, not particularly plentiful, so I was a little rusty for my first couple of races, but the variety of boats and their noticeable handling differences helped me get my sea legs back pretty quick. Before long I was (hydro) thundering through the likes of Asgard, a monster-filled island, and Tsunami Bowl, a wild, man-made venue that's built purely for speed.

What can I say -- once I re-familiarized myself with the basic gameplay (including the ever-important collecting and using of boost, and boost jumping) I was having a blast. The tracks are white-knuckle rides, brimming with their own personality, dynamic set pieces and particular challenges, not to mention a wealth of shortcuts.

I really like the point system that's used in unlocking more courses, boats, paint jobs and challenges -- it's very much like the one used by Split/Second, one of my favorite modern racers. Points are awarded for landing in the top three of each race, and the races can be re-entered to earn more (and, if necessary, place higher). There's something really satisfying about checking the post-race results, watching the points get tallied and seeing various unlocks pop up on screen, even when you don't take gold. It's a nigh-constant stream of gratification in Hurricane.

At the same time, I can't really draw a comparison to the full-price, big-budget likes of Split/Second when talking about the visuals. Don't get me wrong -- it's not a bad looking game, it's just not at the head of the pack. It's fast and vibrant, but the water -- an undeniably important part of a boat racing game -- could have looked a lot more realistic given the 360's capabilities, ditto for the lighting.

On offer apart from the single races are the speed and precision of Ringmaster, which challenges the player to -- as its name suggests -- race through rings, and Gauntlet, which litters the course with exploding barrels that have to be avoided. Lumped together with Tournament modes that collect several smaller events, they make for fun additions that definitely give Hurricane staying power, especially with leaderboard junkies.

But it's when racing against other opponents that the experience is at its best, riding in their wakes to "draft" them and boost jumping over them. The AI competitors offer a decent challenge, although more than a few times I caught them getting lost in more wide-open sections of some courses. Funny enough, these were spots where I'd also gotten stuck, so maybe they're more human than most computer-controlled opponents. Not-so-funny: The announcer / co-pilot who's devoid of any genuine enthusiasm and just will not shut up about the fact that you really, truly should use your boost. The online experience -- which includes straight-up races and a team-based "Rubber Duck" mode, in which two players are said duckies and the other racers are out to stop 'em -- seems to be about what you'd expect (our ability to test them was limited, this being pre-release code and all).

This is a great, content-rich title that truly puts the "arcade" in Xbox Live Arcade -- there are better retail racers, but Hydro Thunder Hurricane is a dynamite download.

This review is based on the full version of Hydro Thunder Hurricane provided by Microsoft.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.