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Hands-on: Hydro Thunder Hurricane (XBLA)


Hydro Thunder Hurricane is not your typical case of sequelitis. The original concept, simply, an arcade-style boat racer, was hatched by indie developer Vector Unit. The 2-man studio, which has grown to 6 for Hurricane, is led by technical director Ralf Knoesel and creative director Matt Small, who met in the late '90s at Stormfront Studios. They stayed in touch over the years, as each continued to build a strong resume of work, and, in late 2007, they co-founded Vector Unit and began work on a small, downloadable project that would become the licensed sequel to Midway's decade-old arcade racer.

Checking out a playable build on the PAX East show floor today, I quickly understood what caught the attention of now publisher Microsoft Game Studios, which smartly licensed the Hydro Thunder brand from sinking Midway in order to establish Vector Unit's game as part of a celebrated heritage. With the exception of nods to some boats from the classic arcade game, Hydro Thunder Hurricane is not much of a sequel, and instead represents the promising talent of a new independent developer. It's also, bizarrely, one of two Xbox Live Arcade games premiering at PAX East with a really slick, proprietary water physics engine. (Hydrophobia being the other.)

Aside from the dynamic waterways that sway and swell as objects small and monstrous emerge and submerge, Hydro Thunder Hurricane has wonderful art direction, which explores an imaginative array of race courses -- 8 tracks in all -- from a scenic lake to the obligatory ice level; from a theme park–style temple to the infamous Area 51. I was impressed by the vibrancy of colors and the chaotic activity in the environments: explosions, whirlpools, secret passageways and even an angry fisherman boat, its captain yelling at me in Dutch.

Hydro Thunder Hurricane retains the arcade-style gameplay of the original, with simple, loose controls: hold down throttle and go! As in the original, blue and rarer red boost icons are scattered about the tracks and award varying amounts of boost power and the "hydro jump" ability, which is crucial for propelling your boat up into secret tunnels. You begin every single-player race in last place, 16th, and hope to work up to first by the end of the last lap. There are also slalom-type (Ring Master), time trial (Gauntlet) and tournament modes. Racing in any mode, including 4-player split-screen or 8-player online, earns credits, which simply amass and unlock new content, including, tracks, game modes, boats and boat skins. Boats and their corresponding AI opponents are sorted into three classes, with the advanced boats capable of the greatest speeds and radical mid-air maneuvering.

The wealth of unlockable content in Hydro Thunder Hurricane doubles as incentive to explore and master each race course. And even then, your track record is never safe, as Vector Unit has added a layer of asynchronized competition, taunting you with on-screen glimpses of your friends' best leaderboard times as you cross checkpoints along the track. This is new old-fashioned racing, and there's a lot of potential in the surprising debut game from Vector Unit.

Hydro Thunder Hurricane is due out on XBLA this summer. It has not yet been priced.

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