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Hydrophobia review: That sinking feeling


During a huge party on the Queen of the World -- a luxury liner filled with the world's rich and privileged -- terrorists attack. And not just any terrorists, but terrorists with a little too much respect for economist Thomas Malthus. Hydrophobia would be impossible to discuss without bringing up Malthus, whose seminal work "An Essay on the Principle of Population" posits that population growth will eventually outstrip human resources, whether they be food or energy or jobs or some combination of those. In Hydrophobia, this future has come to pass.

The "Neo-Malthusians" are hell bent on murdering as many of the ship's denizens as possible to do their part in controlling overpopulation. Protagonist Kate Wilson is the only one in a position to stop them but ... wait for it ... she's just an engineer. (Yes, it's all very "Seagal in Under Siege.") Room after room is filled with at least some amount of water, which is a real issue for the game's unwitting hero who is, as the game's name hints, afraid of water.

Sure, it's unconventional, but I actually really like the premise for Hydrophobia. The game? Not as much.

With Kate's boss "Scoot" guiding your progress over the radio, you're tasked with trudging (and often swimming) through room after room of nearly identical enemies, who are far better equipped than you for their job (their job is still murdering, by the way). This means being shot to death. Often.

Instead of real murder-type guns, Kate is equipped with an energy pistol that shatters, say, conveniently placed glass walls holding several hundred gallons of water next to an enemy. Using the environment to kill Malthusians is the central combat conceit of Hydrophobia, but it's not always an effective one.

For example, if an enemy is shot once by your energy gun, he'll collapse to the ground and be submersed in water -- sometimes he'll survive it and sometimes he won't. I shot guys in various levels of water and couldn't determine a standard for when their drop would be fatal or not. And if they're not near environmental hazards, your success becomes even murkier.

Things become more complex with the introduction of swinging electric lines and flaming oil slicks floating on top of the water, though finding out how close was too close was a clumsy game of guess and check (doubly frustrating thanks to a forgetful checkpoint system). Environmental combat is traded for an environmental puzzle every now and then, but these rarely showed clever use of the game's HydroEngine-generated water physics. And that's especially confusing given that the most impressive part of Hydrophobia is the water, which developer Dark Energy Digital has spent years honing.

The water isn't even as impressive as you might expect. Though impressive rolling waves washed me from side to side, opening doors to dry rooms didn't change the water levels realistically, which means you can't necessarily expect waves to rush in from one room to put out a fire in another, for example. Normally, that might be a niggling complaint, but in a corridor-based game where drowning is a regular possibility, that really matters. At least guiding Kate under the water was relatively easy, as was expending bullets into swimming terrorists (because what's more terrifying than a doggie-paddling Neo-Malthusian?).

As the cliffhanger ending will attest, Hydrophobia is planned as a trilogy and -- even though this first outing is an interesting proof-of-concept that never quite shakes out -- it's one that I'm still interested in following. I hope Dark Energy Digital will make a more fully realized game that lives up to its premise next time around.

Gallery: Hydrophobia (9/27/10) | 28 Photos

This review is based on final Xbox 360 code of Hydrophobia provided by Dark Energy Digital.

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