PAX 2010: Hydrophobia Hands-On Preview - Terrorism on the High Seas
Written Sunday, September 12, 2010 By Nate Gillick
Dark Energy Digital intends for their upcoming arcade title, Hydrophobia, to serve not just as a standalone game, but as the opening episode of a continuing series. Hydrophobia takes place during the mid 21st century aboard a city-sized luxury vessel known as the Queen of the World. Earth’s population has exploded to the point that the demand for food outpaces agricultural production, and thus competition is fierce for what food remains. While the corporate entities who built the Queen of the World live like kings, the desperate global conditions have given rise to a terrorist organization known as the Malthusians, who intend to right the global balance by killing most of the world’s human population.
Kate Wilson, the protagonist, is a systems engineer who doesn’t have any extraordinary talents, but rather comes across as an ordinary woman with extraordinary circumstances thrust upon her. Female leads represent a distinct minority in the world of games, with Kate all the more interesting because she seems realistic. The same could not be said for Lara Croft, who feels like a comic book character, or Joanna Dark, who is a female James Bond (minus the womanizing tendencies, of course).
At PAX we had the opportunity to play through two separate demos of the game. The first demo placed us right at the start of the game, with Kate soon finding herself hanging from a pipe in an elevator shaft after terrorists have detonated a bomb aboard the Queen of the World. After jumping through the elevator shaft doors out into a corridor, we made our way down the hall and up a flight of stairs, surrounded by flames and ruptured pipes the whole time. Arriving at the Central Station access doors, we found we didn’t have the security clearance to proceed, and therefore had to go up another level to obtain the necessary codes.
In the security room, Kate found the officer dead at his terminal, while Malthusian slogans like “Save the World, Kill Yourself” flashed across various monitors. Upon obtaining the hacking module we needed for downstairs, further explosions rocked the ship, and blasted away the windows near the security console. With our exit now blocked, we had to turn around and jump from where the windows had been to a steel beam running across the ceiling. Security forces engaged in a firefight with terrorists four or five stories below us as we shimmied across the beam and then jumped back into the security room. Picking up a device against the wall, we obtained the codes we needed through a hacking mini-game, involving rotating the left and right joysticks to match the amplitude and wavelength of a series of sine waves flowing across the screen. After one last trip across the beam, we’re able to open the door and proceed back out to the stairwell.
At this point, yet another series of explosions rocked the ship, destroying the stairs down to the next level in the process. To progress, we had to jump up to another steel beam and slide along until we could safely drop to the next level. A few floors down, pressure caused a few doors to blow open, giving us our first good glimpse of Hydrophobia’s water dynamics.
Water is the star of the show in Hydrophobia – as the name suggests – behaving in ways we haven’t seen in a game before. As windows or doors break to let in a flood, the water churns in realistic-looking waves, rolling across the ship like an ocean in a bottle. Dark Energy Digital’s HydroEngine is dynamic, meaning the water effects are generated in response to the conditions of the gaming environment so that players will experience different conditions each time they play. Hydrophobia’s water also violates the gaming cliché that water has no mass. While in most games characters can run or swim through water with no apparent difficulty, Kate will find herself knocked back by strong waves or pushed along by a current as much as any real person would.
After swimming through a flooded hallway and pressing a switch to drain the water before our air ran out, we went through a door and had another platforming section up an elevator shaft, managing to escape just before the burning elevator on top shook and tumbled down the shaft. The demo concluded soon after with a cliffhanger we won’t spoil here.
The second demo focused specifically on Hydrophobia’s combat. Functionally, Hydrophobia’s combat plays like a traditional third person shooter, and Kate is able to take advantage of cover to analyze the environment from a safe position and avoid enemy fire. However, calling Hydrophobia a third person shooter is really missing the point, as taking out enemies requires skillful use of the environment, not a shot to the head. Kate comes armed with a pistol-like weapon that can stun enemies, but it’s primarily used to set up environmental kills through the use of different elements.
Fire, electricity, and gas leaks are Kate’s best friends as she traverses the Queen of the World. Shooting explosive barrels is an easy (though cliché) way to take out enemies, but another viable tactic involves shooting at gas leaks as an enemy passes by to cause a lethal explosion. Don’t see anything flammable nearby? Shooting at an electrical breaker can electrocute enemies, or simply shooting out a room’s window to flood the place are a few of the more effective ways to dispose of your foes. Hydrophobia’s combat system is designed to force players to analyze their surroundings and decide how to proceed based on what’s available, and there’s often more than one way to move on. In one hallway we killed a guard by exploding a nearby barrel but you could have even started a flood if you liked, once past him, we had to make the tough choice of electrocuting or incinerating by gas the next guard we faced. While Call-of-Duty and Halo junkies certainly won’t be lining up for Hydrophobia’s more cerebral action, we were certainly intrigued by the setup.
Hydrophobia promises to offer gamers an intriguing, story-driven adventure with environmentally focused action sequences. Releasing near the end of September as part of Microsoft’s “Game Feast,” Hydrophobia aims to deliver seven to eight hours of action in its opening act of the episodic game series, plus an additional challenge mode after completing the campaign. The game is set to release for 1,200 Microsoft Points, and if the demo is any indication of the quality of the final product, it might be a good idea to have a points card lying around.
Hydrophobia is out September 29th for 1,200 Microsoft Points.