The best parts of Hydrophobia are, not surprisingly, wet.
Today in Boston at PAX East I got a chance to try a demo of Hydrophopbia, a game several years in development by studio Dark Energy Digital that has been announced at this show as an exclusive Xbox Live Arcade game.
At first glance it is a Tomb Raider in a ship, a third-person action game starring a heroine who jumps and climbs through a dangerous environment. By that standard alone the game gives a poor first impression, feeling less polished and less clever than Lara's best adventures or even the Prince of Persia game being shown in the Ubisoft booth a few feet away at the PAX East Microsoft booth. Heroine Kate's platforming is a little stiff. In a game that is and will be marketed for its water, she's opening the demo having to climb ladders, dangle from beams and reverse-jump to ledges all in competenet but not magnificent fashion. It is not improved when she has to hack a door and the game is presenting a hacking mini-game — lining up sine waves — before it has gotten to the good stuff.
Then the water comes. Kate is afraid of water. But the city-sized ship she is on has been attacked by terrorists. It is springing leaks. Kate is panicked by a message flashing on monitors: Save the world, kill yourself. And as the player walks her into a hallway, the water comes flowing. This water seems almost alive and certainly irrepressible, pouring through breaking windows and out hatchways, bulging and gushing with force that rumbles the controller and pushes Kate and the player to a dashing panic.
The water is the game's real star, but the demo here at PAX East doesn't give it enough play time. It looks great and seems to run with impressive, realistic fluid physics. But it was not a major playable piece in the demo. It will be in the game, a trailer they are showing here teases. One of the game's develoeprs backs that up. He called out some of the more advanced water scenarios as they played on the trailer: Underwater combat that looks like bullet time under the sea, an earned superpower for Kate that lets her control columns of water (think Psi-Ops with water, the developer tells me). And here's my favorite: the exploding barrels. In this game you shoot them so that they blow open a hole in the wall, sending water gushing and then carrying their inferno across spilled oil to the enemies. If that is something I can play some day, I'll be happy.
Hydrophobia right now is an odd project. What we can play of it is the game's quiet opening, one that does not offer what would be the game's best qualities first. The draw here is the water. Its pull and push will be the game's best attribute. If and when we can feel more of that from this roughly six-hour single-player game we will know how good this aquatic adventure can be. Here's hoping it gets the wet parts right.