Reviews

Hydrophobia

Wet behind the ears.

Playing Hydrophobia is like being dropped in a maze containing a pot of gold and then having all the lights switched off. There's a reward somewhere, but it takes a lot of fumbling about and many wrong turns to find it.

It's well on course to become this year's most misunderstood game. Leading lady Kate is handed a gun and dropped into hugely hostile environments, but the game isn't what you think.

The screens make it out to be a third-person adventure with shooty bits but it's still not what you think. The trailers hint at a frantic backs-to-the-wall action disasterpiece but, no, the game honestly isn't what you think.

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Hydrophobia is not a shooter: it's a puzzle game masquerading as an action blaster with the odd bit of Lara Croft acrobatics, and that's a crucial distinction to draw.

Fail to pick up on this early enough and the XBLA title will play you for a fool, extinguishing any fun in an instant. Bow to the synapse-stimulating undercurrents, however, and you too can claim to 'get' Hydrophobia and what it means for XBLA.

WATERWORLD
You play a technical engineer trapped on a sinking city-ship that has been overrun by a bunch of Malthusian terrorists. The only way to stop them involves making the most of the rigged-to-blow danger zones: blasting ruptured gas tanks, electrifying water and blowing some of the many red barrels.

Central to the game is the flowing water - a technology that for a large part manages to upstage the game itself. H2O sloshes about as the doomed Queen of the World's hull ruptures more and more, and flows into drier areas when windows and doors are breached with wayward shots.

Entire levels are flooded and drained in real time, and Kate and her foes are buffeted by the waves. The sensation of climbing up a towering elevator and then swimming back down the shaft to its murky depths once the floodgates have opened is awe-inspiring. It's an unbeatable advert for the power of XBLA.

The unpredictability of the water means the terrorists need to think for themselves. And when that happens, things can sadly go awry. In a firefight Kate's as useless as a fishnet condom and any attempt to take people down directly will end in tears.

Her stun gun isn't equipped to kill people (until you find the explosive gel and electric rounds) but it is perfect for wrecking nearby scenery which will take others out of the equation.

Unfortunately, coaxing people into the right zones proves to be a massive headache. Either terrorist A refuses to budge to point B or he'll sprint past it before you have a chance to shoot the electric cable in question and you'll be screwed.

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The Hitman titles are puzzle games with solid shooting mechanics in place as a plan B when things go arse-backwards. Hydrophobia has no plan B.

You take the foes out with the environment 'puzzles' or you run and swim about in circles until you can lead your pursuers back into danger areas, Benny Hillstyle. Or you die. Lots.

LIFE PRESERVER
Add some tricky-to-grasp controls to the mixer (Y to jump?), a confusing map system and an abrupt ending that makes Halo 2's finale look like a masterpiece and you have the makings of a frustrating adventure.

But we're not burying Hydrophobia at sea just yet. In spite of its faults and the odd stand off which gives off a distinct tech demo feel, when the game hits the right notes it's a joy to play.

By and large the issues involving enemy behaviour stem from a brutal line-of-sight stealth mechanic. Creep silently into every room and you can usually get one-up on foes, but only if you avoid detection by approaching each area slowly and methodically.

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