Version tested: Xbox 360
Water, that most precious of all life's commodities, is the highest prize of virtual worlds too. Land, in its immovable dependency, has always been a straightforward task for game artists. Water, by contrast, is a creature of ten thousand different forms.
So water has become an artist's calling card and a benchmark of computer performance. Turn on a tap in a videogame and you can tell a great deal about its world, the men and women who built it and the hardware that fires it. If the water's good, chances are the same care and attention runs through the rest of the experience.
Judged on this asset alone, Hydrophobia represents a high bar for the medium. As with BioShock, this is a game world straining to hold back the sea and failing. The Queen of the World, a giant ocean liner city which finds itself the stage for a terrorist attack at the game's opening, is riddled with holes: leaks that cause water to drip, stream, slosh and wash about its insides.
Shoot a barrel and the resulting explosion will cause a frothy wave to billow out around it, transparent undulations rippling off in all directions. Open a glass door to a side room in which the water is at a higher level than in corridor outside and the wave of displacement gushes out with all the credibility of a tsunami. It's impressive and, thanks to some concerted attempts to integrate it into the game's puzzles and mechanics, it's interesting too.
There's little time to stop and stare at the fluid realism, however. Kate Wilson, the improbably acrobatic security engineer whom you control, is propelled through the game with all the urgency of a high-pressure hose. Your immediate fight is against physics. The water level changes about Kate constantly, her sprints morphing to swims and back again. Wrestling Kate through the forces that buffet her is a challenge nearly matched by the one presented by the hyperactive camera, never comfortable in the tight shafts that define the game's environments and therefore requiring constant attention.
But, camera aside, this is not an un-enjoyable battle. Developer Dark Energy Digital smartly derives puzzles from changing water levels in rooms to access higher air shafts and tunnels and - at this fundamental conceptual level - should be praised for the efforts made to ensure water is more than a gimmick.
The problem, then, is everything else: the lacklustre combat, the imprecise platforming, the lack of meaningful feedback, the repetitive hunting for keys to locked doors, the over-fussy map, the intolerable cover system and the poor signposting that will leave even the most attentive player floundering for direction and purpose. These factors frustrate, pulling the game time and again under the high mark established by its water.
Access to the ship's floors is handled by way of a system of locked doors. To move to new areas you must find and kill the enemy that holds the relevant frequency key. This will enable you to read directions daubed on the wall using a handheld computer. Rendered as a series of graffiti arrows, these point the way to the relevant cipher that, when installed into your computer, will unlock the encrypted door in question. This sequence is used with such repetition that it quickly becomes tiresome, especially as you run at quarter speed when holding your MAVI computer up to read the hieroglyphic directions, needlessly slowing down what was already an uninspired hunt.
The combat is idiosyncratic. Your handgun uses, by default, stun bullets that will momentarily knock enemies back, or temporarily incapacitate them if you charge a shot up by holding the trigger down for a few seconds. Knock an enemy down and you must continue firing on his prostrate body for the kill, the torso skidding awkwardly about the ground with each successive hit. It's far more satisfying to use the environment to take out your enemies; shooting a gas canister to knock them forward, or exploding a nearby barrel to set them on fire.
These environmental effects can be combined, and as all enemies can drown if knocked unconscious into water, there's fun to be had from setting off a chain reaction of explosions that land an enemy face down in a watery grave. However, the jittery aiming and the way the enemies flit in and out of cover at hyper-speed make combat feel woolly and undistinguished.
Likewise, the lack of a melee attack when you have a weapon equipped is extremely frustrating at close quarters, leading to frequent moments when you're forced to retreat from an enemy standing metres away in order to line up a shot. The inexplicable decision to only allow Kate to use cover when she has her weapon drawn is a constant frustration too, as you tap a button expecting to duck away from danger only to dive towards it.
Dark Energy Digital chooses style over transparency with regard to HUD information, clearing all screen furniture and gauges in order to provide an un-obscured view into the game. However, this comes at the cost of clear feedback and, during a gunfight, you'll rarely know how close Kate is to death. Modern Warfare's trick of intensifying the crimson edges to the screen as the character approaches death is handled poorly here, and often the first you'll know about it is when Kate crumples into the game over screen. When diving, too, the lack of a gauge to show how much oxygen Kate has left in her lungs makes judging the distance between safety and drowning impossible, leading to trial-and-error runs that irritate with each restart.
A lack of clarity typifies the game's objectives, too. The developer arbitrarily chooses when to signpost the next goal, one moment highlighting a computer panel that must be interacted with to open a door, the next minute leaving you to guess which corridor you must head down in search of the next target. An overly complex map does little to alleviate the frustration, offering an admittedly stylish 3D rendering of your immediate environment, but at the cost of intelligibility and speed of use.
The result is a game that feels like it needs more playtesting. Part of that is cultural; we are no longer used to being stumped in action games (and make no mistake, this is a third-person action game, devoid of any of the resource management systems necessary for true survival horror), searching the beams and walls for a way out of the room into the next rush of adrenaline.
But in truth, Hydrophobia is simply poorly signposted, and the rules of its environments are too blurred and inconsistent. Sometimes doors are locked for no better reason than needing a cut-scene to play out first; some pipes that can be exploded in one area to raise the water level will be impervious to the same attacks in the next area, an inconsistency that causes you to doubt yourself and the developers every time you get stuck. Am I baffled by design or by bug?
So, while Hydrophobia breaks new water, it treads old ground. The systems beneath the ebb and flow of its technical accomplishment are archaic and, without exception, lack finesse. Arguments that this is a downloadable title, and as such expectations should be suitably lowered, are irrelevant. The game fails to match its ambition, and, in its cumulative small failings, drags the player down into infuriation. By the moment you break the surface of the game's ending, much like its lead character, the abiding feeling is one of relief not enjoyment.
4 / 10
Hydrophobia is available now on Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points. PS3 and PC versions, and further episodes, are planned but unconfirmed.