Version tested: PC
Hydrophobia Prophecy is one of the best terrible games I've played in ages. I mean it. At the bad games awards (imagine a town hall in Croydon, the audience full of sniffling, coughing hopefuls) Hydrophobia would win everything from Most Ambitious Game to Most Impressive Technology That Was Not Used At All.
On the one hand, it's kind of a tragedy. On the other hand, it's unforgivable. The developers performed the impressive feat of screwing up almost everything.
Hydrophobia tells the story of the Queen of the World, a "city-sized" "luxury" ship built in a time when the world's population is spiralling out of control. I've got those quotation marks doing their thing in the previous sentence because, besides a view out of the game's one and only window in the opening 20 seconds, nothing about the Queen of the World implies it's either enormous, luxurious, or anything other than a series of of long corridors and wide-open chambers that look a bit like the set of Dead Space with the lights on.
You play Kate Wilson, a systems engineer of Irish descent (neatly managing to unsettle my Irish girlfriend as she kept hearing Kate's Dublin-born voice actor using words and sentences that no Irish person would ever say or has ever said) who's forced into action when a group of terrorists attack the Queen of the World with the intention of turning the advanced nano-technology onboard the vessel into a genocidal weapon.
The dastardly terrorists believe that mass-murder is the only way to return the Earth's population to manageable levels. They call themselves Malthusians, after 18th-century philosopher Thomas Malthus, who predicted humankind's habit of breeding would one day outstrip the Earth's ability to grow food. Incidentally, Thomas Malthus also had a big hand in popularising the economic practice of paying rent. This makes him one of the biggest jerks ever born.
I'll get back to Hydrophobia's plotting later, because I need to cover what it is you actually do in the game. It's a third-person action-adventure, with you picking your way through a linear series of rooms which will either demand some climbing, puzzling, a shoot-out, or a mix of two of the three. Seeing as this is a sinking ship, water also makes an appearance in about half of the game's areas.
How impressed you are by Hydrophobia's water rendering and liquid physics will probably determine whether you finish the game as an apologist for everything that's wrong with it, or play the whole thing through with a face like the rear end of a cat.
It is impressive, and consistently so. Opening a door and having water go pouring down the corridor on the other side looks great. Wading across a room, pushing against a tide of water that's crashing all around you, feels dramatic, if a little implausible. Shattering a pane of glass to cause a wall of water to flatten an enemy on the other side is a thing of beauty. But it's also a massive system hog. Playing on the PC, Hydrophobia taxed my system more than either Total War: Shogun 2 or Crysis 2.
But the biggest problem with the water is that the game only ever uses it to create situations that have been in a hundred other games. For instance, swimming through long tunnels and emerging breathless at the other end. Using electricity to shock enemies in ankle-deep water. Flooding a room so you can get up to a high walkway. Dragging floating objects down into larger, submerged obstacles, so their combined buoyancy lifts the obstacle out of your way.
These are set-ups I never wanted to see again before playing Hydrophobia. The fact that this, a game featuring state-of-the-art water technology, can't think of anything new to do with said water technology is a failure of imagination even more impressive than the water tech itself.
I tell a lie - one of the bigger changes between this revised version and the original Hydrophobia is Prophecy's final level, where Kate finally gets the chance to push the water around a bit. This section is both underwhelming and extremely short.
At its core, I think the biggest problem with the game is that the developers cannot design a good puzzle. Getting through almost every single room is a matter of noticing the one element of the environment you can interact with, whether it's a terminal you can hack, electric cables you can shoot or a door you can open remotely to fill the room with water. You use this object, and then progress to whatever it makes accessible. If the Tomb Raider or Prince of Persia games could be said to offer climbing frames, Hydrophobia offers a mile-long running track covered in rocks.
I had more fun playing out Hydrophobia's gunfights with the terrorists, which is remarkable seeing as just putting the crosshairs on a bad guy means overcoming the game's controls, camera and flypaper-like cover system. Nonetheless, the fights are entertaining because, with the exception of two rooms in the whole game, they're relatively easy. Between explosive barrels, explosive gel rounds, your Sonic rounds (think force push loaded into a pistol) and the chance to cause unexpected waves of water, you're really just spending the duration of any fight knocking ragdolls around.
I'd have liked the Malthusians to have been more than ragdolls, but weirdly, the more you find out about them and the more you hear their leader talk over the ship's intercom, the less human they become. These are pantomime villains of the lowest order - faces covered by skull-patterned scarves, the foot soldiers murder their way around the game without saying a word, and their leader is a heavily scarred woman with the charisma of a wet pamphlet.
Speaking of characters, the helpful voice in your ear for the first two acts of Hydrophobia, a character by the name of Scoot, was a Scottish man who was apparently so irritating in the original game that the developers actually recast him for Hydrophobia Prophecy. I think that's amazing, and I'd almost trade that for what we have now - a slightly acidic American voice who inspires nothing at all. (Except a bit of revulsion in the early game when he chirps, "I don't know! I've got two balls, Kate, and neither one of them is crystal.")
I didn't play the original Hydrophobia, so I'm taking all of this from the lengthy list of updates that developer Dark Energy Digital has released. But looking at that, it's easy to notice that some of the fiddliest elements of Prophecy (the floating cover system, the ability to round corners in cover, the direct water manipulation at the end) and the most tedious rooms in the entire game (the buoyancy puzzles, a horrible room that revolves around floating cover) are, in fact, entirely new to Prophecy.
That makes this less of a new, improved edition than the developers are making it out to be - but I suspect they were doomed from the start. A third-person action game boasting everything from puzzles to gunfights to exploration is a huge project to embark on, let alone one that successfully incorporates the most advanced water tech video games have ever seen.
Which I guess is the best reason to buy Hydrophobia Prophecy - not for entertainment, but as a kind of digital tourism. You're paying for a look at everything the developers achieved over Hydrophobia's exceptionally long development, and to see what this game might have been. Which, now I think about it, isn't a bad reason at all.
4 / 10
Hydrophobia Prophecy is out now on PC and is due this month on PlayStation 3.