Hands up who's seen the (original) Poseidon Adventure? It's about a boat having a bad day, and it traumatised me, combining latent fears of confinement, deep water and Gene Hackman into one package. Every family holiday that involved a ferry was soon tinged with trepidation.
Kate Wilson, lead character of Dark Energy's Hydrophobia, clearly hates Gene Hackman too, but it's her fear of water that makes her an interesting choice for this physics-heavy aquatic adventure.
It's the near future, and the world is approaching breaking point. Over-population has placed an incredible strain on resources, with supplies of water and food proving inadequate to support everyone comfortably.
Salvation is on its way though in the form of new nanotechnology, which should allow cost-efficient desalination of seawater and the irrigation of the world's deserts. Today is game-day for the new technology, due to be announced on the Queen of the World, a huge ocean liner owned and funded by a conglomeration of all-powerful corporations.
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But not everyone shares this view of the future. A group called the Malthusians is looking to spoil the party with the sabotage of the announcement, the corporations' plans and the Queen of the World itself. For Kate it's sink or swim time, as the game's events transform her from systems engineer into reluctant hero, with an awful lot of that nasty wet stuff sloshing around in-between.
Originally slated as a full-price retail release on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360, the game is now set to appear as a timed exclusive on XBLA. Apparently it features the first ever full-water physics simulation ever seen in a game, made possible by a system of infinite particle shenanigans which is far too complex to explain, but which is very impressive.
On top of that, the physics modelling extends to life-like smoke, fire, electricity and oil, creating a playground of death for Kate and those naughty Malthusians to experiment with.
Speaking of the Malthusians, for someone who's not supposed to be a killer, Kate finds a vast number of violent ways to dispense with them. Enemies can be drowned, burned, electrocuted, crushed and shot, combinations of these methods building a multiplier to boost the score Kate gets for each kill.
Don't feel too sorry for them, however, because the Malthusians are pretty extreme. Following a loose interpretation of the philosophy of Thomas Malthus, they believe that the act of charity, or any action which helps the weak and disadvantaged to survive, is morally counter-productive, eventually outweighing the survival of the individual thanks to the extra burden placed on the world's resources by the human population.
Instead of keeping things hypothetical, the Malthusians have decided to take direct action against the cornucopian technologists by bombing the Queen of the World so that they can't help the world's poor and hungry.
When I'm first given the pad, after a brief warm-up period of wandering around Kate's quarters, it feels a bit Tomb Raidery. Kate is athletic, thanks to her rock-climbing hobby, and has a very healthy set of lungs for underwater swimming despite her fear of water. She has no gun, but there are not yet any enemies to shoot with one anyway.
Throughout the game, the environment proves to be one of your deadliest foes, and the lessons in dealing with it start right away. One of the first jobs I'm given is to rescue the grizzly chief of security, who's locked in his burning office by a systems malfunction. Luckily there's obviously plenty of water about and the room next door appears to be flooded.
This is where we meet Kate's MAVI, a fold away all-purpose terminal upgraded through various tech packages hidden around the ship, allowing it to see hidden messages, unlock doors, control CCTV and open doors remotely. A quick detour to pick up the remote-door operation module allows Kate to flood the office and rescue the chief from a toasty fate.
Letting him die wouldn't have meant game-over though - different choices and paths of action cause the script and story to unfold in different ways, with or without some of the supporting cast. Later on we're given a chance to rescue a hostage by flooding the room and electrocuting his captors via a CCTV system - again, failure will mean a different script tree and less of the game's collectables littering the play area.
The MAVI becomes an extremely useful tool as the game progresses, helping Kate to navigate the labyrinthine corridors of the ship, and giving Dark Energy excellent scope for creative puzzles. It's a little like the visor Samus Aran has in Metroid, offering an augmented picture of reality as well as an interface to access various collectables and data files that Kate collects during her escape.
The flip side to this MAVI-based problem-solving is the combo-building combat. When Kate first finds a firearm, it only has sonic ammunition, great for stunning terrorists temporarily but not great for killing them. These rounds will shove oil barrels around though - or burst fuse-boxes, break glass and explode and ignite barrels.
Bursting a barrel creates a slick of oil on the water, great if the flow is heading away from you, but extremely dangerous if the tide turns. Making sure that a barrel is near an enemy can mean knocking it towards them with a few light shots, or simply waiting for one to float by. Alternatively you could shatter a window into a flooded room behind them, unleashing the water and washing them towards danger, or simply drowning them.
Electricity is equally effective, with the large, fizzing junction boxes handily highlighted by the aiming reticule when it passes over them. The power itself will arc out from the box once broken, searching for the nearest conductible material, including water. Use a combination of methods to kill an enemy and you'll get a much bigger multiplier and consequently a much bigger score, all adding to your published leaderboard position.
The physics modelling itself is excellent, although the water does seem a little viscous, presumably to make the most of the lovely, rolling flow when it enters a room. Originally the water physics were modelled even more accurately, with currents sweeping Kate off her feet more often, or pushing against her underwater, but these effects were toned down to reduce frustration.
Essentially, Hydrophobia is something of a shop window for the proprietary Hydro Engine and Infinite Worlds technology used to build the game. Dark Energy wants to show what it can do with the tools it's created in the hope they'll be taken up by others.
In order to make sure that its work is appreciated, the team has also included a challenge room mode, pitting Kate against waves of enemies to maximise her score before she's overcome. Kate has access to advanced nanotechnology in this mode, allowing her to manipulate the water itself into a column.
This column can then be moved around the challenge room, picking up enemies, crates, barrels and shipping containers. Innovative deaths mean higher scores, and a variety of different ammo types for Kate's pistol means that things can get pretty creative. For example, sticking an electricity-producing static round to a barrel before flinging it into a crowd of goons will see them all electrocuted, but chucking a crate covered in explosives in their direction first means it will all be followed up by a big bang too.
The variety of control options means that the button space gets a little crowded, and an unconventional approach to mapping them takes a little getting used to as well, but otherwise Hydrophobia already looks like a very polished product, full of neat touches and new ideas. Its combination of dark philosophy, high-score hunting and physical puzzling might not be to everyone's taste, but Dark Energy's ambition has made it worth keeping an eye on.
Hydrophobia is due out for PC, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade but will be a timed exclusive for the latter.