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PAX 10: Hydrophobia

hydrophobiaEven though I had heard a lot about Hydrophobia, I still didn’t know what to expect as I sat down to play it at PAX. I knew it was a third-person action game with impressive water physics, but that was all. Turns out there’s a lot more to Hydrophobia than just pretty water, and the pretty water is so much more than just pretty.

The water is simply incredible. I thought I was jaded with physics in games thanks to Half Life 2, Trials HD, World of Goo, and the glut of “physics-based puzzlers,” and I thought I was jaded with pretty water thanks to BioShock and Uncharted, but Hydrophobia puts them to shame. In the very first room you can see the physics at work as the flooded room rocks back and forth, and the water ebbs and flows with it. It’s actually hypnotic, like one of those liquid motion toys.

The water has a weight to it as well. It will push you back and slow your movement. When a door opens and a wave comes rushing in, I felt it through the controls since it became harder to move. There’s some nice attention to detail with the animation as well. The protagonist, Kate, walks differently depending on the depth of the water, and if it gets too high she’ll lift her hands above her head to keep her gun dry. She can swim, but if you spend too much time in the deep end her hydrophobia starts to take over. The edges of the screen become blurry, as if I’m looking through water, giving me tunnel vision. Everything about the game looks and feels wet, for total immersion you might want to play this on a rainy day.

But as I said before, there’s a lot more to Hydrophobia than just its impressive water. This is not a typical third-person shooter, though it looks like one, it’s actually more of a puzzle game. The environment plays a major role in how you kill bad guys.

The interplay between oil and water has been discussed before, but it bears repeating because it’s fascinating to see it in action. Burning oil flows with the tide, so you can actually use it to kill enemies hiding behind cover. Of course, the same goes for you. I died once because I wasn’t paying attention to the flow of water, and the oil curved right around the corner to land on top of me. You can blow up leaking gas tanks and floating oil drums, or electrocute people by shooting out wires or circuit breakers.

The gun Kate uses is not a normal gun. Pull the right trigger for a weak shot, which won’t actually hurt or destroy anything, but it can be used to push barrels or break glass. Then hold the right trigger to charge up a strong shot, which can actually blow up stuff and set off electrical charges. Bad guys are killed instantly if they touch any fire or any electrocuted surface, but it takes three charged shots to kill them with just the gun, so you’re better off using the environment. In fact, I was told that there will be an Achievement for going through entire game without shooting anybody. That alone tells you how important environmental kills are.

My only criticism is that Hydrophobia doesn’t look as good as it could. At times I couldn’t see electric wires because they blended with the background, but then I wasn’t even looking for them to begin with. Picking out interactive objects might be a skill that you have to develop over time. Despite that, Hydrophobia straddles genres like a pro, and looks like a worthy flagship title for XBox Live Arcade’s upcoming Game Feast, which starts at the end of this month.

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