Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Hydrophobia: Prophecy

Post-Launch Review
Hydrophobia: Prophecy (PC)
Developer: Dark Energy Digital
Publisher: Dark Energy Digital / Microsoft Game Studios (XBox)
Released: September 29 2010 (XBox Live) / May 9 2011 (Steam)

Hydrophobia is set in 2051. Rising sea levels and a massive population explosion have lead to the worst famine and poverty levels ever seen. The Queen of the World, a massive ship for the rich representing the last remnant of old capitalism, cruises the oceans researching nanotechnology to purify seawater on a molecular level to provide drinking water for everyone. But the Queen of the World is attacked by the Neo-Malthusians, a group dedicated to saving the world by culling the world's population from ten billion to half a billion. Systems Engineer Kate Wilson is caught in the attack and must fight to save the ship from sinking.

At Launch
The game originally launched as simply Hydrophobia on XBox Live. The reviews were mixed but averaged out fairly low. The fluid dynamics system was praised for its realistic water physics, but the game was also criticized for poor controls for combat, cover, camera, and map, and repetition — in other words, most of the core gameplay.

Post Launch
Dark Energy took the reviews a little hard, but they collected all the criticism and released a major update called Hydrophobia Pure, overhauling graphics, physics, controls, the map, general gameplay, the HUD, and irritating dialogue and information. The price dropped as well. Subsequent reviews were much more positive.
Hydrophobia: Prophecy released on Steam as a “version 1.5”, including all previous improvements as well as reworking levels and adding a huge amount of new content — approximately 70% of the game is new and does not appear in the single-titled Hydrophobia. In other words, ignore any and all reviews posted before Prophecy was released on May 9th, because Hydrophobia: Prophecy is a completely different game.

The Good
Water Physics
Holy crap. Like, seriously. The water is extremely impressive. First of all you get waves and swells that work realistically, including undertow and flow. Those waves then reflect off of walls and surfaces, providing increasingly complex but weaker ripples and waves. The water also drains and flows realistically: if you have a room full of water and an empty room with a closed door between them, and you open the door, the water sweeps into the empty room, carrying objects (and possibly you) with it, and splashes and reflects and soon levels out so that both rooms are half-full. You have to fight the current. You can drain water down an elevator shaft to empty the rooms above, while flooding the level below. You can use explosions to generate swells that will knock enemies off their feet.
The one criticism I will entertain is that waves don't break. Any sort of flow or current is defined by swells, not by actual waves that curl and crash. Splash effects are mostly sprites and particles, not an actual breakup of the liquid.
But overall, wow. I seriously want every game with water levels to feature water this dynamic. It's amazing.

Kate Wilson, Systems Engineer
The player character, Kate, is well-written and well-acted. She's got some depth and realism to her: she's pretty badass and gets the job done, but she's also only a mid-level engineer and has no exceptional skills other than climbing and a 7th grade swim certificate (which are unusual sports for a video game protagonist). Kate gets scared and freaks out at times, which most people would probably do during a massive terrorist attack bent on murdering 95% of the world's population. She relies on her chief to help and guide her, but when he's not available she can improvise. Occasionally she might come across as a little whiny or weak, but then, who wouldn't in that situation?
Also, her accent is charming.

The MAVI is a handheld tool used by engineers. In today's terms, it's like a collapsible transparent tablet with the screen in the middle and handles on each side, but in addition to working like a normal tablet computer (displaying maps, communications, etc), it also overlays information over the real world, like augmented reality stuff on a window instead of a screen. The MAVI can display false-colour imagery of things that aren't normally not in the visible spectrum, so you can see “invisible ink” or structural weaknesses, as well as tactical information. It's a great, logical tool for an engineer, but it turns out that it also has combat application: you can see which world objects are dangerous, and thus, which objects can be used against your enemies.

Sad Realism
One minor thing that I thought was quite funny and also disappointingly realistic: whenever anything goes wrong the administrators blame the engineers, and when the engineers fix everything and save lives, it took way too long.

Creepy Show-Don't-Tell
At the beginning of the game you get a very short cutscene of one of Kate's dreams, where a girl (Kate? her sister?) seems to be exploring some kind of underwater cave but runs out of air and drowns.
Anytime you're underwater you can hear the ghostly laughter of a girl, and the longer you spend underwater the louder and faster Kate's heartbeat. She's afraid of the water but she never outright tells you so. Instead you pick up that information through those underwater sound effects and her panicked swearing when water pours into a room.

The Neutral
The combat is totally adequate. The cover system is perfectly serviceable. I assume from earlier reviews that it's far far better than in the original release, and it's perfectly functional — it just isn't anything particularly unique or different. One thing it does have going for it, though, is a surprising element of realism: Kate is a systems engineer, not a marine. While she CAN shoot enemies directly, it's usually far more effective to use the environment instead: exploding a barrel near an enemy, destroying a wall to flood the room and sweep Malthusians off their feet, dropping power cables into the water to fry them... there's a reasonable number of options and they all make more sense for an ordinary engineer than direct combat.

Water Control
Near the end of the game you get the ability to control water to an extent. This is very cool: you can generate a “tower” of water. It must stay connected to the main water source, but it can pick up any freestanding objects and carry them around, as well as throw them. You can move the tower around at will.
I would have liked to see it taken further, though. It has some serious potential for a dedicated combat system. Imagine if you could not only use water to move and throw objects, but also generate high-speed focused waves to blast enemies or use it as a shield against certain weapon types. And imagine the horror of relying on water to fight and suddenly finding yourself in a completely dry area.

The only other major character — a higher-ranked engineer nicknamed “Scoot” — fills the role of omnipresent radio voice guy. The voice acting is well done, and he has a few great lines, but he never really fills out as a memorable character. He's just this guy, you know?

The Bad
Hydrophobia: Prophecy didn't run so well on my laptop. And before you go “Well that's because you have a laptop” I'll have you know that I'm still running brand-new and/or demanding games (such as Deus Ex: HR, Metro 2033, Team Fortress 2) at maximum settings, or very close to maximum, at 1366x768. But for Hydrophobia I had to turn things down to mostly medium to get a playable framerate. I'm going to assume this is due to the complex water physics, since my research shows that Dark Energy went out of their way to keep file size low. If your computer isn't ancient and actually has a dedicated graphics card you should be fine, but keep in mind that the listed minimum system requirements are just that: the absolute minimum that will run the game. They don't say anything about running it WELL.

The Verdict
Recommendation: play it.
It's only about three or four hours long, but it's also only twelve bucks on Steam. Totally worth it, even if just to play with some really cool water physics, but it also happens that the game is actually fun, looks nice, and has some interesting philosophy and story elements. The only thing to be careful of is that it might not run well depending on your system. If there's one setting you not sacrifice I would recommend water effects, since that's really what Hydrophobia is all about. Very cool game.

1 comment:

  1. Wow what a fantastic review. I must agree, I finished Hydrophobia and found it really good. Water physics is so amazing here.