It used to be trees. Back in my day, that is, which is probably before you were born. You'd load up a game, take a look at the foliage and gawp at how magnificent modern technology had become; 'my God', you'd think, 'they've stitched two flat textures together to make a tree!' And there would be much rejoicing.
But advancements in tree rendering are no more. Now developers can just buy a piece of middleware and just hit a button to bask in even the rampant wildlife of the tropics. No, these days it's all about water. Yes, there's some pretty good water out there already, but it's all static; dull, immovable pools of briny deep designed to house a few sequences where you need to worry about drowning. Not in Hydrophobia, though, where the water bursts and springs out of areas as if each pipe were moonlighting as a high-power hose. The water here is fluid and dynamic, rippling down corridors and sweeping through doors, and is almost always an impressive sight to behold.
Which is a lot more than you can say about the actual game.
I can't quite work out if protagonist Kate Wilson is actually afraid of water (as the title would suggest) but I do know that, after a scant few hours of being forced to play the game, Hydrophobia will be haunting my dreams for years to come.
Set in the future aboard mammoth cruise city Queen of the World, plucky tech wizard Wilson finds herself caught in the middle of an impromptu terrorist attack. The ultimate goal of these ruffians is to solve the world's swelling population by thinning the herd by a few billion, though their only discernable results seem to be in the creation of a few rugged, Tomb Raider-esque environments for you to scamper across.
Wilson's joined by her insufferable sidekick Scoot, who bleats nonsense - purportedly 'banter' - over the telecoms in an excruciatingly poor faux-Scottish accent. There's nothing like a potentially apocalyptic terrorist attack to bring out your very worst clichéd one-liners, is there? One antagonist speaks like Darth Vader, but is only wearing a bit of cloth over his mouth; basically, the general quality of Hydrophobia's voice acting suggests the talent budget stretched to little more than a multipack of Beef & Onion crisps.
There's about six hours of sprawling boredom to be found here, though you'll spend a fair chunk of it attempting to reposition the camera to a viewpoint that's actually useful. Despite the game's adventurous concept the end result is altogether pedestrian; jump across a few platforms and then either swim up or down something while trying not to drown. Dynamic water might be washing past you, forcing you to occasionally switch from walking to swimming, but it certainly doesn't do much to hide the game's repetitive puzzling and meandering corridors.
Things are further worsened by the inexcusable shooting mechanics. A limp stungun takes the place of a weapons catalogue, and with it come the abilities to fire two types of shot; weak for moving barrels and then charged for knocking things over. The stungun's usefulness in dispatching mooks is purposely limited in a bid to encourage players to use the environment, but there are only so many times you can shoot an overhead electric cable before wanting to scrub the game off your hard drive.
Every now and then you're also forced to use your MAVI, a trumped-up PDA, to do cursory distractions, such as following a trail to obtain an arbitrary cipher or some tedious wavelength hacking mini-game, in a shameless attempt to pad out the wafer-thin content a little bit further. Developing a third-person adventure game is a fine art, but developer Dark Energy Digital has somehow managed to fluff up every single aspect.
Hydrophobia feels like a game truly out of place in modern gaming. Its occasionally obtuse puzzling and lengthy backtracking feels out of touch with common practices, and the horrendous signposting and unintuitive design effectively destroys any chance of it having a neat little vintage feel. Wilson feels like she's lacking weight, and her floaty imprecision make the game's biggest enemy the controls. And the dodgy shooting. And the laughable script. And the awful level design.
As part of a three-part episodic release, the game also ends with an abrupt 'To Be Continued' message. This is probably my favourite scene in the game, as it meant I could finally stop playing.
A wholly loathsome experience drowns out the potentially impressive water physics; Dark Energy Digital should focus on turning their water into a piece of middleware. Maybe then we could finally see something good come out of this mess.