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It’s a well known fact that water physics in gaming is a hurdle no one has yet managed to jump. While getting ripples to scatter across surfaces and pre programming set water paths have been around since the PS2 era, no one has achieved the free flowing water of reality. Hydrophobia looks to change that with a game that is more of tech demo than a full on game. Like poking Bioshock in the eye, hydrophobia is set on water borne city that is under threat from a terrorist plot and you must use the ever changing environment around you to overcome your assailants. Will Hydrophobias new engine change the flow of gaming or be just a drop in the ocean?

It’s disappointing to find out that the game has nothing to do with the later stages of rabies and instead refers to a fear of water, making the game title actually ‘Aquaphobia’. Kate Wilson is an engineer, who much like Isaac Clarke from Dead Space, is dipping into the hero business and plays the main protagonist in this adventure. Caught unaware during an attack by a group of fanatics is stuck far away from the places she needs to be to save the Queen of the World (the ship you are on). Que a number of puzzles and encounters as you fight your way back to the top of the ship.

The first thing you will notice in Hydrophobia is that the voice acting is truly awful. It hits you like a hammer in the face that no one here knows how to sound convincing. Even the worst lines in Resident Evil sounded more genuine than this. Most of them you can ignore, but the constant droning of your Scottish boss guiding you through the levels will never leave and quite honestly is so bad that I nearly turned the entire game off to make him go away. On the other hand the sounds that don’t come from people are respectable, giving you a sense of the disaster onboard the ship. However the fact that the people involved make you want to pull the plug is a very big negative.

The second thing you will notice is that Hydrophobia attempts a plot based on political and cultural corruption, trying to discuss the ramifications of limited space for human survival in a world where the water level has risen over the land. The game goes to great lengths to interest you with hidden messages and descriptions for every single item mixed in with a number of personal logs. Nobody can knock the depth (HA!) that Hydrophobia goes into explaining the world around you. Most of it however is optional, so if you want to know more, you will have to look around yourself.

The third thing you will notice is the control schemes failings. Everything in Hydrophobia feels clunky and the button mapping is just off. With so many third person adventure games on the market a consensus seems to have been reached on the standard layout of controls, however Hydrophobia breaks away from this. On many occasions you will find yourself pressing one button for an action out of instinct and find yourself performing a different action. It’s a minor niggle as the controls can always be reassigned, it’s just odd that players have to. Even with the controls in place, jumps in certain circumstances simply won’t connect with the platform you are aiming for, guns shots that should auto lock on environmental hazards won’t and sometimes even when it does the shot won’t connect with the target. The game feels like a constant struggle and not in a good way.

Of course the last and most important thing players will notice is the water. It’s hard not to be impressed by actual free flowing liquid in the environment, considering the title has been in development for 5 years it should be astounding. As the water level rises, the constant pressure creates waves, some of which can knock players off their feet. The deep blue is more of an opponent than the enemies you fight, becoming a constant danger that will force you to keep moving at all times. While the waves and slow build up from obvious sources was impressive, it was when I opened a door to a lift shaft only partially underwater that I was stunned. With the door open the water in the previous area came flowing in, lifting the water level in the shaft. Intentionally dying and going back to do the section again, I opened and closed the door as quickly as possible, and yes the level was distinctly lower.

As a technical demo, this cannot be ignored. My mind simply filled with wonder at the amount of puzzles and struggles this engine could produce. Already the game allows you to use environmental hazards in combination with water to defeat your enemies, but the ideas that are left open are staggering. Much like any engine the initial game is just for show, it takes a while before an engine finds its potential. Who would have guessed that the source engine could be used for things like Team Fortress 2 or Alien Swarm when Half-Life 2 was released? Of course Half-Life 2 was a stunning game and Hydrophobia is full of technical problems that let the game down.

It comes down to witnessing a new engine that should start to appear all over the place once it has been optimized, but suffering through what is a very poor 3rd person shooter. Every now and then the game will surprise you with clever tricks and sometimes the water will be something very strange making you question the new physics. Overall if you are interested in technology and programming skill get behind this game, if you are in it for the experience and a solid shooter, look elsewhere. Hydrophobia has far too many problems to recommend for gaming purposes, but should not be ignored for its revolutionary liquid technology. Let’s not forget seeing more than just the UT3 engine is always nice.