Hydrophobia is set in the near future at a time when the world's population has finally outpaced its ability to feed them all. The world's largest corporations have sequestered their brightest and richest employees on a massive luxury liner that keeps them apart from the growing chaos in the increasingly hungry world. They believe that technology will solve the world's woes and on the eve of a big announcement from the corporations during a ship-wide celebration, Malthusian terrorists attack the ship. They believe that technology is not the answer, and only through mass murder and suicide can the population problem be solved. You play as Kate Wilson, a systems engineer aboard the ship caught far below deck during the attack. You must make your way through flooded decks and past armed terrorists, with a little aid in the form of your com-link with the ship's chief engineer Scoot, to escape the rapidly sinking hulk. That's the essence of the story, but the reason I can lay it out for you like that is because I spoke with one of the developers about it at PAX this year. Going by the limited information presented by the game's cutscenes and the tidbits buried in documents you need to hunt for to find, it would be hard for me to piece together what's supposed to be going on in the game. Making things trickier for those looking for a narrative here is that the game's three levels are apparently the opening act for what is either the planned start of a series or at least the base for a series of DLC follow-ons - don't expect that making your way through the game to the end will make the story any clearer. You'll just have to play this one at face value and go with the flow – you're trapped on a sinking ship with a bunch of guys who want to shoot you.
Hydrophobia is ostensibly a third-person shooter, but for a shooter there's remarkably little shooting in it and that shooting doesn't even begin until you reach the second level. The game's objectives are primarily of the get from Point A to Point B variety, with the inevitable locked door or two or three barring your way. Some of these doors can be hacked, but the vast majority require a code that must be found by tracking and backtracking your way through an area and using a special viewer to scan the environments (essentially, someone has written all the codes on the walls of the ship in ink that can only be seen in a special light).
Impeding your progress most of the time is all of that water that's making its way onto the ship. Water is the highlight of this game as Hydrophobia has one of the most realistic simulations of the wet stuff you'll find in a game. It has the right viscosity, weight, and dynamics, and it's pretty impressive to watch it spray, flow, and flood everywhere. Walk against a current and you can almost feel it pushing you back, and those long underwater swims to reach air will have you almost holding your breath. The game is proud of its water and isn't shy about using it at just about every turn – perhaps a little too proud; the water on the lens effect too often turns the screen into a disorienting blur.
Water is also a weapon in the game. You can shoot an oil drum and set the floating oil ablaze, shoot a junction box and electrocute your foes, or just shoot through a window and let the wave wash them away. This has the potential for a lot of interesting kills and some dynamic and exciting combat. Unfortunately this potential is never quite realized. Enemy AI is pretty basic and just shooting them is pretty easy using the game's fire from behind cover system. Even when you decide to get a little more creative with your kills, the game only lets you get a little more creative. Shoot a junction box, shoot a barrel, or shoot out some glass – the water sloshes in different directions each time but otherwise things quickly begin to feel repetitive.
Probably the biggest problem with the game is the fact that it's often pretty much impossible to figure out what you need to do to complete the current objective and where you need to go to do it. You'll spend far too long wandering corridors that all pretty much look the same hoping that you can stumble upon where you're supposed to be. This can be particularly annoying when you need to swim through long flooded corridors or shafts with a few possible exits, drowning a half dozen times before you luck into the right route. The game includes a rotating 3D map that you can consult, but it's very difficult to read and more than half of the time doesn't bother to display your objective location for you, even when in "objective" view. Maybe this was all done on purpose to make a short game seem longer by forcing you to spend a lot of time groping your way around.
Hydrophobia is a pretty good technical demo wrapped in an incomplete and unpolished game. Perhaps given more time in development to playtest the game and strengthen its design Hydrophobia could have been something special. I realize that it's just a downloadable game, but there are fundamental flaws in gameplay and presentation here that shouldn't be a part of any game that you spend your money on. The water effects are cool, but it doesn't take much time with the game before you realize that it is just not that much fun.
In The End, This Game Hath Been Rated: 58%. All that water but it can't make a splash.