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Dark Energy Digital
GENRE: Horror
September 29, 2010

 Written by Nicole Kline  on July 12, 2010

E3 2010 Preview: Water, water everywhere.

Hydrophobia, the upcoming ? and much-anticipated ? game from Dark Energy Digital, drowned out the competition at this year's E3. We were able to get some up-close-and-personal time with Rob Hewson, the Senior Creative Designer, with the same graciousness he had when walking me through the game at PAX East. I'm happy to report that the game looks better than ever, and Rob showed us new game mechanics, exploration methods, and innovative ways to take out bad guys.

Hydrophobia's plot is set in a future in which immense overpopulation has sparked Malthusian politics. Extremists have taken these theories a step further, and terrorists now pass along their dark message: ?Save the World - Kill Yourself.? The rich and powerful live on the ?Queen of the World,? a ship the size of a city, which also serves as the setting for the story. Much is revealed in the back story, including details about Nanocell, the creators of ?Queen of the World,? who promised to solve the world's population problems.

The main character, Kate, is an engineer on the great ship. She has only one gun as her weapon, but upgrades are available throughout the game. Kate herself also undergoes changes throughout the game ? initially unsure of herself and fearful of the water threatening her at every turn, she matures and changes, finally gaining the power to control the water and use it to her advantage. The water itself showcases the true sweat of the Dark Energy Digital team, showing off their new HydroEngine with the incredible dynamic behavior of the water in each and every scene. As a room fills with water, opening a door pours that water into the next room, and each time the water behaves differently than before.

We got to see some of Kate's character maturing at E3. Back when I last saw Kate at PAX East, the water was her worst enemy and her greatest fear. But the situation has changed, and now Kate is using the water and turning it against her assailants. Here, she only has one type of ammo ? sonic rounds. The nature of the rounds makes it so that the ammo is unlimited. These can break windows, knock things around in the water (like barrels of oil), and shoot things like gas canisters, electric cables, and fuse boxes. There's an aim assist here, coming up as a red reticule and indicating to the player what they can interact with. This is especially helpful here because there are real physics engines at work ? the water, the oil, and even the electricity all react quickly and randomly, so you need to take advantage of opportunities as soon as they happen.

Here is where the player is encouraged to use the environment and the water ? not just to creatively take out enemies, but also to get extra points with combos. Rob showed us a few examples of how to stack up our actions in order to maximize points. In one scenario, he shot a window, unleashing the water on his enemy. Interacting like this with the environment starts the timer in the form of a red bar that slowly goes down. He can then chain together environmental actions while trying to kill the enemies ? for one enemy, he gets a x5 multiplier, for two, x10. These points then go into a weekly and monthly leaderboard. He shot a barrel and blew it up, and the oil ? and fire ? spread across the water, killing his enemy and gaining his x5 multiplier.

Rob encountered another enemy around the corner. The first time, he tried taking out two of the windows and then bringing some barrels forward, but the bad guy took him out. The second time, the water didn't work the same way as the first, so he tried to get an angle on the window, then stunned the enemy with the sonic rounds enough to drown him and kill him ? he'd also shot a barrel as well, so he got a decent multiplier. This second time through, he left a window intact in order to use it later, effectively maximizing his utilization of the environment.

Rob showed us a few more encounters with baddies, explaining things to us as he went ? for example, that oil fires will flow according to the physics of the water, so you need to be careful that you don't die as well. You can also swim beneath the oil fires, a tricky but doable maneuver. He also explained about how gas canisters, electric cables, and fuse boxes can be shot to extend the environmental chain bonuses.

In addition to the flow combat Rob hadn't shown me previously, there was also another new feature, this one linked in to Kate's Mobile Automated Visual Interface (MAVI) device. He took Kate down a flooded hallway and swam. Knowing he had a ways to go, he found an air pocket ? indicated by lighter areas in the water ? and popped up to the vent to get some air. Even here, in moments like this, the beauty of their HydroEngine is evident; as he paused to get Kate some air, he swam a bit too enthusiastically, and water sloshed up into the vent, causing him to have to wait a moment to refill her lungs properly. He took her back down and used the MAVI device to find the code he needed to unlock the next area. The code is a hidden symbol on the wall that can only be seen through her device. The code is what the terrorists are using to control the ship, so all Kate needs to do in order to navigate these areas is to download the codes and use them to unlock the doors.

He made his way back to the locked door, explaining to us that while Kate does have ?quite a pair of lungs on her,? she can take damage from being underwater too long ? the perimeter will begin to darken and go red when she's starting to take damage. With the downloaded code, he was able to unlock the door and advance to the next area. He got creative in killing the next few enemies ? one he killed with fire, and the next with electricity. The electricity ? also a real physics simulation ? reaches out for any conducive surface, making the game even trickier ? Kate can get electrified too if she's not careful.

The next part in the demo involved two bad guys who had decided to take hostages. This is an example of an event that can change the course of the game ? choosing to save or not save certain characters will, in some cases, change dialogue, unlockables, collectibles, and storyline. Here, Kate has downloaded an upgrade for her MAVI device, allowing her to hack into the CCTV network and cycle to other cameras in order to see what's ahead ? and prepare accordingly. Acting quickly, Rob managed to remotely open the door and let in water to electrify the bad guy, saving the hostage in the process.

Rob showed us a bit more of the environmental aspects of Hydrophobia, including the aim assist on taking down the cables, and then showed us something that made me laugh ? he used the sonic rounds in the gun to pepper ? and move through the water ? a stunned enemy. He was trying to get him over a barrier and electrocute him. He mentioned then that there would be different ammo unlocked throughout the game, each one different ? one kind sticks to objects and can be detonated, while others emit electricity. He also told us that sometimes, when the baddies are set on fire, they run at you to try to take you down with them. Sounds like my day job!

In addition to showing us this amazing gameplay, Rob also gave us more information about the game. Some things we already knew ? like that the game will be about 6-7 hours long for the first playthrough, but that gameplay will be significantly extended by collectibles, medals, hidden areas, and achievements. The fact that different situations will have different outcomes, as well as the dynamic situations that occur naturally within the game itself, will encourage replayability. You can choose how you want to approach various areas of the game ? do you want to flood it all, and have some underwater combat? Or stealth it, and avoid the necessity of having to do things like find air pockets? There will be 3 acts in the game, with weekly and monthly leaderboards, as well as an unlockable challenge room that you'll have access to once you beat the game. You can also go back to levels once you've unlocked them to try to find all the things you missed on your first go.

Final Thoughts
Hydrophobia is a revolutionary game in both content and creation. It is a full retail game, but with the procedural technology used in their game engine, they've been able to keep the file size down ? it's around a gigabyte right now, Rob admitted. The pricing has not been finalized, but it will be normal XBLA pricing. The game will be released in the late summer/early fall, with a PSN release coming in the future, after Microsoft's timed exclusivity contract expires. Keep an eye out for these final details ? this is a game you won't want to miss.

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