Hydro Thunder Hurricane
There’s a certain disappointment that comes packaged with Hydro Thunder Hurricane before you even play it: Why isn’t it a full release? Arcade racers are becoming rare lately and with the introduction of services like PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade these games have been relegated almost exclusively to downloadable form. That’s not to say that this is entirely a bad thing; after all, it’s good to see such games getting a new lease of life in a somewhat less risky environment. Yet Hydro Thunder Hurricane typifies a key issue when dealing with more ambitious titles in a downloadable environment: content.
While many downloadable games are designed to be brief experiences that reflect their price point, some simply feel stunted, cut short by the requirements of the downloadable format. In this respect Hydro Thunder Hurricane is both delightful and disappointing; it’s a tantalising taste of sweet arcade goodness nestled amongst the musty stench of po-faced racing simulators. But it’s also a victim of both its own ambition and the format that Vector Unit have chosen to present it in.
At first glance Hydro Thunder Hurricane has the aesthetic of any off-the-shelf title. It’s as good looking and stylish as any modern racer; the varied environments are as colourful as they are detailed, while the water looks and reacts in a suitably attractive manner. But, the visual sheen aside, this is still very much the Hydro Thunder you know, and indeed may love. Choosing one of eleven available boats in classes ranging from the slow-but steady Novice to the fast and unwieldy Expert, the game sees you racing through eight outrageously designed courses in various locales, both real and fantasy. The handling of the boats is far from subtle, but, particularly with the more challenging craft, mastering them requires both patience and a steady hand.
Part of this is due to the focus on boosting. Like many futuristic racers, boosting is an integral part of the core racing mechanics, and most of your time will be spent not so much focusing on the subtleties of your racing line, but going out of your way to collect the boost pickups integral to winning races. This is also tied into your jump ability, which is only usable when you have boost in your tank, and is vital to collecting further pickups and accessing shortcuts. Most tracks allow you to boost continually through a mix of good driving and use of shortcuts, offering an excellent incentive to go off the beaten track and seek out some risk-and-reward gameplay.
Hydro Thunder Hurricane’s lasting appeal is limited, so it’s good to see that there’s a fair bit of multiplayer content included. The ability to play local matches – something that’s becoming rare in games today – is a welcome addition, although you can’t turn off the AI racers, which are prohibitively difficult on the higher boat classes. You can also go online and play against eight other people. The standard race mode is exactly what you would expect, although the “Rubber Ducky” mode, in which two opposing teams must defend a rubber duck and get it past the finish line, is worth little beyond its comedy value. But perhaps the best use of multiplayer are the leaderboards; the game displays both you and your friends’ best times beside each course, giving you something to aim for every time you play.
The courses themselves, however, are the jewel in Hydro Thunder Hurricane’s crown. They range from an icy Scandinavian track, complete with Thor attempting to smash you with his hammer, to an otherworldly trip through Area 51 and a new take on the familiar Lake Powell course from the original game. They are all of a fantastical, often comedic nature and feel more like amusement park rides than race courses, yet they also harbour a great degree of depth. Most courses can be altered to unlock some of the countless shortcuts by collecting pickups, while waves, other boats, and even fantasy creatures attempt to impede your progress.
Along with the new tracks come three new modes, with the highlight being the Ringmaster event. While first impressions conjure images of the terrible Superman 64, this mode actually provides far more fun than its premise might suggest. Tasking you with driving through a series of rings spread through the course, the hook comes from the fact that you gain boost with each ring you successfully clear. As you’re graded on both your time and number of rings cleared, finding the balance between boosting and not missing any of the rings can be both challenging and rewarding. Gauntlet on the other hand functions as a kind of assault course filled with explosive barrels that force you to make liberal use of the jump ability, while Championship combines a mixture of all three modes in increasingly difficult events.
However, the eight courses on offer are used across all four modes with very little alteration, causing the whole experience to become old very fast. Frustration soon sets in, particularly in the later, much harder Ringmaster and Championship events as content begins to feel recycled and the promise of unlocking new content fades. And this highlights Hurricane’s biggest issue; there simply isn’t enough of it. New tracks and boats are unlocked by earning credits in any of the modes, and while this does allow you to unlock everything by replaying the courses and events you enjoy most, it means that you can see every track and boat within a few hours. There are also collectables scattered throughout every track, but all these do is unlock some gaudy skins for your boats.
Hydro Thunder Hurricane is marred primarily by its own high standards, and as a result it feels less like an XBLA title than a cut down full release; it’s a full game struggling under the shackles of the downloadable medium. What’s here is certainly enjoyable in every respect, but it’s disappointing to see a game unable to fulfil its potential. Yet as a member of a dying breed Hurricane earns the benefit of the doubt for its ambition and polish alone. And with the promise of downloadable tracks and boats coming soon, we can only hope Vector Unit can keep the franchise alive and interesting despite its claustrophobic format.