Hydro Thunder Hurricane is an arcade racer, a remake/sequel to the popular arcade game. You control ludicrously powerful speedboats through hostile and sometimes downright supernatural tracks to showcase your skill at precision handling, finishing first, and finishing in one piece. Like Limbo, we got a glimpse of this game on the showroom floor at PAX East, but we didn’t get a chance to try it out. Now it is time to see how it stacks up against its fellow SoA alumni.
For an XBLA game, Hydro Thunder Hurricane looks superb. The tracks are extremely detailed, and teeming with activity. Levels like “Monster Island” show prehistoric creatures sliding along under the surface before you even start, giving you a hint of what the track has in store for you. The settings are surprisingly varied. Aside from the standard river runs and tournament style tracks that one would usually expect, the 8 included levels run the gamut from Aztec temples to the sewers of Paris, and even places not of this world.
The water effects are very good, as they should be, considering how integral they are to the gameplay. There are reflections and micro-ripples on the surface, and the interplay of the boat’s wakes is realistic, and as you’ll see below, not just a visual touch. Other little touches range from the purely cosmetic, like the splashing of water on the screen, to subtle cues to let you know you’re doing something right. A string of green lights below the water will lead you to the target of an activated switch, the configuration of your boat’s engine will let you know if your boost is ready for activation, and a slight speed blur with wisps of white will clue you in to the fact that you’re drafting an opponent. Hell, even knowing where to draft is illustrated by the trail of white water behind the other boats. All in all, the visuals are anything but lacking, and are extremely effective at producing a feeling of raw speed.
Looking at the game in videos might give the impression that this is a simple racer, but after spending a few minutes with it, you’ll find that this is simply not the case. Virtually everything in this game has an effect on the gameplay, and in some cases, a far deeper effect than one would have expected.
Let’s look at the fact that it is on water, for instance. This isn’t just a swapping of car engines for outboard motors. Being on water means that every movement of an opponent or a piece of the environment sends waves in your direction, forcing you to compensate. Maybe you’ll use them as a ramp, maybe they’ll surf you into the wall. It makes tight clusters of boats hazardous, as the trails they leave behind get unpredictable and choppy, practically juggling your boat out of the water. And since you can’t turn unless your rudder is in the water… well, you’ll want to stay on your toes. Since the waves are largely unpredictable, there is a level of randomness to each track that some may find an appealing challenge, but others may find an irritating obstacle to ‘perfecting’ a technique for a level.
The biggest difference between a standard racing game and Hydro Thunder Hurricane is boost power up. This is your only power up, scattered in known locations about the level, but trust me when I say it means everything. Other games might have the boost just serve as a nitro, giving you an extra punch of speed. Here, it literally transforms your engine, giving you new abilities and gameplay options. Chief among them is the ability to jump. This doesn’t use up any boost, it just requires that your engine be transformed, and it gives access to dozens of shortcuts and alternate routes that litter the levels. The boost effect is also not just a brief burst of acceleration, it actually provides thrust, giving you the ability to alter your path in the air and during your brief jaunts across land. Without boost, your air control is nonexistent, so the whole race becomes a careful balance of rationing boost and stringing together an uninterrupted sequence of power ups.
The levels come in two types: Lap based tracks that require you to run the circuit 3 times, and checkpoint based ones that lead you through three distinct sections of one very long track. Hazards are everywhere. Some are as simple as narrow slaloms of pillars to as absurd as ice giants pounding the water with their hammers. Each board has shortcuts that either provide a more direct route, one that allows you to keep a better racing line, or one that leads to better boosts. Most also feature floating switches that open gates, raise or lower ramps, or turn on wave machines to make other areas accessible either further down the line or on subsequent laps.
Huge effort has been put into maximizing the replay value. Aside from the usual races on 8 levels with 9 boats (separtated into groups of three for novice, pro, and expert) there are also three additional single player modes. Ring Master traces out a route through the level with rings. Passing through one fills your boost slighty, while missing one kills all boost and levies a time penalty based on the level of difficulty. These are handy for showing off the different shortcuts and paths each level offers. There is also a Gauntlet mode that lets you race alone on a track made downright hazardous with hundreds of extra exploding barrels. Every collision with one destroys your boat, requiring you to “reset” where you left off, costing you all of your speed. Finally is the tournament mode, which strings together a handful of the other modes and provides one final pay off at the end depending on how you did. These payoffs increase your total count of a generic credit. The more you have, the more boats and levels are unlocked. In one last bid to force you through the levels as many times as possible, each board has “hidden packages” scattered throughout the level, even ones that handily tend to show up during the ring master runs.
We had only one review code, and online matches were sparse prior to release, but multiplayer promises to be every bit as engaging as the single player, up to 4 player split screen local.
Warning: Explicit Lyrics are in the video below.
The sound in this game doesn’t exactly stand out. The music fades into the background, as it should. Audio cues like the machinery failure when you try to boost with an empty tank to the beep-beep-beep that gets faster as your tank gets emptier let you navigate the game almost entirely without looking at the hud. The one thing of note in this game is your friendly neighborhood adviser. A voice that sounds like it is on the other end of a radio provides prompting and commentary during the race. This means that any attempts, letting you know why your boost failed, when it is getting low, or that you have plenty but aren’t boosting. He also lets you know when you are drafting, and freaks out appropriately when something intense happens. The guy can be genuinely funny at times, remarking “It’s shiny and spinning, must be important” when you grab a hidden package, and taunting you when you don’t quite live up to expectations on the medal stand, but he can get old fast, providing tutorial messages no matter how many times you’ve heard them and giving helpful hints that are worthless by the time you’ve heard them.
No stated story, but lets see if we can put one together… You and your fellow outlaw boat racers are on a mission to be the first to uncover the secrets of the world, from the mysteries of the lost world to the truth about the afterlife, and even life on other planets, you’ll boost, jump, and draft your way to the answers, no matter what gets in your way. Yeah, that’ll work.
Hydro Thunder Hurricane has got an addictive gameplay with plenty of variety and strategy. Little player-friendly touches like allowing you to restart just an individual portion of a tournament rather than the whole thing really show the play testing. The amount of work that went into providing a rock solid play experience, coupled with the little touches that make the game really pop, make the game’s strengths easily drown out what few weaknesses it has.
8.4 / 10. A well executed, nuanced racing game with excellent replay value, but may not appeal to everyone’s tastes.