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Hydro Thunder Hurricane Review

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Developer: Vector Unit Publisher: Microsoft
Release Date: July 28, 2010 Available On: Xbox 360

The latter half of the 90’s was a renaissance for racing games. Fully-realized 3D graphical capabilities bolstered a mass of variations of the genre including arcade racers, kart racers, driving simulators, and futuristic racers. Among these was the criminally under-represented watercraft racing subgenre. Whether due to lack of popularity or simply because programming water physics was too much of a pain for developers to manage, racing fans had very limited options for ordering their games wet.

One of the few titles borne of this niche genre was Midway’s Hydro Thunder, an arcade racing game where players piloted high-speed hydroplanes through a variety of exotic, water-based courses. As a staple arcade cabinet in pizza parlors and bowling alleys everywhere, the game was eventually ported to the era’s major consoles: the Dreamcast, PlayStation, and Nintendo 64. For whatever reason, a formal sequel was never released before Midway dissolved. Many members of the development team went on to make 2009’s arcade spiritual sequel, H2Overdrive. But now, more than a decade after the original’s release, Vector Unit and Microsoft Game Studios are reintroducing the series to a new generation of console gamers in the form of Hydro Thunder Hurricane on Xbox Live Arcade.

So was it worth the wait? In a word: probably. In a few words: if you liked the original Hydro Thunder or are open to arcadey, over-the-top racers in an age of customization-centric driving simulations, then Hurricane will be a worthwhile addition to your XBLA download library. But if you would rather perfect racing lines and tuning options than memorize hidden shortcuts and power-up locations, you’d be wasting $15 with this purchase.

Conceptually, Hydro Thunder Hurricane feels quite outdated. While its content does expand upon the original (it actually has some modes now, pluralized), all of the conventions Hurricane uses were well-established years ago. The core gameplay is identical to the original: race amidst a grid of high-powered boats and hydroplanes while exploring and memorizing the numerous shortcuts within the game’s lush, multi-pathed courses. Also crucial to victory is the use of finite boost power, which is increased by collecting the numerous boost power-ups that are cleverly placed throughout the game’s courses.

Unfortunately, many standard features of modern racing titles, like vehicle customization and upgrades, a career mode, saved ghost time trials and even post-race replays are noticeably absent here. Perhaps to a fault, Hurricane is an unapologetically arcade-style racing experience with too few additions to the original formula to make it more than an update, rather than a full sequel, to the original title.

Fans of the original may also be disappointed by one notable gameplay omission: the mighty hull ability, which previously allowed you to ram other boats while boosting to send them flying into the air. Fortunately, the disappointment is temporary and players are likely to forget about it after a few races.

In addition to its predecessor’s solo and split-screen races, Hurricane sports a couple of new modes, which include Ringmaster, where you race through a trail of rings while posting the fastest times possible; Gauntlet, a time-trial where the you must avoid explosive barrels that litter each course; and Championship, where you compete in multi-race circuits comprised of the aforementioned race types. In multiplayer, you can either race with up to eight participants online or between two consoles with up to four players on each. There’s also the team-based Rubber Ducky mode, where players must knock each other around to keep the other team’s leading boat from crossing the finish line first.

Visually, Hurricane is fairly solid. The boats and water effects look crisp and the action runs smoothly with little, if any slowdown. The game also has very vibrant environments although their aesthetic detail is somewhat inconsistent. For example, the foliage-encrusted ruins in the tropical island course look fantastic while many of the buildings in the downtown Seoul course are bland and lack variety. Overall, considering this is an XBLA title, Hurricane has some relatively impressive graphics.

The game’s audio is widely unspectacular, however. The announcer is just exaggerated enough to be annoying but not enough to make its ridiculousness an asset, as the original did. Hurricane’s sound effects, consisting of throaty engines, splashing water, and various collision sounds (which vary depending on what’s being collided with) get the job done but the generic techno soundtrack is as forgettable as it comes. Hurricane certainly could’ve taken a cue from the original’s sweeping, dramatic score.

So what’s good about the game? Everything else, fortunately. While Hurricane falters in its tired conventions and mediocre audio, it ultimately succeeds by being incredibly fun to play. With the help of some very responsive boat handling, the gameplay is always intense without being overly frustrating. There’s a strong sense of accomplishment when each hard-fought victory is the product of thoughtful practice and Hurricane exhibits that very well. If you don’t win a race, you are consoled by the fact that there is always something you can do to improve and that you’re not at the mercy of cheap AI or an unforgiving checkpoint timer – things that the console iterations of its predecessor were certainly guilty of. Also, the progression of unlocking new tracks, boats, and other extras by accumulating points from race victories is as well-paced as it is rewarding.

A critical gameplay element for any good water-based racing game is, of course, the water. While it’s easy to take for granted, Hurricane’s wave physics rank as some of the best for the genre — perhaps second to only Wave Race 64, which set the gold standard nearly 15 years ago. Hurricane’s water looks great, being both reflective and transparent, and its rolling movement feels natural while surface disturbances directly alter gameplay. For instance, collapsing glaciers (and other large falling objects or explosions) will cause significant swells that you will need to negotiate and the wake from other boats allows you to enter their slipstream and temporarily increase your speed without wasting precious turbo boost. The required consideration for real-time wave conditions adds a welcome strategic layer to Hurricane’s gameplay that either isn’t present or done nearly as well in most other racing games.

Perhaps Hurricane’s strongest asset and where it arguably outshines the original’s efforts is its highly-imaginative track designs. There are only eight courses in the game but each one is packed with so many branching shortcuts to explore and memorize that racing through them over and over never feels mundane. The track themes are highly varied and range from icy Nordic seas (complete with Vikings and the God of Thunder himself), to a high-speed aquatic arena, to the top secret depths of Area 51. Further, in-course events like pursuing police boats, massive dinosaurs and crazed bi-plane pilots help add plenty of character to Hurricane’s lively courses.

Vector Unit set out to pay homage to an arcade racing classic and although it doesn’t add anything significantly new to the existing formula, the amount of care that was taken to preserve the original’s appeal is as clear as the water you race on. Complex course designs and a variety of fun modes will warrant plenty of replay value while solid gameplay and excellent wave physics make Hurricane a highly enjoyable racing experience despite its shortcomings. In all, if you own an Xbox 360 and are in need of some old fashioned arcade racing action, by all means, ignore the final score below and add Hydro Thunder Hurricane to your active downloads list immediately.

Graphics: 7.5
Sound: 4
Gameplay: 9.5
Creativity: 5
Replay Value/Game Length: 8
Final: 7.3 out of 10
Written by Brian Vines Write a User Review