Just about everything I know after playing the new Hydro Thunder is what you knew if you read today's news about the Xbox-exclusive sequel to Midway's speedboating series. I can add at least one thing: It feels good.
Aside from Wave Race: Blue Storm and Wii Sports Resort's jet-skiiing there haven't been many chances in the past.. 10 years!... to play a new racing game set upon tracks made of virtual video game water. With the return of Hydro Thunder, high-tech speedboat racing is back. Today at PAX East in Boston, I tore through a few laps of Hydro Thunder Hurricane and got a feel for what a modern video game system can do for a water-bound racing game.
I raced Matt Small, creative director of Vector Unit, the two-year old company that has worked with Microsoft to bring water-based racing to gamers again. A year ago, Small said, Microsoft obtained the Hydro Thunder license from Midway, and the game certainly looks like its namesake — a boat-racing game set on exaggerated theme-park-style tracks, full of speed boosts power-ups, jumps and statues of angry gods.
It races, though, like a modern game. Waves on the track bounced my speedboat around. Wakes from other boats rocked mine, but drafting right behind other boats gave me a speed boost. As we raced one course, a biplane flew overhead, dropping bombs. The explosions rocked the track and the ripple effect buffeted my boat. On another course, a geyser in the middle of the water lane shot our crafts into the air and through what might have been an observation deck. Players will be able to trigger some waves of their own, and they'll need to keep an eye out for avalanches and other disasters that might disrupt the water flowing around them.
Small said that all the tracks in the game are new, though some are thematically tied to the original Hydro Thunder. The old voice actors are not back, but the spirit of high-speed racing is. As a player races around the track, they can pick up speed boosts and Hydro Thunder collectibles. He said that the one of the most important elements to retain in the series is the availability of shortcuts. He promised there will be plenty.
I played a single-player race through a course set in Seoul and a split-screen race set near a forest against Small. The game supports up to four players split-screen as well as online play. In multiplayer matches, there are eight boats on the course. In solo play, there are 16.
Hydro Thunder Hurricane doesn't feel like a radical departure from the original game. It's likely to be one of those sequels that plays the way you think you remember the original playing. But wave physics didn't undulate quite like this back in the arcade and on the Dreamcast. That experience is here and, for better or worse, a rare treat.
The game is set for release on Xbox Live Arcade later this year.