It's a summer ritual: Insert coin, stomp on the accelerator and hold on for dear life. A reboot of the much loved arcade original and Dreamcast speedboat racer, Hydro Thunder Hurricane brings that template to Xbox Live's Summer of Arcade.
Given the depth of full-title racers on the current console generation, a downloadable game isn't going to serve that experience and probably shouldn't be measured against it. But can one still do well just by staying within the classic format, layering on rich visuals and online multiplayer?
A Ticket to Ride: Hydro Thunder Hurricane's greatest strength are its eight courses, all of them very richly detailed and very shrewdly designed with shortcuts and exploits useful to three different race varieties. Whether you're tearing through a Nordic fishing village (transiting to a fabulous Valhalla-like castle) or exploring ancient Mayan or Babylonian sites, or tearing through a high-tech canal landscape in Korea, the game is a joy to look at. The shortcuts and dynamic terrain (especially wave machines that will allow you to hop to shortcuts) are well worth the effort to pursue or trigger. Hitting one perfectly to see your way through to victory is always a satisfying payoff. Some boats handle a little too poorly for what's demanded of them, especially in the Gauntlet races (avoid exploding barrels in the water) or the Ring Master (a gate course, always with at least two hairpins that'll make you cuss). But with the right ride, you can still race these courses a dozen times and not feel like you know where everything is.
Hitting a Wall: Through its Novice and Pro series of events, Hydro Thunder Hurricane presents a very engaging set of challenges, courses and race designs. You can medal in all of them with most any boat, and gold is attainable with the right choice and skillful driving. The Expert set is brutally - and I mean brutally - difficult. While you can go into any standard race with any boat, and its difficulty will scale to that boat's level, the Ring Master and Gauntlet Expert races are Expert boats only, and damn nigh impossible. So is any standard race with an Expert boat. I couldn't get any closer than eighth place on Area 51's expert race. On the flip side, in multiplayer, there is no way for a match host to limit the class or type of boats competing. So you can take Cutthroat into any event and reasonably expect to finish in the money, especially if you have strong course knowledge. This imbalance deprives the game of a lot of incentive to keep playing just when you've unlocked all the boats and tracks and it feels like it's really getting good.
Hydro Thunder Hurricane is very fun. It's definitely got the genes of an arcade racer going back 10 or 15 years - win with speed, speed, course knowledge, luck, and more speed. Still, it's recommendable to more than just fans of the original or diehard racers. But if you're not committed to course mastery or you're uninterested in multiplayer, your 1,200 Microsoft Points may be going into a week's worth of play if you pace it out. That's a a shame, because the rollicking action and over-the-top themes make Hydro Thunder Hurricane a great game for the summer, recalling either days spent at a water theme park or inside the arcade of one.
Hydro Thunder Hurricane was developed by Vector Unit and Microsoft Game Studios for the Xbox 360 on July 28. Retails for 1200 Microsoft Points. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Raced all event types on all courses with all boats in single-player and multiplayer.
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