Hydro Thunder Hurricane is the sequel to Midway's landmark arcade racing game Hydro Thunder. As the second of Microsoft's Summer of Arcade 2010 games, a lot is expected of Hurricane, and in many ways, the game delivers. Unfortunately, in an effort wring the maximum possible playtime out of the title, developers Vector Unit have -- quite literally -- included one too many modes.
Right off the bat, it's impossible not to notice how good the game looks. In the opening moments on Lake Powell, the first track in the game, undulating blue waves contrast with the sandy orange and brown of the surrounding rocky canyon, while brightly colored hang gliders fly right at the camera. Then you're off, and the game really comes to life.
There are eight highly distinct, wonderfully designed tracks in the game, each with multiple paths and hidden areas to discover. The tracks are full of life, scattered with breakable objects and loads of track-side (and on-track) animations. Monster Island, for instance, teems with an array of legendary creatures, while Storming Asgard suffers the blows of a Norse colossus hammering away at the water. Area 51, the final track in the game, packs an awesome surprise that I won't spoil here. Navigating these tracks is a joy, thanks to the game's responsive, elegant control.
Each waterway is littered with canisters to collect. Grabbing one causes your boat to transform, which enables boost. While boosting, boats gain the ability to jump, which often allows passage to otherwise inaccessible areas.
The nine basic boats in the game are divided into three skill levels (Novice, Pro, Expert), and each boat has unique speed and handling characteristics. The boats all have goofy names (Miss Behave, Damn the Torpedos, Yellow Zag), but they look fast, and the transformations are, for lack of a better description, cool.
The actual tracks, of course, are made of water. Tides will knock your boat around, and you've got to mind the wake that other boats leave behind. Environmental hazards on each course cause further (and sometimes major) disruption of the water you race upon.
Given the constantly changing nature of the water, it's a minor miracle that player's best efforts aren't endlessly subverted by the tracks themselves. The developers deserve a lot of credit here - no matter the conditions, players are always in control of their craft, and are not merely at the mercy of the waterways.
The actual races are a great deal of fun. The computer controlled opponents put up a good, but not insurmountable, challenge, and the track's many paths hold up well to repeated races. But races do not make up the entirety, or even the bulk, of Hydro Thunder Hurricane, and this is where things start to go wrong.
The game is broken up into four modes: Race, Ring Master, Gauntlet, and Championship. In Ring Master, players must navigate a path of rings while completing the course as quickly as possible. Making it through the rings grants boost, missing them accrues a time penalty. The best part of Ring Master is that it allows the developers to lead players through each course, thereby revealing many of the branching paths and secret areas.
Unfortunately, Ring Master stands in direct opposition to what is best about Hydro Thunder: wide open course design and direct competition with other boats. Instead, Ring Master forces players follow a rigid path in a lonely battle against the clock. Not fun.
Compounding the problem, Ring Master events are the most common in the game (there are 24 Ring Master trophies to be earned, as opposed to 8 trophies for actual races). Had there been fewer of them, they would not have been such a detriment to the experience.
Fortunately, Gauntlet is better. Still a race against time, this mode booby traps the courses with floating explosive barrels. Hit one, and boom! But Gauntlet works because, as in races, players have the whole of the track to work with. Also, as with races, there are only 8 trophies to collect.
The final mode, Championship, is simply a series of events strung together. So, more Races and Gauntlet (yeah!), but also more Ring Master (boo!). You'll rack up 10 Championship trophies in all.
Multiplayer races are also available, both split-screen and online. The framerate holds up fantastically well in split-screen. All the boats you've unlocked in single player are available in multiplayer, in addition to a large, yellow Rubber Duck (described in the game as being "Not fast. Or maneuverable. Or cool."). A nice touch is that any points earned in multiplayer are carried over to single player, which ultimately helps unlock all the events and boats in the game.
Finally, each track hosts hidden, collectible Hydro Thunder Hurricane icons. Gathering them unlocks skins for the boats. As players are unlikely to find all these icons during regular events, it would have been nice for the developers to include a "free play" mode.
In the end, the good solidly outweighs the bad in Hydro Thunder Hurricane. Though the emphasis on Ring Master is a baffling bummer of a choice, the game is nonetheless absolutely worth its $15 price tag. Fresh and fun and perfect for summer, Hydro Thunder Hurricane is a worthy addition to any XBLA game library.
Hydro Thunder Hurricane is available now from the Xbox Live Marketplace for 1200 MS Points.