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One of the better Sega Dreamcast titles released way back 1n 1999, Hydro Thunder impressed everybody with its better-than-arcade graphics on a home console, loads of unlockables, a great sense of speed, and just an overall fun arcade racing experience.  The game was a home run for Midway on the Dreamcast and it ended up being brought to multiple consoles as well as being brought back to future consoles in the Midway Treasures line of compilations.  Now in 2010, Microsoft has purchased the game from Midway and Vector Unit has brought it in a sequel to the XBox 360 in time for the summer season.  How did they do?  How does this game fair?  How does it stand up to the 10 years that have past?  I mean, it's the second batch of consoles of the 2000s...

Wait, where are the Gelflings!?

Well, kids, it's safe to say, that Hydro Thunder Hurricane does, in fact, kick some serious arcade-quality ass.  The sense of speed through the water and through the various obstacles strewn all over the race tracks add to the wet knuckle thrills of jet boat racing.  Each race "track" is littered with eye candy, and the scenery looks incredible.  Sometimes you may be tempted to check out the view, but I'd recommend to only do that if you are flying off an insane leap- Lake Powell, the first track, comes immediately to mind.  It'll take a few seconds on the way down so you can sort of check out the atmosphere, but you can't dawdle too long as you can control your boat a bit in the air, and aim to follow the path of the current race.  There are also smaller jumps scattered around the racetrack to give you that extra sensation of speed, add those with some boost and you've got some serious "OH SH+T!" moments. 

The races come in two types, Laps and Point A to Point B.  The complete list of tracks is as follows:  Lake Powell, Storming Asgard, Monster Island, Tsunami Bowl, Lost Babylon, Paris Sewers, Seoul Stream, and Area 51.  It's hard for me to pin down a favorite track, I dig lots of things about each one, I'll just say that each one is imaginatively created and takes some serious yet acceptable creative license.  I mean, when was the last time you saw a boat race through the sewers of Paris, raced through fountains in a Seoul setting, or raced through a semi-alien apocalyptic landscape?  Don't say yesterday, because I was there, and that didn't count.

Tsunami Bowl (above): Racing in an arena, now that's cool.is the best example of a Lap Race.  Set in an open-top arena with multiple paths with huge crowds and what sounds like an unexcited female announcer, this race has the tightest spaces to run through (think: Log Flume ride), tight squeezes with opponents, and bonuses you will be wondering for a while just how to get them.  Area 51 (below)

When you jump into the basic races, there are 8 trophies to be won.  Championship racing is a circuit of races, combining several different race types and tracks, all offering Credits to be used to unlock higher levels, boats, and paint jobs.  There are some pretty cool skins for your boats available as you play through the game.  The credits you earn for winning medals increases as you play from Novice through Pro all the way through Expert.  Those expert levels are certainly a pain in my ass, though!

Hydro Thunder Bonuses (above)

There are also HydroThunder power-ups in sometimes precarious locations on the race track.  These "packages" unlock bonuses as well.  Thankfully, if you acquire some of the more difficult packages and crash, knocking you out of placing in a race, you will not lose that bonus.  I know other racing games or collecting games will have you lose bonuses if you don't finish in first or die in the level, Hydro Thunder makes me a happy collector and appeals to my ADD/OCD/ASD sides allowing this to happen.  If it didn't I'd run out of 360 controllers by smashing them out of frustration with losing them.  Thanks guys, you saved me hundreds of dollars!  And yes, I am That Guy in multiplayer FPS games that will wander into the open while everybody hides with a sniper rifle just to have the enemies shoot at me and draw attention to themselves for my team.

More Area 51: Probe Parties on Thursdays!

There are also power-up BOOST bottles, blue bottles give you a little bit of boost, red bottles give you a lot of boost, which is activated with the A button.  For some reason, I think that there was an energy drink on the market in 1999 that was somehow connected to Hydro Thunder in a cross-promotional deal. If your boost is empty and you pick up a bottle, you have to wait a second or so before your boost engines will emerge from your boat, then you can take your boat into some seriously unsafe speeds.  Fortunately there is a "hop" or a "jump" button that allows you to go airborne for a little bit and you can re-position your boat, which helps immensely in the hairpin turns in many of the races, and to help you re-aim your boat in the Ring Master races.  Ring Master races are slalom races, and they're hard, and also throw in added joy of the possibility of smashing into explosive barrels.  There are 24 trophies to be won in the Ring Master race mode.

Ring Master Race.. wait, that doesn't sound politically correct..

During the race, each ring you pass through will fill your boost. If you're really good, you could get through almost an entire race holding the boost and the accelerator down the whole time.  The tracks that aren't Point A to Point B but are lapped races will change the position of the rings on different laps, so if you think you've memorized the placement of the rings, it may not be helpful during the race. 

The Gauntlet is time trial-based racing with the addition of explosive barrels floating here and there, most of the times visible on the edges, sometimes in the middle, and many times in the way of some sweet drift-style racing, turning my boat into a flaming hulk of smashed metal.  Boost jumps come in handy with the barrels many times, a skill I haven't quite mastered yet, as I'll still be jumping over a barrel and smashing into a wall, or jumping over an obstacle  straight into a barrel.  It sure is a test of skill (or lack if. sigh..).

Hammer of the Gods: What's he doing?

Graphically, the game is gorgeous.  That fellow in the above shot with the big hammer?  He's animated, swinging his hammer around, and saying something I can't quite make out.  The same level has a section of the race where there are ramps and axe-wielding Norsemen- an awesome sight.  The water looks good enough to drink, with waves affecting your boat's control, and waves realistically following the trails of the boats.  When the water gets shallow, you can even see to the bottom.  Easily the prettiest water effects this side of Just Cause 2

On the flip side of the elements, anything that involves fire or jetfire look pretty darn good too, I would say the only thing that doesn't look good on fire is a pan of french fries or a fiery boat crash.  There are cascading waterfalls, chase helicopters, trains, planes, bombs, cruise ships, fishing boats.. everything!  There's even an annoying side-kick who has is humorous lines, which I have to say, a few of them are actually funny.  No, really!

Watching the flame effects blow out of the jet engines and exhaust systems looks fantastic.  Very simple, but very cool.  Even the beginner boat, The Vector, has each exhaust pipe rev in a pattern before each race, and up in the air, the propellers are visible and moving.  That's a lot of detail for an arcade racing game!

On Golden Pond: Ethel Ain't Got Spit on Me.  Wait, there she is, the old dinosaur!

There is also a small number of boats, not the 500 or 300 you expect to find in a Forza-type game, but this is an arcade game.  Here's your boats, change the paint style, and go race!  That's it!  Enjoy!

Top on multiplayer, and active leaderboard tracking when connected to live (I always  wonder who these people were with the awesome times!), and Hydro Thunder could have some serious legs, but the online gaming community is so fickle, if it ain't Halo, Call of Duty, or *choke* Gears of War, a game may be active for a few weeks online and then unceremoniously die.  This game doesn't deserve it, and this game shouldn't see it. 

Sure it's not perfect, sure it's unrealistic (a police boat doing 100+ mph to catch me in my super jet-boat?)  We recommend this game for any fan of arcade racing, or for those serious race fans who want a break from the "norm" of modifying your ride, drifting, drafting, spinning, or doing a 200 lap race.  Everyone else, demo it, you may just like what you got yourself into.  Hydro Thunder is 1200 pts / $15 and available July 28.

 Verdict: Recommended!

Addendum July 28 2010: Multiplayer!

The online multiplayer was pretty much dead during the pre-release group of reviewers, testers, and other vagrants.  So, I held back and jumped in for a few hours today, the release day, when my fellow gamers will be littering the lobbies and looking for some racing!  Good news!  The online component is pretty smooth, and it looks like it comes off without a hitch.  The one thing I did notice, after a race, all of the boats will sometimes drift around for 10 to 15 seconds, waiting for something to happen.  I've not found a button to quicken this part of the game, but the speed in-game is great, the shortcuts more challenging when you are all fighting for that (sometimes) small opening, and some of you end up in flames.  C'est la vie!

There is the option of choosing any of the boats in the game in multiplayer, but if you choose the Rubber Duck, well, you may want everybody to Go Duck.  The Duck controls like you might expect a rubber duck to respond as a vehicle: floaty, awkward, silly, and yellow.  When you hit your nitro with the duck, a toy wind-up key will pop out of its back and get you moving to try and catch up to the boats.  When you hit the wall, its head will fly off and the pieces will float in the water.  Kind of grim, but if you have 8 Rubber Ducks racing online in a multiplayer match, it's a completely different bird.  8 duck races are fun, and could only get better with good friends on a Friday night and some adult consumables. 

Seoul Stream is an awesome, frustrating, challenging race that will kick your ass.




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