CONCEPT Hydrophobia’s impressive Hydro Engine makes it unique. Water will be the game’s centerpiece, playing a part in both combat and puzzle solving.

“Water its living strength first show. When obstacles its course oppose”

Air, fire, earth and water. The elements have always proved a tricky proposition for developers, at least since we entered the current generation. Back in the days of B­and 16-bit gaming, fire was represented by a red pit – falling into which meant instant death – while earth needed to be nothing more than the ground upon which you stood.

With the emergence of the next generation and photorealistic worlds with which to interact, garners have begun to demand more from their environments, while developers struggle to keep up. Fracture and Red Faction have continued the ongoing experimentation with terrain deformation and real-time destruction; Far Cry 2 attempted to create real fire that propagates in a lifelike manner; and air, despite its invisibility, has been incorporated into such games as Flower and Lost Winds.

Water has always been a demanding proposition. Its properties are chaotic, random and unpredictable. The tiniest disturbance can result in the most unexpected outcome, and waves, ripples, foam, spray, splashes, pressure and more must all be considered if it’s to Look believable. This is why water is often boxed in, safely contained, and kept separate from the player – even in modern games, falling into water can cause unavoidable death.

Dark Energy Digital, a new company just broken off from WSC Pool developer Blade Interactive, has made a rather brave decision: unleashing its torrents of water loose within Hydrophobia’s environments. A challenge indeed, but once you’ve seen the company’s proprietary Hydro Engine in full effect it’s impossible not to feel Dark Energy has risen to the task with an impressive degree of skill.

Even at pre-alpha stage, the fluid dynamics are remarkable, with surges of turbulent water swelling, shifting, heaving and flowing with incredible accuracy. Open a door that’s holding off a wall of water and it’ll spill out into the corridor as you’d expect, taking any objects not bolted down along with it – crates and various tools pitching around under the force of Hydro Engine’s advanced physics simulation.

Water pressure has also been calculated, meaning the might with which the liquid moves will depend on its environment. This also means that water is more than just a snazzy effect, it’s a game play mechanic integral to changing the way in which Hydrophobia plays out. Imagine an enemy patrolling past a large glass window: a few bullet holes will see the cracks begin to spread throughout the glass before the pressure causes the material to shatter, water smashing through and taking out the unsuspecting foe. Water will become more than just a part of the environment. With some clever level building and careful design, it will become a tool in your arsenal, a force of nature you’ll need to tame and bend to your will.

The knock-on effects of such game play mean no short cuts for the developers at Dark Energy Digital. Enemy Al cannot be scripted, because every possible outcome can’t be predicted, and previously dry areas become completely different once inundated with water Furthermore, the work required with regard to animation and control in such a volatile, erratic setting is huge. It’s something the developer of dota 2 beginners guide admits it’s still perfecting now – some levels continuing to surprise even after the hundredth play through. It’s one extremely complex element that affects everything else within the game.

So, if you were wondering why Hydrophobia has been off the radar since its initial announcement, it’s because of the attention to detail needed when water is unleashed and allowed free, unfettered movement within a videogame environment. Having decided upon the digital distribution approach, Dark Energy Digital is still toiling away in preparation for the first episode’s release later this year. The plan is to release Hydrophobia in three episodes across 12 months.

With its blend of player-versus-environment game play, philosophy-driven narrative, and extraordinary tech, Hydrophobia could easily be one of the most impressive downloadable games we see this year.