Please don’t take this the wrong way, but Aqua: Naval Warfare, feels a little too, well… German for my liking. Granted, the dev studio is based in Slovakia, but the overall feel of the game – in large part due to the style choices – is overwhelmingly Deutsch. I’ve had the benefit of playing a huge number of obscure titles that never see release over here, and the likes of Mytran Wars and Jagged Alliance have such a distinct feel that they’re really quite appealing once you get used to some of the conventions.
But before I get on with those conventions, what is Aqua all about? Download titles, whether for XBLA, Wii or Xbox 360, appear to almost universally default to the two-stick shooter as a base. Sure, some of them might develop into say a survival horror, or block puzzler, but we’re reasonably sure that a majority of them have, at some point, seen the phrase “Two stick shooter???” written on a whiteboard somewhere in the office. As such, Aqua has a lot of competition. As far as narrative goes, it’s pretty pedestrian, with you taking the role of some dude, that for some reason has to blow stuff up. You won’t understand much more than that, as the story is so haphazard it requires far too much concentration to follow. The hook for this title is a little less impressive than most in that the biggest difference is that it’s slower than most. You are, after all, in a boat. It doesn’t sound great, but with the high levels of customisation and unique feel it definitely stands out. So, about those conventions…
Convention one: cripplingly difficult gameplay. Titles like Aqua give you obstacles that are simply too difficult for the casual gamer to get over. This will, more than likely, impair your enjoyment. It’s sad to say, but we live in a time where difficulty is something we, as gamers, generate for ourselves. Online matchmaking, good and evil decisions and combo counters all offer us difficulty levels that we’re comfortable with. In essence, you can usually get by in most contemporary titles, allowing you to see the whole game, but beyond that, we make the choices. Aqua doesn’t do that. Aqua makes you pay for every bad thing you’ve done in your life a hundred times over. Sure, it starts a little slow, but boy does it get tricky.
Convention two: seemingly unconsidered design choices. Again, we have expectations of comfortable difficulty curves and mission pointers aplenty. We’ve got lazy as gamers and are often complacent given how gently we’re often guided through a game. Any regular game will have you start a mission or level, build into your comfort zone, then slap you with a crescendo of action. This is the way we expect games to go. This three-act standard is something we’re often too frightened to do without. Aqua, if nothing else, ensures that you’re always on your toes. Escort missions can go horribly awry within seconds if you’re not on the ball, and major attacks can happen at the start, middle or end of the level. At least the choices you make are real ones and are rarely guided by the development team. To many who are rooted in the standard of most contemporary games this will seem like just too much randomness, and again, spoil your enjoyment of Aqua.
Convention three: ugly cutscenes. This is where we’re kind of lost. We’d like to champion the cause of low-fi cutscenes in a comic book style, but we just can’t. Aqua’s stylings are just not really very nice. The real kicker comes with the voice acting, which appears to have been given to radio voice over actors. While we’re sure it’s difficult to get the top voice actors for your videogame, especially if it’s an 800 point XBLA effort, it surely can’t be that difficult to find someone whose voice doesn’t make you want to scoop out your ears with a rusty spoon. The painful voice acting of the lead character Ben Gray is hideous, and by far the worst aspect of the game. Other’s may be wooden, but for the most part they’re bearable.
Convention four: do it again. There’s very little variation in Aqua. Indeed, throughout the majority of the game you’re either dying while trying to escort a massive friendly, or dying while trying to destroy massive enemies. Granted, there’s not a huge amount of scope to work within, but the variety of missions doesn’t do it for me. You could say that this is a result of an effort to imbue the game with realism, but if that were the case it would have us filling out H&S forms by the bucketload, and slipping bromide into the crew’s tea.
There are others, but those are the four that will, sadly, probably ruin your experience of Aqua. It’s difficult to truly say whether it’s a good or bad title. It simply follows different conventions, but that probably means you’re unlikely to get into it. The offline multiplayer adds something, but probably not enough, to the mix, and you’re left with a title that you almost certainly won’t finish.
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