It would be difficult to go into great length about Depth without mentioning the game it clearly aspires to be. The game draws much of its influence from Left 4 Dead and other titles that utilize the time-tested formula of regular heroes versus stronger boss creatures. Depth takes the action below the sea, pitting a team of four treasure-hunting divers and their underwater drone against two great white sharks out for blood. Several hours of gore-filled amusement ensue, though repetition, bugs, and other nagging issues make Depth end up somewhat waterlogged.
But a little sogginess won't stop Depth's team of underwater treasure hunters, despite the danger posed by sharks. As a diver, you and your three allies closely follow robot drone S.T.E.V.E. as it sluggishly moves from area to area, pilfering rusted iron safes for loot. There are no safe rooms offering asylum, and no checkpoints to break up rounds; all five available maps are small, and progression only briefly halts in a room or open area containing a safe--it is where your drone collects gold while your team prepares for the inevitable attack.
Treasure found scattered in the environment provides cash to trade for weapons and gear for your team to use in defense. You can toss flares for additional light, or place sonar buoys that highlight incoming threats. But sometimes you can make a bigger statement by planting sea mines to blow attacking sharks into fish sticks. Weapons consist of amphibious rifles and pistols, as well as an assortment of spear guns. You can also fill a weapon slot with other tools such as the DPV (diver propulsion vehicle), which scans for nearby treasure and caches of ammo as it provides a welcome boost in speed, or a net gun that temporarily binds sharks in place.
But it's not just the sharks divers have to watch out for; there are plenty of glitches eager to join the fight. Clipping through objects is common, and nothing rips you out of the experience like a large hunk of metal taking up the screen. Treasure also has a nasty habit of clipping through mounds of sediment, buried just deep enough to be out of reach. Even more irritating are computer-controlled sharks that have a bad habit of occasionally clipping through solid walls. Tapping sprint propels you forward in short bursts, though you can only use this ability consecutively about three times, after which you have to wait for a brief period--this must be due to fatigue, but the HUD for the diver doesn't include a stamina meter to display how much energy you can deplete before tiring. Boosts also stop short far too often, freezing you in place even as you hold forward. Getting stuck on walls and other objects is another constant source of annoyance. And to be killed by a shark after getting snagged by a corner or a frayed piece of metal is incredibly frustrating.
The other team consists of two speedy sharks, each armed with razor-sharp teeth. Unlike divers, who have the benefit of firepower, playing as a shark means having to use guerilla tactics to plan moves and strike when the moment is right. Attacks are limited to a short lunge and a long dash, and any living thing caught in their jaws is destined to have a bad day. Their attacks are limited to a short lunge and a long dash, and any living thing caught in their jaws is destined to have a bad day. Of course, you will have to suspend some disbelief, as Depth's sharks are able to stop and float in place, as well as swim backwards--both of which are physically impossible for sharks (I don't care what you saw in Deep Blue Sea). Parts of the environment indicated by glowing cracks can be destroyed by ramming into them, creating new openings and opportunities in which to plot your attack; I only wish there was some indication as to how much damage these objects can take, as some will crumble at two hits, others three. More than once I thought a wall would give way after three hits, only to watch as my second strike left me floating in a room looking foolish and surrounded by trigger-happy divers.
Playing in third-person as a shark is more difficult than playing as a diver, but practice yields deliciously grisly rewards. As your skills sharpen, it becomes easier to sense the best time to pick a diver out of a room before the other flippered meat-bags figure out what happened. Stalking your prey and setting up an ambush at the opening of a passageway, or diving down on unsuspecting enemies, is absolutely thrilling. Damaging S.T.E.V.E. temporarily stops the drone, giving you time chase down seals to replenish health, or regroup and plan the next attack. Special abilities can be purchased as you rack up kills. Boosting the strength of your ampullae of Lorenzini, for example, allows you detect the kind of equipment the divers are using, and the hammerhead skill can bust down destructible environments faster and put S.T.E.V.E. out of commission for a longer stretch of time.
Playing as a shark is just as buggy as a diver, though. It's all too easy to get stuck on corners or objects just as frequently as a diver, if not more so, while aiming the shark is incredibly unintuitive. Often you zip past a diver just barely out of your reach, leaving you to guess where best to direct those gnashing jaws.
Depth's distractions are unfortunate, because when the game is running at full performance, it hits all the right emotional notes: The sense of imposing dread as a fleshy diver, and the excitement of the hunt as a bloodthirsty shark. As a diver, your first indication of the growing danger is your heart, which beats harder as a shark draws near. Huddling in a corner, the faint sound of a tail swishing through the water nearby is enough for panic to unsettle any confidence placed in your defenses. Hearing the muffled scream of an ally as a streak of silver whips past to drag him into the gloomy depths in an eruption of bubbles and blood is terrifying, and more than enough to justify any level of galeophobia. Thankfully, the shooting mechanics are solid, and a wide variety of weapons and gear allows you to experiment and customize your diver as you see fit. The same can be said for the sharks, whose special abilities grant the freedom to create the predator of your dreams. I actually found myself leaning toward the shark team the more I played. The dominance you feel as you swim into the open sea with your prize in tow after a successful hunt will leave you shaking with maniacal laughter.
But sadly it doesn't take long for that pleasure to fade. In its attempt to mimic the mechanics and design of its famous peer, Depth fails to parallel Left 4 Dead's endurance or charm. The maps include a sunken ship and bleak caverns, but many lack features distinguishing enough to make them truly memorable. Complicating the dilemma is how utterly dark most of the maps are. The grim surroundings go far to offer fearful situations in which a shark could attack from the shadows, but going through multiple sections in levels where only a few shafts of light and a part of a wall are visible makes for a drab experience--one that peaks at around eight hours before becoming dull and repetitive. Don't look to the divers to infuse much-needed color, though; any differences between, say, Alejandro and Marissa stops at disparate model types. Depth also looks incredibly dated; its murky water just barely obscures the low-quality textures, and (even running maximum settings for anti-aliasing) sharp, jagged edges that outline the details of character models and objects threaten to slice straight through the screen.
The maps also suffer from some balancing issues. Although a couple of levels are fairly even, savoring both open and enclosed areas, others favor one side or the other. Playing as a shark in a map filled with rooms interconnected by narrow passageways is made even more difficult when you get snagged on the myriad corners preventing you from escaping. Another map ends with a long stretch of open water, barely illuminated beyond the scope of the divers' flashlights. Sonar buoys have a limited range, so creating even a modest guise of security requires that you swim far outside the safety of your team. At that point you might as well hang a sign around your neck that reads "shark bait."
It's not without some semblance of irony that Depth ends up feeling shallow. But it won't pass without at least demonstrating a working and entertaining idea: sharks-versus-humans has been a theme to which video games have occasionally returned. And so far, Depth is the closest I've come to experiencing the kind of fear a game about killer sharks should generate since my younger days of playing Jaws on the NES. Future updates that clean up bugs and add new content could help it breach the surface and approach greatness. Until then, however, Depth floats listlessly in the ocean current.