Thursday, 15 October 2009

Wertzone Classics: Hostile Waters

In 2012 the previous era of human history came to an end. But not, as some had feared, in fire and destruction. Instead, the people of the Earth rejected war, tyranny and the rule of the elite over the few. The catalyst for this change was the invention of the creation engine, a nanotech device which could create anything out of anything. Feed in refuse and waste and you could create a fusion reactor, or a television or enough food to last a month. Overnight, most of the human race's problems evaporated. Global warming, cancer, energy and much more. The creation engine eliminated the human race's dependence on oil and ended the ability of dictators to keep their populations under control by rationing the means of production.

The dictators did not take this lying down, and a war had to be fought before the new era could begin. Armed with creation engines, the forgers of the new order were unstoppable. They built two immense carriers, the adaptive cruisers, which could forge entire arsenals out of thin air. They were equipped with 'soulcatcher' technology. Skilled pilots and tank drivers no longer feared death, instead being transferred at the moment of death back to the carrier, ready for their 'soul chips' to be plugged back into a new vehicle and able to re-enter the battle within moments of their demise. The war was won, the old order crumbled and a new age of peace began. The adaptive cruisers, no longer needed, were scuttled, but not disassembled. Not all of the old dictators and warmongers had been apprehended, and the fear was that one day the carriers' firepower would be needed again.

Twenty years have passed and a golden age of peaceful coexistence has come. But the warmongers and dictators are now ready for their comeback. Armed with creation engines of their own and basing themselves in an artificial archipelago they have created out of the depths of the ocean in the South Pacific, the 'Cabal' begins the bombardment of the world's major cities. With no army of its own to deploy, the world government reactivates one of the adaptive cruisers, the Antaeus, and sends it into the island chain with orders to find and destroy the Cabal and their leaders at any cost. But in the depths of the island chain something else is going on, and to win back their thrones the Cabal are prepared to take whatever means are necessary, even if it means the utter ruination of the world...

Property values in the island chain were about to plummet rapidly.

Hostile Waters (also called Antaeus Rising in the USA) was released in 2001 to rave reviews, a very well-received demo and lots of attention. It promptly vanished without a trace, and is probably the most obscure computer game I have reviewed on this blog so far. The game was inspired by an earlier game called Carrier Command, which had appeared in 1987. That game had a player take command of an aircraft carrier capable of building units and colonising an island chain to secure its natural resources. An enemy carrier was trying to do the same thing from the opposite end of the chain. The idea was that the player would build up a huge resource network until it was strong enough to take on the enemy carrier in direct combat and destroy it. It was an astonishingly rock-hard game, but its then-revolutionary solid 3D graphics and open-ended gameplay (there was one vast gameworld to explore and how you went about the mission was entirely up to you) was jaw-dropping.

Hostile Waters uses some of the same ideas, such as the notion of an aircraft carrier you use as a mobile base to combat an enemy force. However, the game is much more linear. There is no open world and instead you move from mission to mission. Notably, the carrier cannot move and has no weapons to defend itself, which means deploying units to defend it is sometimes necessary.

Hostile Waters is an SF game which employs some strong SF talent to make it work. You may have noticed the backstory summary is much more detailed than is normal for a game, which is due to it being the brainchild of the excellent writer Warren Ellis (author of the classic Transmetropolitan series of graphic novels, which I need to read properly at some point, amongst many, many other projects). The game also indulges in total British SF fanservice by having the game narrated by Tom Baker (Doctor Who) and the two principal advisers to your character, Church and Walker, are played by Glynis Barber and Paul Darrow (Soolin and Avon from Blake's Seven, respectively). The game's writing is very strong, with between-mission cut scenes varying between philosophical musings on the impact of nanotechnology, profiles of the various 'soulchip' characters who make up the combat crew of the carrier and plot-based exposition. I also liked the use of the increasingly tiresome "OMG! 2012!" idea being deployed for positive change (which is actually a perfectly valid interpretation of the Mayan prophecies) rather than some kind of apocalypse.

The gameplay is excellent. Hostile Waters is one of very few real-time strategy games - Battlezone is the only other one that immediately comes to mind - that has veered away from the overhead, Command and Conquer-style interface and tried to do something different. The game's camera is permanently anchored to one of your units. You can cycle through different units, but there is no omniscient viewpoint. There is a 3D tactical map you can access at any time by hitting F1, but the game pauses in this mode. If you want to see the results of your decisions, you must return to the battlefield. You can also take direct control of one of your units in the main battlefield mode, which is sometimes necessary if they've gotten confused about what to do next.

Most missions end with something blowing up, which is probably not a shocking revelation.

Most of the time you are dependent on the game's AI instead. You have several 'soulchips' and can assign one to each unit you build. You start off with a few and end the game with ten, meaning you're never going to be in command of a vast army that will win by sheer weight of numbers. Each soulchip houses a different personality who is good at certain tasks. Ransom is unhappy unless he's in a helicopter, whilst Patton likes tanks and pretty much nothing else. Soulchips can be assigned to vehicles they are less happy with, but tend to not perform optimally. Since you are reliant on their AI, you have to manage your incorporeal troops and take their preferences into account in a manner that simply does not exist in most other RTS games, and is a brilliant touch, adding a nice tactical nuance to the game. It also means you can scream at a unit by name when he gets a bit trigger-happy and flies into an enemy crossfire without your prompting. Mastering the game requires keeping an eye on the battle data flying into the command centre, switching between unit cameras on the fly, cycling back to the strategic map view regularly and knowing when to micro-manage the battle (by assigning waypoints and targeting preferences) and when to leave your units to it.

It's a breathless, fun way of controlling a battle, and allows for engagements that are insanely intense, far faster-paced than anything the myriad of Command and Conquer clones have thrown up in the past fourteen-odd years. The ability to pause the game and issue orders at any time means that battles can get much hairier but also more strategically satisfying. It's also - relatively speaking - more realistic, as you are controlling the battle from afar, issuing orders and seeing how your troops manage to carry them out rather than just right-clicking like mad around a NOD base or whatever.

This type of indirect control has some issues, of course. When all hell breaks loose it's easy to concentrate on one vehicle's individual firefight and forget to check all the information coming in, perhaps resulting in losses elsewhere on the battlefield. The AI is extremely robust, far moreso than in many modern RTS games, but sometimes it gets a bit confused. Some maps require your attack force to take cover in ravines or canyons, and the AI has some issues navigating ravines without being micro-managed through them.

Resource gathering is undertaken by a disassembler unit, which trundles around absorbing wreckage, old buildings or some enemy structures and transferring the energy back to the carrier, where it can be used to build new vehicles. As the game continues these 'natural' resource centres disappear and the only way to generate income is to engage the enemy and send in the collector to gather up the wreckage. In fact, on some maps you can only generate resources by having the collector ambling around in the middle of the firefight instantly absorbing enemy wreckage, sometimes as it literally falls out of the sky around it, which can be hairy (luckily the enemy target your armed units first, so as long as you keep the collector covered it should be okay). Your unit selection is also pretty good, with attack helicopters, heavy artillery, tanks and hovercraft all available for construction, along with the resource collector and a field repair unit. You can also build stationary platforms, which are best used bolted to the carrier as AA installations.

Another excellent addition to the game is full unit customisation. When you decide to build a Phoenix attack helicopter, for example, you choose whether to give it more armour (which is tough, but needs a repair unit to fix it), shields (which regenerate on their own), a cloaking device (so it can cloak at will, but cannot attack) or a reloading pod (which prevents the weapons overheating and allows them to fire more often). You also choose what weapon to give it: a minigun, missile launcher, bomb bay (artillery piece on ground units), sniper laser or a flamethrower. These combinations can be used on all vehicles, which opens up a completely different stealth-based side of the game. Rather than go for the massed assault, you can equip a unit with cloaking device and artillery piece (or sniper laser) and have them edge around the outer edges of the enemy defences, picking off the AA towers, enemy production facilities and so on and cloaking and retreating when enemy units come out to investigate. This stealth-based approach becomes less viable on later levels, where the enemy bases are so huge that they'd take five or six hours to destroy with a single stealth unit, but the option is there for extremely patient players.

"Argh! What the hell! Kill it with fi...oh, you are already. Good job."

Hostile Waters has one big problem, and is almost certainly the reason it sank without trace (ahem): it has no multiplayer mode. Due to the F1-pause mode, it would be next to impossible to implement a multiplayer system that recreated the single-player game but was fair to both sides. Rage could have perhaps had a go, maybe some kind of 'arena' mode where you directly controlled opposing vehicles in an equal match, but they chose not to. Hostile Waters is thus a purely single-player based game.

The other issue that probably brought it down is that the non-traditional RTS control system and the need to sometimes charge into battle yourself in direct control of a unit meant that pure strategy fans saw it as too much of an action game (which isn't really the case), whilst the pure action fans saw it as too much of a strategy game (which is definitely true).

This is a shame because Hostile Waters is possibly the most underrated, unsung strategy game in history. It attempted to do something innovative and original in a genre that was even back in 2001 was looking pretty moribund and was roundly ignored for its troubles, a similar fate to some of its contemporaries (Homeworld and Ground Control most notably, although they at least sold enough to warrant sequels) and leaving the unpleasant notion that all the RTS fraternity actually wants is endless Command and Conquer and StarCraft clones, which is rather disheartening.

Luckily, Hostile Waters (*****) is available from the well-recommended Good Old Games website for the princely sum of $6, in a version that is friendly to Vista.

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