Rage Software's newest title got a serious marketing push across the pond but when I initially saw the ads, I admit, I was not very impressed. Upon further hearing that this title was classified as an RTS, I was prepared on seeing a game like Submarine Titans; an RTS game transplanted to an aquatic setting. In part, this presumption is true; Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising works very loosely like an RTS game and you can be sure it includes a lot of water. However, there were a few key things that convinced me this was no ordinary game.
One of the things that holds Hostile Waters above its competition, by far, is its wonderfully intricate storyline. Hostile Waters is set in the near future in a world that is very different from what we would perceive. Gone are the clichéd war ravaged, post-apocalyptic settings. The human race has progressed, thanks in part to nanotechnology and the assumption to power of a benevolent global government. Electricity, for example, is gathered in orbit and beamed down to the cities below. Airborne nanites are intentionally released to keep the populace healthy. Pollution, dirt and waste can be re-assembled by nano-sized machines into beneficial items like food and water. In this haven, war apparently has been discarded. Yet, the world is too frighteningly utopian. The obligatory Ministry of War has turned into Ministry of Peace. And the heavily centralized global government seems to touch on what was recently happening at the G8 summit. Globalization, it seems, has turned out to be a good thing. When a 'Cabal' of the old power mongers is formed, they debate on trying to reintroduce things like supply/demand and money. Though the game does not say, we're called in to, I believe, question whether eternal socialism is a good idea.
In most RTS games, you can amass a huge number of units and swarm an enemy. No explanation or rationale, for example in Command and Conquer, is given for why your barracks can miraculously churn out a few hundred grunts. Cutscenes in Hostile Waters either illuminate on the game's backdrop, the various profiles of men under your command and the game's plot. Although by the end, they concentrate mostly on advancing the plot more than anything else. Hostile Waters carries the torch from a few genres. For one, it resembles a lot like Uprising or the more recent Battlezone 2. Secondly, its concept is a lot like the much-lauded Homeworld. Finally, it also has shades of camaraderie, found recently in games like MechCommander.
To combat the Cabal, the global government or council, known only to you as Central, raises a wreckage of a prototype nanotechnology-driven fleet carrier called the Antaeus. Indeed, that this weapon became the premier flagship of war before the human utopia, must have made some US naval personnel proud. The carrier can defend itself, create units, gather resources and what not by generating craft of its own. Thus, if a harvester is needed, nanites can construct such an option based on energy you collect. You do not collect energy from mines but rather use technology to assimilate whatever wreckages or existing structures exist. With that said, this part seems most like Homeworld. Much of the plot has you scavenging for technology to restore your Antaeus prototype to a fully functional status. With the help from a group called Minitech and raids on Cabal-controlled technology, you are able to slowly bring your carrier back to speed. For example, in the first mission, you don't even have the ability to generate pilots for your craft, so in true Uprising style, you have to use the heavy helicopter to carry your harvester or recycling unit, to land and then pilot the unit to retrieve much needed energy. Later on, you can put pilots into your various craft and command them to do so from the war room; a top down view of the situation. In fact, the Antaeus can transport land vehicles on its own once fully restored. By re-enabling systems to let you set rally points for land vehicles, an automatic drone copter can transport your land vehicles off the deck of the ship for you. Key details like these make Hostile Waters an interesting game to look forward to.
Missions in Hostile Waters range mainly from the usual cache of RTS designs. There are defend, stealth and object retrieval missions. Most of the later missions involve one or more of those elements combined. There are even missions where there are boss fights and you must single handedly commandeer a tank to destroy them. You can also override your AI crew's controls and commandeer their craft as well. In addition to the ever-growing Antaeus craft, a technology known as the Soulcatcher rationally explains a lot of the game's concepts. A Soulcatcher is basically a silicon memory of a person back in the first days of war. Each Soulcatcher comes with a set of skills that they learnt during their lifetimes. For example, a member named Patton specializes in tanks, while a member named Ransom, specializes in helicopters. The Antaeus can use these chips and put them into specific craft so you no longer have to control them. As each Soulcatcher is unique, the resemblance to MechCommander becomes more prevalent. Each member of your team is colorful and throughout the game, they are able to converse with each other, lauding each other for their performance or kills. Soulcatcher also provides a sound rationale for why you won't have to worry about your characters dying. Unlike games like Star Trek's Away Team, your characters can easily die and be re-animated in entirely new roles.
Various crafts are added periodically to Antaeus' arsenal and technology researched by the government can be used to retrofit your fleet. Each craft comes with a limited amount of space for you to place a Soulcatcher device, armor, cloaking devices or other items. You can design simple variants to handle different tasks. For example, you can outfit your helicopter with a bomb but this would be hardly effective in dogfights. Heavy reliance on laser technology might require you to sacrifice armor for faster weapon recharging modules. Though the variants are not as complex as say some turn-based strategy games (and here I am thinking of Alpha Centauri or Master of Orion), they give a gentle spin to the genre as they are not a game itself within a game.
The visuals for this game are well done. Though they are not the most aesthetically pleasing, the engine that powers it is fast and handles many units on screen at one time. Objects down to humans scurrying below are modeled well. Lighting effects are equally impressive. This game even includes weather effects for rain, snow, thunderstorms and day/night settings. Despite some technical glitches with the on-screen text, I was able to get a smooth framerate out of my Voodoo 5 setup.
Hostile Waters features plentiful amounts of audio and I thought the audio component was certainly a match for the effort put into the visuals. There are several options for 3D sound including a Software 3D audio option. The explosions were loud and audio cues, like missiles streaking from the side provided a benefit that can be fully realized by the player. Voiceovers are impressive and no one (except maybe for the Cabal leaders) sounds too over the top. The two primary guiding spirits for you, Walker and Church, are always a welcome presence. The developers of this game are solidly British, so there is a strong British-spin on everything and the use of profanity, especially the Anglo-Saxon term for copulation, is prevalent but handled very maturely.
What Hostile Waters has in execution, it cannot make up in lack of replay value. The game only features one single player campaign and though you can turn off the tutorial messages on your second time through, it seems rather harsh that there is no skirmish mode. Most of the game has you upgrading your Antaeus carrier, so it would have been nice to employ the full power of this carrier against other carriers or just random bases. The lack of a multiplayer is equally debilitating and keeps this game from achieving a high score. For example, you do not get the ability to control your teammates on the fly until sometime into the game. Basic functions like these are disabled in the beginning and you don't get the full complement of units until the very end which makes them rather ineffective, since you can only use them in the final stretch. The long tutorial probably owes to the complexity of the game. This game will intimidate those that are used to the traditional RTS mindset and so the learning curve may be a bit steep for some.
With that said, the friendly AI in this game is absolutely a joy to play with; perhaps even alleviating the need for human players temporarily. Each Soulcatcher seems to perform to the tee and I was not at any one time forced to baby-sit any of them. In fact, many times, my team was more apt to handle some tasks than I could ever take on, like strategically taking out AA turrets or sniping from a tank afar. Eventually, you'll develop a liking and love for your teammates; attachment that is usually just sterile in other games. One of the reasons why I had a lot of trouble maneuvering my own units is because of the control interface. It seems like everything, from orders, down to action is controlled by the keys QWE, ASD and ZXC. My personal preference was to control tanks and helicopters with my joystick. But I found that switching between that, the mouse for looking and the keyboard was just too much. In the end, I settled for a mouse and keyboard combination, which is less realistic but I think it is what the developers had intended in the first place.
Rage Software had gained a lot of fame through its arcade like action titles like Incoming and Expendable. Hostile Waters' action components seems like a direct homage to those. Its graphical eye candy is plentiful but the action is ferociously fast. In the end, Hostile Waters bundles an engaging plot with an intriguing concept of a game. It lifts the best out of games like Homeworld, MechCommander and Uprising/Battlezone. I particularly liked how elegant storytelling resolved traditional RTS functions like instant unit building (nanotechnology) or resurrection of dead teammates (Soulcatcher). In any lesser game, these would go unexplained and considered just a given. One strange thing I noted was the ever-presence of a shrouded map. If the gameworld is true and humans receive energy from orbit, why is it that they don't have constant satellite imagery so I don't have to do pointless recon? These minor shortcomings are offset by intriguing plot twists; including one, which I won't reveal, that involves some well known 20th century conspiracies. I have noticed that Battlezone carries a cult following most probably because of its multiplayer features. Without a map editor, multiplayer or even a skirmish mode, I don't know whether Hostile Waters will be able to garner commercial success, especially in this day and age. I recently looked at the game Outtrigger for the Dreamcast and a fellow publication remarked that there is a strong 'multiplayer = profits' type mentality. Though I don't agree with this, the reverse, as shown in Hostile Waters, seems to be equally bad as well. If it were only to have some of these extra features, Hostile Waters would, without a doubt, be in competition with a title like Kohan, for sleeper hit of the year.