Every once in a while there come titles whose gameplay and premise are so peculiarly unique to itself, that there are few words to describe it. Fortunately, one of them is "especial", and this one describes Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising best.
This game is designed by the now-defunct Rage Software, which was a Britain-based game-maker that attempted to go public and suffered the consequences of marketing misfortune. It was also known for just-decent or mediocre virtual sports games, a terrible Sega Saturn port of Doom and a bunch of games from so many genres that it was not exactly well-versed in.
Therefore, it is of little wonder that this game slipped under the radar of so many game consumers, despite being published by well-known Interplay (at the time). More embittered fans of this game would suggest that it was because of Interplay, which published this game only for the European market.
If a player could push all those marketing guffaws and apprehension towards Rage Software aside, the entertainment value that this game provides would show itself in ways that he/she may have yet to see.
Of course, for those who are more learned, they would notice almost immediately (or with enough research on the design background of Hostile Waters) that its gameplay is not entirely original; it is actually heavily inspired by Carrier Command, a 1988 game. The fundamental core of the gameplay mechanics and even the basic premise would be immediately recognizable to fans of that old game, which incidentally never managed to redefine the strategy genre despite winning plenty of accolades during its time.
However, Rage Software had used the lessons from Carrier Command to craft their own game, which is of course superior to the former if it is the only game to be compared with Hostile Waters. If compared to the other entries in the strategy genre at the time though, Hostile Waters is worlds apart in perhaps a refreshing way.
The two extremes that strategy games often resorted to at the time for presenting their introductory sequences were pre-rendered cutscenes with pizzazz to give the player an inkling of the premise or a long, narrated visual overview interspersed with light animations and plenty of still images that explicitly describe the gist of the game.
The differences that Hostile Waters have can be seen almost immediately from the onset. Its introductory sequence resorted to neither aforementioned extreme, but instead used a voiced-over cutscene that was produced using the game engine itself. The narrator waxed almost-vague philosophy on the nature of humanity, and its conflictingly paradoxical thirst for conflict and yearning for harmony, both pursued with the mutual goal for a so-called better life.
The next difference that a player would notice in Hostile Waters compared to other strategy games is that it is a completely single-player game. There is no option whatsoever for multiplayer.
The game was originally intended to have a multiplayer mode, but it was dropped due to internal reasons that would only be known to the developers of this game, though one of the reasons may not be for lack of trying, as suggested by one of the developers, Julian Widdows in his blog-site.
While the lack of multiplayer is a bit disappointing, multiplayer was not in the list of promises that they had for the game in the first place. On the other hand, it also means that the story and its execution become much more critical factors in how the value of this game would be perceived. Rage Software did somewhat take advantage of the omission of multiplayer to craft a single-player experience that can be quite memorable.
As mentioned earlier, the basic premise of Hostile Waters is similar to that of Carrier Command; the player is take control of a naval vessel, which is to conduct missions across a chicane of islands, often effectively cleaning said islands of any opposition as part of the mission objectives. Said islands have been or are in the process of being taken over by an organization hostile to the player character's own. Yet, this is where the similarity ends.
The philosophical streak of the introductory sequence would suggest good writing to an experienced game consumer, and this suspicion would be proven true within mere moments of starting a New Game.
The backstory of the game makes use of a certain apocryphal event concerning the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. In Hostile Waters canon, this event did not cause the end of the world per se, but rather how the world was seen and known to be. A massive global revolution occurred during that year, when the world's populations realized that they had played themselves into the hands of the elite few who had exploited their fears and worries.
A peculiar plot device used to justify this otherwise astonishing occurrence is the introduction of (regrettably still) science-fictional nanotechnology into modern society; this is not of the build-down sort where large matter is reduced and refined at the molecular level, but the sort that can easily build matter out of common material like dirt, air and water that otherwise cannot be added value to with conventional and costlier means. This effectively meant that basic human needs for sustenance, such as food, clean water, clothing, shelter and medicine have been completely satisfied; the notion of scarce resources no longer exists. It also meant that the governments of yore, which people depended on to provide what they needed in return for giving them the power to govern their lives, have been rendered obsolete.
The game impresses such thoughts and possibilities onto the player through (mostly) well-written and voiced-over cutscenes. The effect is that the player would likely want to play the next mission, if only to watch more of these. It is a refreshing change from other games in the strategy genre at the time, which either "rewarded" the player with amusing but otherwise insubstantial cutscenes, or simply jumped to the mission debrief or even straight to the briefing for the next.
(Of course, Hostile Waters have debriefs and briefings too, complete with the usual statistical report for mission completion.)
Returning to said premise, the old governments of yore had been overthrown, and later dubbed by the victors with the derisive nickname "the Old Guard". Having known conflict and a lot of schemes though, they are not content with simply admitting defeat and had stashed away resources, materiel and even entire loyalist communities to plan for their eventual return and the re-introduction of "old-world" concepts, such as paying money in return for everything.
The player would find the depiction of these old and embittered power-mongers quite entertaining, and would also find it difficult not to draw parallels with real-life coincidences. This is how poignant the game can be, surprisingly enough from a game-maker known for games with shallow premises.
The story does not stop there though; it also shows how societies around the world would be like post-Old-World. The miracles brought about by the aforementioned sort of nanotechnology are described (though not necessarily shown well) in the story-associated cutscenes, giving an impression of a utopian future where there are no worries about livelihood and no reason to wage wars over. This plot element also would possibly instill in the player a sense of having a stake in the story's progress, and would certainly so if not for certain flaws in the story that would be mentioned later.
The writers for this game's story is not content with just simply mentioning the benefits of a utopian world; it also poses questions about the adverse consequences of such a global scenario, one of which is the loss of any capability to wage war among inhabitants of said utopian world. This is shown in cutscenes and some missions where the power of the Old Guard and its cohorts is unleashed on an unwitting populace that had forgotten how to defend themselves. This plot element also strengthens another, which is that the player character and the resources at his/her disposal are the only things protecting said populace from the enemy's aggression.
A handful of characters which have actual names, faces and believable stakes in the progress of the campaign propagate the story. (The reason for stating that these characters have actual – albeit fictional – identities will be mentioned later.) These are generally well-voiced over and their models are quite well-done, with enough polygons for facial and bodily features and adequate textures, despite the just barely decent game engine.
The two most interesting characters, a certain Mr. Walker and a Ms. Church, happen to be the player character's superiors-cum-advisors, who also happen to be battle-hardened veterans of the aforementioned global revolution and with firm beliefs in the new world order. Their lines are delivered in manners that befit their character: Walker sounds like the unnervingly calm commanding officer who would give anything to protect what he loves, and Church's character is portrayed as intended, which is a thorough intelligence official who would rather not see the horrors of war again. Therefore, it is most fortunate that the two of them voice the mission briefings.
As the single-player campaign is a crucial part of the game, it has to have enough plot development to hook the player in. There are, thankfully, many in this game, and each one conveniently takes place on a new island, which also expediently provides the setup for the next mission.
There are still flaws in the otherwise excellent story, unfortunately. The discerning player can be distracted from these by other elements of the story, but they are certainly not minor enough to be overlooked.
One of these is the lack of any detailed identity for the player character, who is the captain of the titular naval vessel, the Antaeus. Considering that the player character is suggested (by other characters) to be a relic of the war that overthrew the Old Guard and was supposedly a willing subject of military applications of nanotechnology and other dubious techniques that require the utter sacrifice of any chance at a normal life, he/she is a completely off-screen, unnamed and mute protagonist, especially if compared to the other characters that are under his/her command. This damages any sense of having a stake in the progression of the plot and the conservation of the utopian civilization in the canon of Hostile Waters.
While the graphics engine is somewhat adequate for the actual gameplay experience (how it is so will be mentioned later), it is too dated for the cutscenes in this game. The animations and poses of the humanoid models in the cutscenes are very stiff and awkward, especially those of the aforementioned Ms. Church, whose standing position has her legs splayed out as if she is expecting trouble any moment when there would not be any. Camera close-ups of the models only serve to show how muddled their textures can be and how imperfect their polygons are. Sparse facial animations damage the delivery of otherwise fantastic lines.
The graphics engine's origins do not appear to be documented, so it may be a new game engine made entirely from scratch and may not have had the technical adequacy for creating visually worthwhile cutscenes.
The written scripts for the story also has a few but notable flaws, despite having been written by famed comic author Warren Ellis: there are missing pronouns where their presence would have made statements more believable, weird presentation of certain notions (such as when expletives are attributed to something that could have been more eloquently described) and some jarring narration, especially – minor spoiler alert here – the ones done by inhuman characters.
Nevertheless, as a strategy game, Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising still has a very refreshing story compared to its peers in the genre at the time.
As a single-player-only game, Hostile Waters has its story elements set up the gameplay mechanics of the game.
The Adaptive Cruiser Antaeus is a relic of the past which has been brought back to battle a new threat from an old enemy. As a consequence, the player can expect virtually no help from anyone else in the campaign missions.
The plot device of highly advanced nanotechnology is also used as the reason/excuse for the very simple strategic infrastructure that the player's forces have. The Antaeus, which has powerful nanotechnology in the form of the Creation Engine, is the only factory that the player has for creating new units, not unlike the Carrier in Carrier Command. However, unlike the latter, the Antaeus is for all purposes a static building, despite being canonically a naval vessel. For every mission in the game (except one), it starts where it is (often on the ocean water) and can go nowhere else.
That the Antaeus cannot move at all (without a scripted event) despite being a sea-faring ship is disappointing, especially considering that it creates land vehicles that cannot go into the water without literally drowning.
(Drowning vehicles comically tumble around while it loses health rapidly and its pilot – if any – screams that he/she is drowning, before the vehicle eventually explodes. This is a very unbelievable occurrence that would also have been amusing if it was not a stark reminder of the limitations of the game engine too.)
Fortunately, the plot element, which has the Antaeus starting out as a decrepit war machine that needs a lot of refurbishment, gives the excuse for introducing new features to the cruiser for the player to use, such as the Magpie delivery chopper that can pick up and drop land vehicles somewhere (hopefully) safe.
(It is worth noting here that the enemy does not appear to acknowledge the presence of the Magpie, unless it is the only unit that the enemy sees. If the Magpie is destroyed, the player does not get a replacement in the mission. The Magpie is also not under the control of the player, and can easily make the mistake of flying too close to enemy AA assets.)
The plot device of nanotechnology also gives the opportunity for the game-makers to utilize a simple resource system. The only resource that the Antaeus needs is "energy", which is measured in exajoules (EJ). This is not exactly conventional energy, but mass, which is recognized in some fields of quantum physics as another form of energy. To the unlearned player, this can appear to be an odd misnomer. While this is not a fault per se, it is odd that the game-makers decided to use this term to design the resource system with when it can possibly alienate uninformed players.
Anyway, the Antaeus is an ocean-bound vessel, yet most of what it needs is on land. (Any debris in the water will also be subjected to the aforementioned drowning mechanics and will eventually be destroyed.) To gather energy, the player will have to make use of two of the Antaeus' most basic units, the Pegasus and the Scarab.
The Pegasus is a lifter-chopper, which can fly at decently fast speeds when not loaded but more slowly if it is (regardless of the mass of its load). The player can use it to ferry non-aerial vehicles around, bring debris closer to the Scarab, or bring it back to the Antaeus' sampling unit to be absorbed. Otherwise, it is a satisfactorily functional if unremarkable aircraft.
(As a side-note, it should be known the game engine does consider collision of any aircraft with anything else, and this occurrence results in rapid damage to said aircraft. The game will automatically alter the elevation of any aircraft to smoothen its path over uneven ground, but it will not prevent aircraft from laterally colliding with something.)
The Scarab is the more full-time energy-gathering workhorse of the Antaeus. It is one of two units that can scan and convert any nearby object that has suitable mass into energy, which is then conveniently transmitted over to the Antaeus. Unfortunately, the Scarab is one of the most ungainly vehicles in the game; it will have great trouble trying to reach any source of energy that is located on uneven ground, especially when it is being controlled by AI characters (more on this later). The player will have to pair it with a Pegasus for it to be effective. The pairing is a practical solution, but considering that the game-makers have used so many convenient plot elements thus far to design very simple game mechanics, introducing a very clumsy resource-gathering unit is an odd decision on their part.
(On the other hand, it does give the game-makers an excuse to introduce a heavily weaponized version of the Scarab later, which can also gather energy.)
As for sources of energy, there are plenty to be had in most maps. There are civilian vehicles to be vandalized, metal junk to be scavenged, industrial complexes to be raided, etc. Destroyed enemies also leave behind husks and other debris that can be harvested for energy.
Like resource-gathering, unit production has also been designed to be a simple task. The player needs only access the unit production screens, which also pauses the progress of the current mission. After that, he/she just has to drag-and-drop and click-select the vehicle chases and the wargear that they would have. The Antaeus produces units instantly and their models simply pop up on one of its four bays, ready to be deployed onto the battlefield (in the case of land-based vehicles) or simply hop/fly off the Antaeus (in the case of amphibious and aerial vehicles).
(There is also a gameplay exploit here; the Antaeus can instantly reabsorb any player-controlled unit that lands on its bays, recouping all of the energy cost that the unit had required when it was created earlier. This convenient game design can be taken advantage of when the Antaeus comes under attack and the player needs units that can protect the otherwise defenseless cruiser. It can also be handy if the player wants to do some solo wet-work, returning to the cruiser to "recycle" the unit in use as many times as necessary without any loss in energy.)
Unlike other strategy games of the time, units produced are not semi-autonomous. They are empty shells that the player has to take over and control, one at a time, like remote-controlled vehicles. The other alternative to controlling these vehicles and having them do something useful than just sit around is tied to another handy plot element of the story.
Making use of some real-world documented (and mostly officially defunct) USA military projects and the notion of conspiracy theories, the game-makers introduces the "Soul-catcher" system into the gameplay mechanic of controlling units. Within Hostile Waters canon, the Soul-catcher is a clandestine technology that can map the mind and personality of a human onto a piece of electronics upon death of said person, effectively granting them immortality of a limited sort that also binds them to the servitude of a "handler", which is none other than the player character.
Conveniently, the humans who have subjected themselves to the Soul-catcher experiments are battle-hardened veterans of the previous war. While having the same thematic background, they have different stories about how they came to have their personae being confined into electronic forms. The manual has very entertaining documentation of their personalities, battle experience and their "first" deaths.
These personalities of theirs also show during battle, where they will make exclamations and statements on many things and at many moments, from the very first time that they enter battle (for which they will mostly exclaim how exciting it is to have cheated death), go into battle, successfully destroying enemies to getting killed themselves – again. They even banter with each other during these moments, including whenever they are returned to the battlefield after their previous stint ended in their temporary demise.
Pairs of characters bantering with each other also have different scripts for different combinations. For example, the Russian soldier Korolev does not like Elroy, an African-American former commando, and the English Sinclair appears to be the only one that Borden, another English soldier, seems to get along well with.
They also have different quips and statements when their AI chips are installed in different kinds of vehicles and load-outs. For example, the grizzled veteran Patton does not like getting into any vehicles other than those resembling treaded tanks and complains about any guns which are smaller than heavy artillery.
(It also has to be noted here that these characters – and other characters like Church – can be quite potty-mouthed. There are parental filters in this game, amusingly enough.)
They also narrate some of the story cutscenes in the game, if only to show that they still have the minds of soldiers and do exhibit the stress and strain of being involved in a war campaign against insidious enemies.
Listening to these soldiers who have returned from death can be a very entertaining experience.
From the perspective of gameplay, there are up to ten or so of them – not that the number is really important as the player only needs a handful of them at a time. The campaign gives only a few characters early on, but eventually, the Antaeus gets to awaken more of them, allowing the player character to field a larger, autonomous battle-force.
They appear to share exactly the same AI scripts, regardless of their personalities. It doesn't really matter which character goes into which kind of vehicle and load-out. For example, despite what helicopter ace Ransom says, he works just as well piloting ground-hugging vehicles as he does aircraft.
The game keeps track of the statistics of these characters (and the player character), such as the number of kills that they have made thus far, their number of medals, their combat rank and such, but these are just for purposes of aesthetics. They do not appear to gain any substantial in-game bonuses from having participated in battles and getting lots of kills.
Yet, they probably will not need these bonuses though. They are, in fact, surprisingly smart in battle, especially against a few enemies and when in fast and maneuverable vehicles. For example, aircraft-bound characters will juke, dive and strafe behind cover (if any) to avoid enemy fire. They are also generally smart enough to engage enemies only at maximum ranges if they already have a clear shot, instead of going closer. Furthermore, they appear to know the strengths of the weapons at their disposal, such as the Warhammer artillery's indirect fire ability and the Longbow missile pod's slight homing capabilities.
However, that does not mean that they lack flaws in their AI scripts. They do have some glaringly embarrassing drawbacks in their intelligence, such as a tendency to chase any nearby enemies and running into the fields of fire of additional opponents. Their evasion scripts also appear to fail when they are exposed to fire from more than one enemy. They do not know how to keep away from enemies that have gotten too close when they fare a better chance at winning if they harass them at their weapons' maximum range. They would not flee from an enemy that they cannot beat.
This is where the player will have to intervene in order to prevent them from being overwhelmed. Fortunately, the measures for this are mostly effective.
There is the Command Map mode, which has the game paused like Production mode. It gives the player a wire-frame or vector-based graphical representation of the current map, not unlike the default view of the action in Carrier Command. The map is represented with a planar grid, with appropriate topographies for hills, cliffs and other terrain irregularities. It also shows the location of any enemies and resources within sight with colour-coded models.
In this screen, the player can select units and assign group numbers to them, as well as give orders to them.
Like some RTS games, there is a "pad" of buttons in the command interface to order units around. There are also context-sensitive icons for the cursor in the Command Map mode, not unlike the ones in the Command & Conquer franchise (and other RTS games inspired by it). In other words, the most expedient of unit command controls seen in earlier RTS games are in Hostile Waters, together with a handy pausing of time.
The command buttons can also be used in real-time using the numpad, which is convenient if the player does not wish to go into Map mode; using the buttons bring up the mouse cursor on-screen to be clicked on anything in view. However, considering that this is a single-player-only game, this alternative for giving unit orders is just not as convenient as the Command Map.
Yet, as convenient as the Command Map mode is, it does not have enough contrast between models and the rest of the map. In fact, models for units, enemies and other objects are actually rendered-down versions of their actual models in otherwise normal view. These versions can "sink" into the terrain topographies, or are made of frames that are so thin and/or small (particularly for aircraft) that they are very, very difficult to spot. The player will often have to resort to looking at the mini-map to know that enemies are there.
The Command Map also lacks any other visual indicators for said models. The setbacks due to this design oversight are especially acute for aircraft, whose elevations are not indicated in any clear way; the player will have to resort to twisting the camera around to gauge these.
Fortunately, giving orders to units is not as flawed. By default, given orders to character-piloted units are entered into queues, which is a handy design decision. However, the characters apparently cannot remember more than 10 consecutive orders at any given time, despite being practically electronic versions of their former selves. Yet, 10 orders are usually more than enough for most strategies that the player may use in this game.
The other away to intervene in the operation of character-controlled units is to simply take over them. Being the handler of their rights to existence as AI programs gives the player character the option of jumping into their assigned vehicles, effectively taking control away from them and using said vehicles as if they are remote-controlled. (Their pilots also have entertaining things to say when the player does so; most of them do not appreciate suddenly losing control of their metal bodies.)
This is by far the more reliable method to save their lives - and the expensive vehicles that they may be piloting.
Unfortunately, during vehicle control mode, the camera perspective used is not an optimal one. The model for the vehicle takes up a large portion of the screen, whereas a perspective further back could have given a wider field of view for purposes of supporting situational awareness.
The game does not allow the redefining of controls without resorting to the editing of the necessary game files.
As for the units and their wargear that are available to the player, they are designed for specific and very different roles in mind, though three of them are practically upgrades to three earlier ones (and are conversely more expensive to field). Almost every vehicle has slots that can be filled out with devices that will be described later.
The aforementioned Scarab can forgo its recycling unit, instead taking on a repair unit for the field reparations of other units. The Pegasus can also be outfitted with a few devices to augment its role as a lifter, or to give it some other role.
The first offensive unit that the player gets is the Hornet, a gunship adept at hit-and-run tasks. Its later, heavier upgrade, called the Phoenix, is the big brother of the two and can thus load more devices; it is otherwise unremarkable.
The Salamander is a hovercraft that fulfills the role of fast attack vehicle very well. It can skim over both water and land, which is handy as every mission takes place on an island which is encircled by water (thus allowing for opportunistic flanking). Its upgrade, the Shark, is a more durable vehicle and also twin-links any mounted weapon, effectively doubling its potential firepower.
The Rhino is the first tank that the player gets. It is meant for withstanding enemy attacks and has many slots to be kitted out for this purpose, but otherwise the far more mobile hovercraft units are more suitable for most situations.
(It has to be noted here that treaded units can climb steeper slopes than hovercraft, owing to the traction that they have.)
The Behemoth is an upgrade to both the Rhino and the Scarab, combining the benefits of both to result in a monster of a vehicle that can carry a lot of devices, take a lot of damage and twin-links mounted-weapons. It does come rather late in the campaign, however.
The Sentinel is the only unit that is static (at least in theory); it is practically a turret. Unfortunately, the game designers appeared to have overlooked the need to ensure that it is truly static; certain powerful attacks like those from heavy artillery can cause it to shift and slide off into other terrain, such as water (and then drown). On the other hand, it can be lifted and dropped elsewhere with the Pegasus chopper.
There are a couple of units that may be considered red herrings in design, unfortunately.
The Puma stealth all-terrain-vehicle is invisible to radar, and once equipped with a Cloaking Device (more on this later), becomes completely undetectable unless it bumps into an enemy unit. Unfortunately, it is a wheeled vehicle that can easily be hindered by uneven terrain and is prone to tumbling, more so than even the ungainly Scarab. It is also very squat, giving it a low line-of-sight and thus hindering scouting work.
(It is worth noting here that AI characters in control of a cloaked Puma, or any other cloaked unit, are thankfully quite restrained and smart when moving through enemy territory. They will not uncloak to attack nearby enemies or unwittingly collide with them. However, they completely lose the ability to enact attack orders; the player will have to uncloak them manually before they can do so.)
The other impractical unit is the Vulture jet fighter. On paper, it seems great: it is a jet fighter, is a very cheap unit, twin-links mounted weapons and has tremendous speed to outrun just about anything, include dense anti-aircraft fire. Unfortunately, it comes very, very late in the campaign, and has no slots whatsoever, meaning that it cannot take on any wargear other than a weapon and it has to be controlled by the player.
Being a unit that relies on great speed, making attack passes with the Vulture is only a feat that players who have experience with flight or space combat sims would be able to pull off.
When vehicles are not unwittingly doing clumsy things like tumbling down uneven terrain (for ground-bound vehicles), colliding with mountains (in the case of aircraft) or drowning in water (which has them doing a silly roiling animation while spewing out smoke and fire), their animations appear mostly decent.
Helicopter units have rotor blades that spin believably, tilt when moving in any direction and yaw when making sharp turns. The treads for units like the Rhino bob whenever they move through uneven terrain. Only a few vehicles in the game have animations that look unseemly, such as the Puma and the Antaeus, which appears eerily still despite supposedly floating on oceanic currents.
Their models, however, make up for any deficiency in animation. The Antaeus is easily the most impressive, looking like a decrepit naval vessel that had been recently refurbished. Vehicles have lots of polygons and their textures are well applied enough to give a semblance of their being sci-fi military vehicles.
Most of these vehicles can be armed with weapons, which also have specific roles like the vehicles themselves. Like just about every other gameplay mechanic in the game, the canonical excuse of sci-fi nanotechnology is used to justify weapons in this game having unlimited reserves of ammunition. However, most weapons can fire limited shots before their ammo bins or capacitors run empty and have to be refilled, albeit this occurs automatically and continuously.
The first weapon that the player gets is the Scalpel minigun, which outputs a significant amount of damage over a short period of time and has an ammo bin that will never exhaust, albeit at the cost of short range and terrible accuracy.
The next is the Longbow missile pod, which can rapidly launch a salvo of missiles with slight homing capabilities, making it the most useful anti-aircraft weapon. However, it appears to be slow at refilling itself. It may be too slow, in fact, especially when the player is attempting to fend off large numbers of enemy aircraft.
The Rapier laser is a slow-firing sniper weapon, and the game emphasizes its role through a scenario in a certain mission that can only be solved with it. It is a long-ranged hit-scan weapon, one that veterans of shooter games at the time would be familiar with. It is perhaps more useful in the hands of AI characters, who are virtually perfect shots.
The Warhammer artillery can deliver shells with great explosive payload over long distances. In the hands of the AI, they can easily lay down indirect fire that will eventually level enemy positions if unhindered. The AI characters do not appear to be quite effective at blasting moving enemies, but they do appear to lead the latter a bit. They are incapable of targeting aerial enemies, however, but a player can theoretically hit these with adjustments of the firing arc.
(It has to be noted here that the game does not appear to warn the player that the Warhammer may only be used effectively on non-aerial units. When mounted on aerial units, it becomes a bomb payload weapon instead, meaning that the aerial units have to be flying directly over a target to attack it.)
The Firestorm Flamethrower weapon will be available later in the campaign to cope with the peculiar defenses of a new threat that would emerge later in the campaign. It is a very short-ranged weapon, but can ruin buildings quicker than other weapons. Yet, it is useless against anything else.
As appropriately designed as most of the weapons are, one of them is a poorly conceived one. The Archlight EMP is meant to disable enemy units and buildings without damaging them, thus rendering them sitting ducks for other weapons. However, the delivery of the EMP projectile is very slow and it only explodes after hitting something, making it quite worthless against moving targets, especially aerial ones. It does have a huge explosive radius to compensate, but any benefit from this is scratched out by the weapon's very slow rate of fire.
It appears that all weapons have bars that denote their damage and range rating. While the entirety of the bar for range is used, it appears that the damage bar is not, suggesting that there had been more weapons that were intended to be in the game. Nevertheless, most of the existing weapons are very effective at what they do, though every time the player gets a new gun, he/she would wonder about this suggested absence of more powerful weapons.
The models for these weapons are mostly and a bit disappointingly static, with the exception of the Warhammer (which has recoil animations) and Scalpel (which spins like a minigun would, of course), which can be entertaining to watch in action. Their particle effects are more of an eyeful, however, and can easily rival those of equivalent weapons in other strategy games. (That said, a fan of the MechWarrior series would notice that the particle effects for the weapons in Hostile Waters would look rather familiar.)
Most units in the game are quite weak if not enhanced with items that are inserted into their equipment slots. These items, like the units and their weapons, are designed with very specific benefits that do not cause another item or more to be rendered obsolete, i.e. their benefits are unique.
(It has to be noted here that fitting one of the immortal soldiers into a vehicle takes up a slot, which is reserved for the Soul-Catcher device.)
The first device that the player gets is ablative Armor, which acts like additional hitpoints in addition to the ones that vehicles get from their hull ratings by default.
The next one is a Cloaking device, which when activated renders the vehicle invisible. It does not prevent the vehicle from being detected by radar outposts, unless it is the Puma (which is invisible to radar), and certainly does not help much if the vehicle ended up bumping into or coming too close to an enemy unit.
A Shield device is introduced later, which practically gives a vehicle additional hitpoints that can be regenerated over time. A single Shield unit also gives a lot of protection. However, unlike Armor, they give diminishing returns as more are fitted onto a vehicle, which may be a wise game design as Armor would otherwise be rendered obsolete. Shields also cannot be used together with the Cloaking Device, as cloaking bleeds away Shield strength.
The Recharge Unit is the last device to be obtained. It appears to accelerate the rate at which weapons regenerate their available shots, though the player is not exactly informed of the extent of this acceleration, which is disappointing.
With enough energy, the player can create exceptionally tricked out units; the later ones, with their greater number of slots, are especially so. In fact, they can be quite overpowered. Considering that the player character's forces practically profit off the deaths of enemies by absorbing their remains to convert into more energy to fuel the Antaeus, the player may get the impression that every mission is a battle of attrition that he/she just cannot lose, unless deliberately so or there are scripted events that can be exceptionally hairy.
Of course, that some units and loadouts can seem overpowered should still be acceptable because Hostile Waters is a single-player game. Furthermore, gradually more powerful units make for a satisfying sense of progression in the story campaign. It also leads nicely to a finale that emphasizes the notion that power cannot be gained without due sacrifice.
While this review would not go much into the designs of the enemies in this game due to aversion towards the inclusion of spoilers, they can be described as mostly equivalent to the player's forces, especially in aerial assets. The airborne enemies are especially numerous in the campaign and are a huge nuisance, if not a major threat.
The other major threat are ground defenses, which can be terrifically powerful, such as artillery emplacements and heavy anti-aircraft towers that can knock the player's units around. Enemies also resort to a lot of walls to protect their structures.
Speaking of structures, enemy forces make use of bases, not unlike those that players have in other RTS games. Generally, all bases conform to the following pattern: they have unit production buildings, which receive energy from energy production buildings (like oil rigs) and energy storage units (which allow buildings to continue producing units after their respective energy production buildings have been destroyed) to churn out units at variable rates. The more energy production buildings that serve a base, the faster that factories churn out units.
Razing bases can take a long while, because enemy buildings are very, very tough objects. Taking them down does yield remains that are worth a lot of energy, but the game also offers another convenient alternative to the player which is to just cut off their energy feed and leave them to languish in idleness.
Another alternative available to the player in taking down buildings comes in the form of the Antaeus' main guns. The Antaeus can fire a barrage of shells at any building at any point of the map to inflict tremendous damage, usually needing at most two salvoes to demolish anything. However, it does have limited ammunition, despite having the ability to churn out war machines instantly. (Of course, this is a game design to balance the Antaeus' guns.)
The least threatening enemy units are treaded ground vehicles. These squat vehicles have major issues negotiating rough terrain (not unlike the player's own), such that they can get stuck in a lot of things, making them vulnerable to bombardment. (The later ground-bound enemies are not as pathetic, however. They have all-terrain capabilities that allow them to scamper to a lot of locations in the current map.)
The animations for enemy units in the early parts of the campaign are of similar quality with those for the player's own units, i.e. just slightly better than decent. Some of them can look particularly wonky when they get stuck in terrain, or even into each other (which will cause them to be destroyed, eventually). The enemies in the later parts, however, are much better animated; they can look fittingly creepy with all their convulsions and spams.
The models of enemy units appear to be of lesser quality than those for units created by the Antaeus. The early ones in particular are very boxy and sharply edged; some of them also have poorly applied textures. The later ones are better textured, but their boxy and ungainly polygons are especially hideous to look at where their nature is considered.
For the first half of the game, the player will get to eavesdrop on the radio chatter of enemies, thus knowing when they have been alerted to the presence of the player's forces and when their bases have been disabled, among other tactical information. The next half will have the player dealing with hostile forces that do not use radio communication, thus providing a greater challenge.
As for the AI of enemy forces, all of them appear to share the same scripts. Enemy forces will patrol along pre-determined circuits, until they have detected the player's forces. After that, they would proceed to hound the player as long as they can confirm the last known location(s) of the player's forces.
Enemy attacks are not exactly well-concerted though. These can be heavily scripted behavior, depending on the map: on some, the enemy AI is smart enough to collect together a squad of units before sending them at the player, but in others, the AI sends them in piece-meal.
In fact, one can get the impression that much of the challenge in a given mission is from scripts that the game-makers have included in the current map, both those for the control of enemy forces and special events. However, this should be acceptable because Hostile Waters' only segment of gameplay is its story campaign.
The missions in the story campaign are laden with a lot of scripted events, which often trigger when objectives are met or when the player's forces reach a certain location on the map. Many of these scripted events can be quite exciting and difficult to handle the first time around, though a simple reload of a game would give the player an opportunity to prepare better because they always occur in the same way regardless of how many times a mission is played.
Unfortunately, despite the critical need for the story campaign to be flawless to support this game's single-player-only gameplay, the scripted events are not all well-coded.
The launch version of the game lacks contingency scripts to accommodate for solutions to mission objectives that the developers did not expect. As a consequence, a player can complete a mission objective in his/her own most expedient way and discover that the event triggers for advancing the progress of the current mission would not execute, effectively causing the player to be stuck. This is a disappointing oversight on the part of the developers.
The developers did quickly release patches to fix these issues, but these do not gloss over the fact that they did not have enough play-testing to detect the scripting hiccups in the first place.
The chicanery of islands is an important facet of the story campaign, so the maps in this game are crucial to the impression of its quality. The game-makers appear to somewhat have the same impression, but not completely.
The draw distance of the game is limited; it resorts to fogging out anything beyond 450 meters in in-game distance. This can be a disappointment because some weapons, such as the Warhammer and Rapier, have ranges that slightly go beyond this; this makes them less useful in the control of the player than in that of AI characters.
The draw distance gets even shorter as the player gains higher elevation in an aircraft, though this is somewhat understandable as said aircraft is supposedly reaching into the clouds.
There is a lot of water in this game, so thankfully it is rendered quite well. Rolling waves represent ocean currents, and there is lapping of waves onto the shores of islands.
Land, however, is not as pretty as water. They have little features beyond rolling hills and roads, as well as some sprinkling of trees and the odd rock or two. Worst of all, they have textures that are poor in comparison with those used for unit and building models.
The sound designs for this game mostly consist of sound effects; outside of story cutscenes, which have soundtracks that are appropriate in setting their mood, there is no music to be had during missions.
Sound effects mostly come from units and their actions. The Antaeus' vehicles - and enemy vehicles early in the game - are always emitting engine/suspension noises as they move around. Their weapons also sound like they should: missiles whoosh, miniguns rattle, lasers zing, etc. They are appropriate, if unremarkable.
Yet, the enemies in the latter half of the game have sound effects that are a significant - and suitably creepy - contrast to those heard earlier.
Buildings also produce noises, though the player has to get so close to hear their sound effects, the distance of which would expose the less-than-stellar quality of their textures.
In conclusion, Hostile Waters is a strategy game with gameplay mechanics that were refreshing for its time. It did have its fair share of flaws and rather low replayability, but these would not have made it any less of an astounding and pleasant surprise for the consumer of RTS titles back then.