Dangerous Waters Hands-On Impressions

This futuristic third-person action game places you in charge of a five-man squad of elite marines in combat on other worlds.

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A Seahawk helicopter goes hunting for hostiles in Dangerous Waters. Double-click on the video window for a full-screen view.

Naval simulations and wargames have hit a rough patch in recent years. Just witness the on-again, off-again attempts to make Harpoon 4 over the past five years. In the early days of PC gaming, naval sims enjoyed an era of popularity with games such as the original Harpoon, Red Storm Rising, and Silent Service, among others. But as the simulation and wargame genres have declined, the naval sim in general has nearly disappeared. Developer Sonalysts, though, is one company that has steadfastly continued to create deep, complex, sophisticated naval sims, from 688(I) Hunter/Killer and Fleet Command to Sub Command. Now the company's latest game, Dangerous Waters, is nearing completion.

Dangerous Waters is in many ways a bigger, beefier version of 2001's Sub Command. That game let you control three different classes of hunter-killer submarines--the 688(i) improved Los Angeles, the next-generation Seawolf, and the Russian Akula--in a variety of missions, from stalking enemy submarines to launching cruise missile strikes against inland targets. Dangerous Waters will increase the number of platforms that you can control, adding the Russian Kilo-class submarine, as well as surface and air platforms in the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate, the SH-60B LAMPS helicopter (basically a navalized Black Hawk), and the P-3C Orion patrol plane.

The P-3C Orion may not look like much, but it can fire torpedoes and antiship missiles.
The P-3C Orion may not look like much, but it can fire torpedoes and antiship missiles.

The gameplay in Dangerous Waters is drawn directly from Fleet Command and Sub Command. Most of your time will be spent in the main window of the game, which is a real-time representation of the surrounding battlespace, with all known and unknown contacts displayed on it. The challenge of Dangerous Waters comes down to the fact that modern naval warfare hinges on whichever side wins the sensor war. In other words, you'll start the game surrounded by unknown contacts that you've detected via sonar, radar, visual detection, electronic emission, and other means. (There will also be ships and subs out there that you can't detect and that you don't know about until you do detect them.) However, knowing that something is out there and knowing if it's hostile are two completely different things, so you must identify and classify a contact--hopefully in a way that doesn't give your identify and location away. At least, that's usually the rule when controlling a submarine, since a sub's nature is to stay hidden. The addition of surface ships and aircraft change the dynamic of the gameplay in Dangerous Waters, because it's a lot harder to stay hidden if you're flying around or sitting on the ocean in plain sight. But what you lose in stealth you gain in increased speed and capabilities. The P-3, for instance, can zip across vast distances quickly to close with a contact, while the frigate can launch its helicopters to conduct supporting air operations.

It's important to keep in mind that though you can control aircraft in this game, you won't actually fly them like you would in a flight simulator. Instead, controlling platforms in Dangerous Waters involves directing them by using a point-and-click system to map out waypoints and right-clicking for a menu system to control various functions. For simplicity's sake, if you want to use sonar, just activate the sonar and the computer will handle the rest. If you want more control, you can actually jump from individual stations on a platform to perform tasks yourself. For instance, you can operate a sonar system manually. You'll listen for contacts, analyze the data, determine the contact's location, and then classify the contact's identification. It's an incredibly complex and realistic approach, and if you can successfully master the sonar system in Dangerous Waters, you're probably qualified to try out for the navy's real-life sonar school. It's that realistic. Other stations include the electronic warfare station (where you attempt to locate and identify contacts via the electronic emissions they release, such as radar and radio waves), the weapons station, the periscope of a submarine, and the gyrostabilized camera system aboard a P-3 Orion.

This is probably the closest a civilian can get to a realistic sonar simulation.
This is probably the closest a civilian can get to a realistic sonar simulation.

The preview version that we played only had a few basic missions, but Dangerous Waters will ship with two dynamic campaigns, as well as a multiplayer mode that will allow each player to control a separate platform. The multiplayer mode will also allow all players to man all the stations on a single platform. Thusly, one player could act as the weapons officer, while another could serve as the sonar officer, and yet another could handle air operations. The game will also ship with an extensive database of more than 270 platforms, weapons, and sensors, which is enough data to re-create 17 of the world's navies. The graphical presentation is solid, and Sonalysts uses some of the latest pixel- and vertex-shading technology to render realistic water effects. The models themselves are fairly detailed, and you'll appreciate these little details, such as the weapons that hang from wing pylons to the white puffs of smoke that come from the deck guns of frigates.

Even at its easiest difficulty, though, Dangerous Waters is still a game geared toward serious naval warfare fans. If you love reading the naval combat passages in various Tom Clancy novels, and if you're willing to invest a considerable amount of time learning the various aspects of this game, then Dangerous Waters is for you. The game is currently in the final stages of development, though Sonalysts is still looking for a publisher. We'll have a full review of the game when it ships, hopefully sometime this fall.

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