With the release of Bohemia’s fresh take on Carrier Command, I thought it worth going back and taking a look at the last time a game used the 1980s classic as a basic structure – Rage’s Hostile Waters (Antaeus Rising for our American cousins).
Released to fair critical appraisal back in 2001 and a darling of several of the PC gaming’s most vocal reviewers, Hostile Waters took Carrier Command’s gameplay mechanic (already ahead of its time) and fused it with a wonderfully British sci-fi story and sense of style.
It’s easy to go through a checklist of what makes Hostile Waters so great and so different. Part of what makes it so unique is how British the whole affair is. The near mandatory checklist of Hostile Waters awesome contains a story penned by Warren Ellis and the voices of Paul Darrow and Glynnis Barber (both of Blakes 7) and of course Tom Baker (of, well, Tom bloody Baker).
An action strategy of the type that seems to be coming back into fashion, Hostile Waters takes a vehicular combat mechanic and wraps both real-time and turn-based strategy elements into it. Physically confined to the Antaeus, the player takes remote control of the craft the ship creates, piloting everything from workhorse scavengers and heavy lift helicopters to battle ready hovercraft and the surprisingly fun stealth 4×4. Therein lies the bulk of the game, shifting your chosen vehicle around the battlefield and leveling the full force of the future’s finest at your enemies.
As the game progresses you gain the ability to outfit your war machines with a Soulcatcher chip, an artificial recreation of a dead crewmember. These chips allow for the units to act autonomously, as well as giving them much better sense of character and identity than is present in many of the other strategy games. This is where the strategy elements come into play, allowing you to issue orders to Soulcatcher equipped units either with the action paused from the War Room or in real time. Real-time controls are quite cunning, mapping possible orders to the keys around the WASD keys, though having to stop moving in order to give commands means that the War Room is usually favourable in a fire-fight.
Sadly the actual intelligence of your crew isn’t quite as good as their ‘resurrected expert’ status might suggest, relegating them to caretaking roles: scavenging scrap, and healing, or delivering your war machines to the front. This was the source of a fair amount of criticism at the game’s launch, forcing players to dive into units and oversee the battle first hand rather than relying on the AI. For those of you that enjoy getting elbow deep in destruction, this won’t warrant a second thought, but the type of gamer that prefers to conduct from afar won’t derive as much pleasure from Hostile Waters.
And it still looks fairly good. Not amazing by modern standards perhaps but like all games with a deeply ingrained style, it has stood the test of time surprisingly well. The day/night cycle really works it charms here, adding little in terms of gameplay but everything in terms of atmosphere.
It is interesting that the criticism leveled at the new release of Carrier Command are the same that were leveled at Hostile Waters at its release. Lacklustre AI and a lack of any multiplayer mode hampered both releases, and co-op gaming is definitely sorely missed here. A competitive multiplayer may have been interesting, but in fairness the focus on the story driven campaign really works here, and a good deal of care has been taken to avoid every mission simply ending up being a case of removing all the red blips from your radar.
Especially important here is the level to which the writing takes central role in everything that happens. Most gamers are used to seeing gameplay mechanics explained away with little more than a cursory nod or ignored altogether. What sets Hostile Waters apart in many respects is the level to which everything is carefully crafted, each element given a purpose and related back to the game universe as a whole. All the incidental stuff like the limited weaponry that you open the game with, or the dilapidated state of the cruiser to the crew bios that replace some of the loading screens, really makes the game. Ellis crafts a real world that exists outside of the cutscenes and gameplay, and everything hints at a world that existed before the war, a world that the player never sees. Indeed, this conceit itself turns out to be relevant to the story, though to tell any more would drift into the realm of spoilers.
And it really is a story, and a game, that is worth seeing through to the end. Hostile Waters sadly isn’t available on any of your usual digital distribution services, but those with disc drives can pick up a hard copy for under a fiver.
- Sam Crisp