Hostile Waters has both an unusual premise and unusual gameplay. It is a war game set in an utopian world that has abolished war altogether; and it is a strategy game in which the player is not limited to giving orders, but can actually directly control units on the battlefield. In both its story and its gameplay, Hostile Waters requires players to re-learn war.
Like Populous: The Beginning, Hostile Waters was the product of a veteran British games developer entering its final years. The similarities don’t end there - Hostile Waters also failed to receive the recognition it deserved upon release in March 2001 - at least from consumers - and sold poorly. One likely reason is the lack of multiplayer, which was to be added in a patch which never saw release. While not much discussed even today, Hostile Waters has been called “one of the best games you’ve never played”. This minor cult reputation is built on the satisfying combination of those two key elements - the game’s unusual story, and novel gameplay.
Back in 1988, the British developer Realtime Games released a distinctive war simulation called Carrier Command. Published by Rainbird and released on various home computer platforms of the time including the Amiga and the Atari ST, the game tasked players with battling over a chain of 64 islands using an advanced robotic aircraft carrier. This basic concept was the inspiration for Hostile Waters, which was developed by Rage Games Limited - specifically their branch based in Birmingham. While Rage described Carrier Command as “a very quiet title”, they had something more intense in mind.
After two years of research and development on the technology that would underpin Hostile Waters, Rage set about establishing a narrative basis for the game - or rather, recruiting the comics writer Warren Ellis to do it for them.
By 2032, the Earth has become a utopia. War has been abolished, crime is a thing of the past, and humans are all but free of disease. The few threats to this perfect future are rigorously monitored by the world government - that is, until a new chain of islands mysteriously appears in the Pacific Ocean. It transpires that a cabal of “the remaining monsters of the 20th century” are plotting a new war in order to retake control of the planet.
In order to counter this danger, the world government is forced to reactivate its one remaining weapon from the old era. Think: thawing out Sylvester Stallone to save the day in Demolition Man.
The player takes the role of a nameless captain entrusted with Antaeus, the last remaining adaptive cruiser, which has been kept on the ocean floor for two decades just in case. It is equipped with “creation engines”, banks of nanomachines that can instantly produce combat units. With these, the player must confront the forces of the old world, and defeat their plan for world domination.
While the story doesn’t keep up the air of mystery with which it begins, Hostile Waters is more narratively and thematically engaging than most strategy games. The dead soldiers preserved on silicon to pilot the vehicles produced by the Antaeus are seriously damaged individuals who revel in a new chance to wreak destruction. One cutscene makes explicit the Cabal’s cold and cruel logic; their awareness that restoring conditions of material scarcity is necessary if they are to return to power.
At the beginning of each campaign mission, the Antaeus has moved into position adjacent to one of the artificial islands built by the Cabal. In the vessel’s command room, government officials Walker and Church provide a briefing on the task ahead. Only a small part of the island’s topography is revealed; the rest must be discovered by the player’s units, by penetrating the fog of war. Mission objectives are quite varied, ranging from disabling a small fleet of enemy submarines using a hastily-constructed electromagnetic pulse weapon to capturing technology and rescuing scientists.
Rage took care to build immersion in the design of the game’s user interface. When building units or issuing commands, the player interacts with specific devices in dedicated rooms of the Antaeus. There are very few overt menus, and while in real-time combat the interface is minimal and uncluttered. A novel command menu is used to issue orders to other units while in direct unit control - it’s not immediately intuitive, but ultimately works well.
The game has an interesting approach to its economy. The Antaeus begins each mission with a specific amount of energy, which is enough to have the ship’s creation engines whip up a small exploratory force. To secure more resources, the player must equip the Scarab utility vehicle with a recycler unit. This breaks down debris strewn across the battlefield, processing it into energy which can then be spent on new units. The ability to customise vehicles is one of the novel elements of the Hostile Waters design. The idea was also used in Earth 2150, released just two months later. In Hostile Waters, however, it is made more interesting by the inclusion of soulcatcher chips.
As the campaign progresses, Antaeus gains access to a growing roster of soldier personalities captured upon death by the soulcatcher technology. Matching soldiers to the vehicle and weapons types they are most suited to is often critical. For example, Patton is irritable and uncooperative until he is provided with the Rhino armoured tank, at which point he becomes indispensably psychopathic. Conversely, Ransom should be installed in a combat helicopter. Bitter and foul-mouthed, he lives only for war - or would, if he were alive. Using a large set of pre-recorded lines, the undead pilots of allied units conduct spontaneous radio chatter in response to events in battle. As absurd as the combinations of lines can be, these exchanges add to the game’s unique atmosphere.
It has been suggested that strategy games are misnamed, because there is often only one truly viable strategy: attrition. To be fair, this is mostly true in Hostile Waters. When a mission begins, the Cabal forces - and the race of killer creatures they engineer and then lose control of - have essentially unlimited resources. Completing objectives tends to mean gradually cutting off this revenue stream by destroying oil derricks positioned around the map, and then taking out unit production facilities. In practice this can feel like a grind, but there’s always a way to switch things up - direct unit control.
The ability to assume direct control over units is something that a number of strategy games have experimented with over the years, but few have done it as successfully as Hostile Waters. The small-scale of the engagements and the inclusion of the soulcatcher personalities are crucial to this. Controlling a hovercraft during an amphibious assault while two AI allies in their own vehicles provide backup and exchange smack talk is an experience almost unique to this game. Judging which tasks can be left up to AI units, and which should be taken care of personally, is a key part of mastering what can be quite a challenging campaign.
During development, Rage decided that cutscenes should be used as a reward for the completion of missions. This works because of how strong these cutscenes are, especially in the game’s first half. A trio of British sci-fi TV legends contributed voice work to the game. Tom Baker of Doctor Who fame serves as the narrator, while Walker and Church are played by Paul Darrow and Glynis Barber respectively, cast members from the cult show Blake’s 7. The scripts for the cutscenes are often excellent, confronting subjects that games seldom approach with any kind of seriousness.
An ambitious and certainly imperfect game, Hostile Waters is not an unqualified lost classic. It was probably doomed to failure on its initial release due to its unconventional approach and lack of multiplayer, a factor that limits its appeal even now. However, the game still stands as a monument to an era when some developers were willing to push the envelope with strategy games - not to simply port familiar gameplay over from 2D to 3D, but to try something genuinely new. To experience that spirit, Hostile Waters is worth a look, even now.