Since retro gaming is one of the topics du jour here at Reaxxion, I figured I’d get into the action with occasional retrospectives of classic games that have been overlooked or forgotten. My gaming tastes lean towards the PC side of things: I’ve only owned a couple of consoles in my life (PlayStation and PlayStation 2), but I’ve been playing computer games ever since I was a little kid screwing around on my parents’ 386.
This week, I’d like to revisit one of my favorite games from the early oughts: Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising (or just Hostile Waters if you’re on the other side of the Atlantic).
I snapped Hostile Waters up a couple months back when Steam was selling it for three bucks, and man was it worth it. The game is an odd mix of real-time strategy and third-person vehicular combat, akin to Battlezone or Halo’s vehicle segments. Despite the game’s weak plot and dodgy direct control system, Hostile Waters’ various elements gel to create one hell of a fun game, a game that unfortunately never got any traction.
Our Techno-Communist Future
Hostile Waters’ plot deserves special mention, if not because it’s particularly good, but because of the talent the developers hired to craft it. The story was written by Warren Ellis, creator of Transmetropolitan and a bunch of other comic books I haven’t read. In the year 2032, war and famine have been rendered obsolete thanks to Star Trek-style replicators that can manufacture anything out of thin air. A shadowy group known as the Cabal seeks to re-establish the old capitalist order by making missile strikes on major cities. With no military to defend themselves, the government resurrects the “adaptive cruiser” Antaeus and sends it into the Cabal’s South Pacific base to stop them.
While the game’s dialogue is sharply written, the premise of Hostile Waters is really, really stupid. Without exception, the techno-socialist government in charge of the world is depicted as being utter saints, while the Cabal embodies every moronic left-wing cliche you can think of. Ellis wisely describes much of the game’s backstory elliptically—for example, characters constantly refer back to a war in 2012 in which the “Old Guard” was wiped out, but the war is never explained in detail—but the story still feels like nerd wish fulfillment. Additionally, there’s a big plot twist that can be seen a mile away.
What saves Hostile Waters is the masterful acting. The designers sprung for top-tier talent, casting Tom Baker (Doctor Who) as the game’s narrator and Paul Darrow and Glynis Barber (Blake’s 7) as the two lead characters. The actors who play the soldiers you command in each mission also do a good job, though their canned responses can get really annoying after a while: after hearing Ransom shout “Save it for someone who gives a fuck!” for the hundredth time, I almost put the voices on mute.
You Got Your Shooter Mixed Up With My RTS
Hostile Waters blends third-person shooting gameplay and strategy elements so effectively that fans of either can pick the game up and enjoy themselves. Each mission starts you off with the Antaeus cruiser, which serves as your unit production facility. You create units by spending resource units (RUs), which you acquire by destroying enemy units and buildings and salvaging the remains. You can control units yourself or have the AI do it via Soulcatcher chips, which contain the minds of soldiers who died during the 2012 war. Both options are viable and fun thanks to smart AI programming and responsive controls.
The Soulcatcher system is one of Hostile Waters’ most remarkable innovations. In contrast to typical RTS games where you can churn out an unlimited number of faceless soldiers, Hostile Waters deliberately restricts the number of AI-controlled units you can have at any given time (you start the game with two Soulcatcher chips and eventually gain a maximum of ten). Not only does this force you to use your units wisely, it also allowed the developers to program each chip’s AI with a unique personality. Each of your soldiers has a different specialty—Ransom is a pilot, Patton is a tank driver, Madsen is a sniper etc.—and using their talents effectively is the key to winning each mission.
Additionally, Hostile Waters is well balanced. There are only a small variety of vehicles in the game, from helicopters to hovercrafts to tanks, but each one of them has a specific purpose and role. Even during the last missions, you’ll still be making use of the humble Phoenix chopper and Salamander tank you acquire in the beginning. You can also customize your units’ weapons and onboard equipment, adding armor, shields, invisibility cloaks and more.
Finally, Hostile Waters’ visuals hold up well, given that the game is nearly 15 years old. The sun rises and sets every ten minutes, enemy buildings explode in an orgy of pyrotechnics, and you can even swoop down and machine gun hapless civilians running around the Cabal’s bases. The complete absence of in-game music is odd but helps to establish the game’s alien atmosphere.
Those Maniacs! They Blew It Up!
The only area where Hostile Waters really falters is the direct control system. The game allows you to command your troops either via the War Room, which provides a traditional RTS-style view of the battlefield (and pauses the game), or by issuing commands on the fly. In practice, I end up using the War Room almost exclusively because the direct control system is too awkward. You can’t pilot a vehicle and issue orders at the same time, and the chaos of the game’s combat means that using the direct control system will usually get you killed.
Additionally, the game gets somewhat repetitive in the later missions, as virtually every map boils down to a long war of attrition. You build your units, lead an assault on an enemy position, destroy their energy production, wait for them to run out of resources, then waltz in and mop up. Rinse and repeat four or five times and you win. Hostile Waters varies things up with some missions where you’re placed in command of a single unit with no production or backup, but the puzzle-like victory conditions had me clawing at my nonexistent hair in frustration.
Finally, Hostile Waters is difficult to get working on modern systems: it’s a DirectX 7 game and runs sluggishly on Windows 8 computers. I had to play the game in a window to get it to run properly.
Overall though, if you’re looking for an innovative, atmospheric and fun RTS/shooter hybrid, I highly recommend Hostile Waters. There literally aren’t any games out there like it.
Read Next: 5 Reasons Why I’m A Retro Gamer