I shall personally direct the attack!
It’s time for another Best Game You’ve Never Played! If there’s one thing I love, it’s games that do a good job at blending RTS and action gameplay in meaningful ways. It’s an awful lot of fun to make your plans and then take part in the attack yourself, especially if your actions mean that you have a real purpose in the battle. Battlezone II: Combat Commander (and to some extent its predecessor Battlezone) remains my favourite for doing this. The thrill of scouting as part of a Thunderbolt group, finding the enemy positions, then actually giving the orders to attack and joining in, is something that few other games have ever managed to capture. Of course these RTS/FPS hybrids are often not commercial successes, because (as Ken Miller from Pandemic Studios put it) they only appeal to people who are fans of both genres, not one or the other. The action gamers get frustrated by the strategy part, while the strategy gamers don’t want to be part of the action. Battlezone II ended up getting bashed into the ground but still maintained a strong, loyal following from its release back in 2000. A lot of people suggest that Battlezone is superior to BZII. Personally I think they’re on-par and that BZII is just the removal of a bit of micromanagement, but plenty of people disagree.
This has nothing to do with the subject except to highlight that these games are often made for a specific audience and often don’t receive a lot of attention. Hence why you could be forgiven for not hearing about Hostile Waters when it was released back in 2001 by Rage Games Limited. I sure as hell didn’t hear about it until recently when someone suggested it while talking about the new Carrier Command game that BI Studios is working on. Carrier Command is an old game released in 1988 (the year I was born incidentally) which put you in command of a carrier and a few other assets to complete various objectives. If you’ve ever played that piece of shit called universal Combat, or Battlecruiser Millenium (but BC3K v2.0, which was at least somewhat original if buggy) it’s a bit like that except infinitely better. It’s one of those RTS/FPS hybrids, and Hostile Waters is very similar.
The plot of Hostile Waters is actually pretty interesting. Set in the future, the world is at peace and war has been abolished, but a group of former dictators have decided to reclaim their lost power. Their plan is to instill fear in the world to force them to seek protection by engineering an artificial alien threat. Sounds like a 9/11 conspiracy theory, but before you call it unoriginal, this was released in March 2011, so it was ahead of the curve. The last war machine ever used, an aircraft-carrier-like-thing called Antaeus Prototype 00, is activated to stop the threat. It builds various units using nanorobots. You are placed in command of this ship and tasked with stopping the threat.
Each mission takes place on and around a fortified island. Your goal in life is to collect energy, build units, command them to complete objectives, and take personal command as you see fit. Islands have a mixture of static guns, land and air units, production facilities, and bases that exist purely to provide scrap metal. Energy is acquired by ordering a unit to collect scrap metal which is strewn across the landscape as you tear it up with your weapons of war. Land units need a way to get over to the land though, and there’s a utility helicopter that fills this role nicely. You’ll also command land units from little buggies all the way up to raging tanks, hovercraft, helicopters, jets, and utility units. You’ll unlock these units for the most part by finding them and bringing them back to your carrier for analysis. From there you can build them yourself.
Controlling units directly is a snap and makes a real difference in combat. You can even do all the utility work, like lifting units or collecting energy, all by yourself if you really want to. Alternatively you can let the AI take over. The AI system is quite interesting. You assign AI personalities to ships using a Soul Catcher system. The story goes that the various AI profiles are actually the “souls” of previous pilots and whatnot from the last war, salvaged just before their deaths. These guys have distinct personalities, banter with each other, and carry on like tools at times. More to the point though if there’s no soul available to plug into a unit, that unit has no AI control and must be controlled directly.
The AI is fairly decent, especially for that time period. I’ve noticed that they sometimes make intelligent decisions but occasionally they do ridiculous things, and pathfinding occasionally bugs out and units will occasionally refuse to go somewhere that you can physically move them to if you take direct control. That said they’re not hopelessly inept and you can happily give generalised orders like “move here and attack” or “scavenge in this area” and they’ll do it properly for the most part. Taking direct control does greatly improve combat effectiveness though, especially if you work in concert with your AI units. There’s a certain excitement to be had in participating in a heli strike against a ground target.
Orders are given from a map screen onboard the carrier, and the game pauses while in this state. You chain orders together and then go back into the main game to continue gameplay. While the game is actually running you view the entire thing from the perspective of any of your units in 3rd person mode, with the option to take control or go back to the map open at any time. Units will report their status and things they observe, like enemy bases, radars lighting them up, or incoming hostile units. The command environment feels dynamic and it makes you feel like you’re actually looking over a team and fighting alongside them at the same time.
Building units is fairly simple. You can only have 4 units landed at the carrier at once, limiting you to building 4 units in one go, but when a unit takes off that spot is immediately available for building again. Building units relies on collecting energy, and you can reclaim any of your units whenever you want to. Units can be outfitted with different weapons and items to change their combat role or their effectiveness. It’s a great system and adds a bit more depth to the game.
Graphically the game is quite dated by today’s standards, but it was released way back in 2001, so what did you expect? The field of view is quite narrow when piloting units, and even though the game’s launch will display widescreen resolutions it actually cuts off portions of the screen that you’ll need for gameplay. That said despite being an older game it runs flawlessly on Windows 7 x64, so it was built to last. Getting it to run posed no problems. The sound is pretty damn good and the voice acting isn’t entirely bad (but it’s not exactly great either). There’s plenty of gameplay but after the campaign is done that’s it, there’s no multiplayer or skirmish modes. Not that the game really needs it I suppose.
Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising is a fantastic game that did an awesome job at blending RTS and action gameplay. Your actions as a direct combatant make a difference, commanding units isn’t a problem, and the gameplay is compelling. It’s a shame that Hostile Waters is so unknown because it’s exactly the kind of game that plays best on the PC and is a shining example of how innovative a game can be while keeping a high degree of accessibility. It’s not a hard game to understand but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. It’s showing its age a bit but don’t let that stop you. It’s a true PC gaming gem, and most definitely one of the best games you’ve never played!
Hostile Waters used to be up for sale on GOG.com but Interplay threw a fit or something over rights to the game in late 2010, and the game hasn’t turned up since. Not that I’d advocate it, but you might need to look to alternative methods for finding it, because you’re highly unlikely to find it in stores, and nobody in their right mind would part with their copy today.