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Those Were Hostile Waters

A complete game playthrough is a rare thing for me - I'll usually get well and truly bored of it before then.  Yet, out of excitement for a game I currently could not afford, Carrier Command:Gaea Mission, I ended up installing and completing Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising, a game in some ways similar.

A 2001 game, it's just a bit surprising to see Hostile Waters run so well on a Windows 7 system.

From a CD I originally purchased about a decade ago, the installation was a standard affair, and a "DirectX Enumeration Failed" error was quickly resolved by simply modifying the properties of the shortcut to run the game in Windows 98/ME compatibility mode.  See?  Sometimes Microsoft knows what they're doing.  Funny how the game nags me to register with Interplay every time I launch it without a "never register" option.  Yeah, good luck with that!

The game itself ran relatively flawlessly, no apparent timing issue, although sometimes the interface lagged a bit when giving orders on the "war room" screen, something I attribute to a programming error because my CPU and video card were certainly far from taxed.  (They barely registered the game was running.)  Yet, this is a hard criticism to levy against a game whose timing algorithms were robust enough to be run without fault on a computer several-fold more powerful than they even wildly anticipated it'd be running on.

The graphics have dated.  The main characters in the cutscenes, Church and Walker, look like they're fresh out Thief: The Dark Project.  Despite that, the game doesn't look bad, just low in polygon-count and texture sizes, and I found I quickly got used to that and also the standard aspect monitor ratio that was standard at the time of its release.

Of course, it was not the technical limitations that had me riveted over the past couple days.  It was very solid game play married to a great plot.

These Are Hostile Waters

Contrary to a lot of pulp future fiction, things in Hostile Waters are going very, very well thanks to the invention to "The Creation Engine."  No, not that creation engine, but rather the name given to fictional nanotechnology that can be found on every street corner that freely allows access to whatever a person could want for free.  Widespread integration of this engine coincided with 2012 (the end of the Mayan Calendar being considered by someone even a decade ago when this was written) and this heralded a uplifting of society where they threw off the military industrial complex and then proceeded to make massive advances without all that meddling.  The game takes place in 2032, where world peace is a reality, and there's even nano-machines in the air granting a functional immortality.  (Apparently idle hands are a good thing.)

The Cabal: a finer collection of mustache twirlers you'll nary ever see.

So, basically, this game's plot is a terrifying nightmare for those who dislike the very thought of socialism.  Never fear, however, as it seems the old guard is looking to drag everybody back under binding arbitration of cold hard cash.  To these ends, they secreted away a bunch of military vehicles from the world disarmament and retreated to remote archipelago.  From there, they started firing missiles full of "dissemblers" that turn inhabitants of cities into puddles of protein in order to terrify the world populace into thinking the Cabal can save them from terrorists and thus turn over the keys to the world.  (This paragraph is probably the most feasible of the premises in this story - terrorism 101 - but I still wonder why the current leadership does not just reveal that these guys are the cause of the attacks.)

Naturally, it's your job to stop them, and to these ends you have the Antaeus, a cruiser that was sunk after "The Fundamentalist Wars" when humanity warred against and put down religion - oh, as if giving up capitalism wasn't edgy enough!  The carrier has been risen from the depths and possesses an integrated Creation Engine that lets you pretty much spawn whatever vehicles you have the blueprints and energy for.  Of course, since humanity is all very bad at warring now, we'll need to bring in some experts, and it turns out that the cruiser was using "soul catcher" technology to capture in silicon the minds of its finest fallen soldiers who are only too happy to pitch in.  (Don't you dare try spawning two of the same soldier at the time, though, or they'll reject the invasion of their individuality and try to kill each other... a pity the game doesn't allow you to try.)

Off you go, taking back islands from The Cabal with your mighty superweapon carrier for some 12 missions or so... and then things get complicated: it turns out that these Cabal have invented aliens.  This was done as one of many measures to terrify people into supporting the military industrial complex at the time, and now the alien bio matter is being used to impregnate Cabal machinery in order to make them deadlier.  (Never mind the feasibility of machinery working better when infected with bugs, that's just standard Sci-Fi.  However, last I checked, no earthly government has ever claimed to be able to offer effective protection against space-travel-capable extraterrestrials.)

"Lets put a government logo on that flying saucer being used as an unknown
bogeyman to get people to support the government.  What could go wrong?"

Naturally, the aliens waste no time in besting their creators, and before you know it your mission has changed from defeating the Cabal to beating the nasty aliens bred by idiots to destroy the human race.  Hey, if the aliens are so very awesome at evolving and adapting that they can threaten the human race after only being around for 50 years, maybe we should stand aside.  But no, it's the job of your revenant super carrier to save your awesome humankind utopia that can't even be bothered to send reinforcements (or even tell people why they're being melted by missile attacks) because they're so leery about getting involved in this dirty "war" business.

Sure, there's quite a few pretentious premises behind the story, but "evil old world leader council wars against utopia but ends up spawning faux alien menace that threatens humanity" is pretty awesome.  It's several steps above and beyond the call of duty for a video game story, and that's what you get when you hire a superstar renowned writer, Warren Ellis. Oh, and it's being voiced by professional actors including the renowned Tom Baker, Glynis Barber, and Paul Darrow.  Engage your suspension of disbelief and be floored.

Mechanics Are Timeless

Carrier Command (the 1988 original) was an inspiration of Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising, but they only kept part of the game mechanic.  Yes, you'll have a carrier of your own and it can spawn units of land and sea that you can equip with various load outs and do battle with.  However, unlike Carrier Command, your carrier does not actually move between island and island, colonizing as you go.  Instead, your carrier is an immobile fixture of scenario maps that are part of a campaign and traveling between them is merely the loading screen after winning each scenario.  While less dynamic in flow than Carrier Command, the advantage to Hostile Water's approach is that it provides an excellent platform for simulating unique happenings on each island, complete with scripted events and objectives.

Interestingly enough, there's an actual economy on each island that you are there to destroy: oil derricks pump energy, that energy fills fuel tanks, and the fuel tanks are used by factories produce enemies.  Were the NPC programmed to build bases on its own, it would be a full fledged real time strategy game that the NPC plays without you!  The quickest way to get through a scenario usually involves scouting out the oil derricks and taking them out, thereby preventing the NPCs from regenerating the energy they need to respawn the units that you have been destroying.  The slowest way is to hammer away at quite-durable production factories while under attack by enemy units.  Even stealth and intelligence is a factor, as enemies do not implicitly know where you are but rather react to each other's calls for reinforcements or your units being detected by radar outposts (which can be destroyed), scout last sightings of your forces, and go home if they turn up nothing.

The carrier under the player's control has a simpler economy.   Most metal objects can be atomized by your recycler vehicles and turned into energy, where it is miraculously teleported to your carrier's creation engine for use.  You can also send a chopper out to airlift scrap to the carrier where it is absorbed directly.  Another option is reabsorbing your existing units - your soul-catcher-derived crew don't seem to mind this one bit, even driving there themselves!  Absorbed energy is just a straight up number that you can instantly invest in creating new combat units out of.  You may want to restrict yourself to as many vehicles as you have "soul catcher chip" AI personalities to pilot, but you can also opt to have vehicles without AI that needs to be manually controlled.

The actual fighting is great fun, with plenty of targets to chew up and lots of cooperation between your various soul-catcher-equipped vehicles.   The AI of your crew is quite good, albeit susceptible to occasional pathing issues and biting off more than they can chew.  Fortunately, at any point you can jump into the vehicle and pilot it for them, and the crew members only sometimes complain about that.  Indeed, your crew member's wide vocabulary of canned comments only adds to the appeal of battle, albeit they're spammy bastards when there's a protracted bunch of fighting going on - so much for respecting comm silence in battle!

The winning tactic in combat is not very complicated, it goes something like this:
  • Always have your recycler out getting energy.   Escort it with a hovercraft equipped with a rocket launcher to defend against light threats, but don't deliberately send the recycler into harm's way, as there should be plenty of previous battle grounds to clean up.
  • As soon as it becomes available, have a warhammer artillery unit out front, as this will pretty much pulverize enemy base defenses before you're in range of them.  Escort it with a rocket launcher equipped unit to shoot down enemy aircraft.
  • In the event of stiff enemy resistance, throw more rocket launcher equipped escorts at it.  Rockets work just as well on ground units as they do air units, and several hovercraft should be adequate to destroy most enemy waves before they do lasting damage.
  • In the event of particularly nasty enemy resistance, as soon as it becomes available, bring along a repair unit or two.
  • In the event your crew seems to be wandering off and getting killed, back them off and order them to halt.  They will still fight enemies in range, but remain immobile.  A solid formation of halted crew members can put down pretty much anything but enemy artillery that is not being prioritized.
  • If you can run around back to scout out and destroy the enemy oil derricks, that will usually trivialize the scenario.
Unfortunately, the staggered technical progression of the game will prevent you from playing with all the toys the game gives you for very long.  I never bothered to use the player-controlled bomber, for example.  But this is not necessarily a bad thing, because the game ends before you get thoroughly bored with it.

I think the best units to use are probably the hovercraft, which can avoid most enemy fire (via strafing and ground cover) and are also quite durable.   Aircraft generally wander off and get themselves killed by anti-air units, and I ended up just putting a flamethrower on them and only brought in the air cavalry to hasten burning down the buildings once a base was secured.  Hovercraft are just a lot better at establishing a solid presence, and are at no real disadvantage versus deploying the landlocked tanks.

There is a glitch with the AI of the largest unit, the Behemoth tanks, which cause them to be focused on repairing/recycling or combat, but not both, often leaving them in a state where they refused to attack until they were attacked.   Immediately after issuing an order, they will fight everything in the immediate vicinity, so I suspect what's happening is their target lists are just not being refreshed while repairing or salvaging.  That's a pity, because the idea of cutting out the vulnerable, unarmed Scarab (the only other unit capable of repairing/cycling) was appealing.

This made the first mission I obtained the Behemoth rather difficult for me, because I used my resources to build three Behemoths (one recycler and two repairers) thinking it would be an invincible offense, only to have them slaughtered because they just kept on ignoring incoming bombers.  I shifted my production focus to more Shark hovertanks and the mission became a cakewalk, as the hovertanks only ever had to worry about combat and did a far better job of remembering to thin out enemies before they became a problem.   

Later, I found that a single repairing Behemoth being escorted by a backup repairing Scarab was all the combat support my hovercraft could want, and the resulting combined arms unit was more than sufficient overwhelm all threats in the game.  Consider this game beat.

Pity That Sequel Never Happened

Hostile Waters was well-worth revisiting, I've got that "just finished a great game" feeling I have not had in awhile.  Now, however, I'm back to waiting for XCOM: Enemy Unknown to release.  Hey, only 5 days, 7 hours to go.
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