Hostile Waters

Review - can the gameplay match the graphics in Rage's new action-strategy game?

- RageSystem Requirements - Pentium II 266 or equivalent 64Mb RAM 600Mb hard drive space (full install) 8Mb graphics card

The Story So Far

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Antaeus Rising, quite literally

It is the year 2032, and following a sudden outbreak of sanity the people of the world have overthrown their leaders and set up a global government which, miraculously, is not corrupt and self-interested. Instead it has rebuilt the world with cheap pollution-free energy and advanced nanotechnology with the ability to build anything from a lamb chop to a mile high skyscraper in a matter of seconds.

Of course, this being the action-strategy genre, such a world could make for a rather boring game. Thankfully for us the deposed leaders and corporations of the old world order have not gone away, but instead have been planning their revenge on the do-gooders. While the new government has spent the last two decades recycling its swords into ploughshares, the people they replaced have been developing devestating new weapons of war. As missiles rain down on the undefended utopian cities, it is up to you to take control of a salvaged hulk from the last great war, the carrier Antaeus, and explore a chain of islands which has just appeared in the south Pacific.

Although the storyline is rather cheesy and far-fetched at times (the chances of any imminent outbreak of sanity in this world are indistinguishably close to zero), it's supported by voice acting from a veritable who's who of BBC sci-fi series. The narrator is Tom Baker (formerly Dr Who), while your bosses back at headquarters are voiced by the actors behind Avon and Soo Lin in cult classic Blake's 7. Towards the end the developers seem to have run out of ideas, and a few of the cutscenes are hilariously poor space-fillers which would have been better left out, but apart from a few let downs the quality of the cinematics is generally very high, helping to suck you into the game.

You've Got Personality

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The tactical map

Hostile Waters is played on two levels. The first is a flat-shaded 3D tactical map which shows the terrain which you have explored and the location of your units. This is by far the simplest way of controlling your troops, using a straightforward point and click interface to tell them where to go or what to attack, with a waypointing system allowing you to give any unit up to eight orders to carry out sequentially. There are a host of more advanced options which become available as the game goes on, but most of these are only rarely used.

This screen also gives you access to the construction menu, where you can decide which types of vehicle to build and what weaponry and optional extras to equip them with. The Antaeus can construct units out of thin air with its nanobots, recycling whatever debris you can find (or create by blowing stuff up) into vehicles. These are then fitted with a Soulcatcher device containing the memories and personality of a dead soldier - like the man said, "war is hell". You can choose which personality to put into which vehicle, but as there is no way to view any stats or information to assess who is best for which role this tends to be rather hit and miss, and you generally won't know if you've made the right choice until the vehicle is built and the pilot starts to complain that "this is not my area of expertise".

Only a handful of personalities are available, which limits the size of your army to around ten units, and with individual faces and voice acting for each of them it does make things far more personal, and adds a lot of character to what is usually a genre of faceless cannon fodder. Unfortunately the chatter between the various soldiers soon starts to grate when you realise that they each only have a few comments to make but insist on talking to each other incessantly.

Gung Ho!

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Explosion overload!

While you are on the tactical screen the game is paused. This gives you plenty of time to plan out your actions, but your units will only start to carry out your orders once you switch back to the in-game view. Here you can watch the action from the carrier itself, or from a third person view locked behind any one of your units. This can be a little clumsy in a crowded area, but generally works fairly well.

While you can play the entire game by just sitting back and admiring the graphics, occasionally switching to the tactical map to give out orders, you're very much encouraged to jump in and get your hands dirty. You can take direct control over any of your units at any point, and as Soulcatcher devices are in short supply you will find that sometimes it pays to create units without one and control them yourself. This is particularly true for vehicles which are only rarely used, like cargo lifters and repair trucks. The controls are easy to use once you have had a little practice, and the traditional first person shooter combination of mouse and keyboard works surprisingly well for everything from helicopters to hovercraft.

Sometimes it is necessary to take control of your units whether you want to or not though, as the pathfinding AI is pitiful. On some of the more rugged islands your vehicles will often wander off in completely the wrong direction and frequently end up in the middle of an enemy base as a result. And because they are still trying to get to their destination they won't even fight back. Units also have an aversion to steep slopes, even when you can easily motor up them under manual control, and have a nasty tendency to get stuck on bits of debris and lose interest in enemies they don't have a direct line of sight to. This can lead to annoying situations where a hovertank sits just below the crest of a hill bobbing up and down without ever managing to target the helicopter which is hovering on the other side, or spends several seconds slowly circling around a shattered wall to get a clean shot at a target while being shot at by somebody else. This is irritating to say the least, and you know that something is badly wrong when attacking an enemy base with a single tank under your own control often proves far more effective than sending in an entire flotilla of AI-controlled vehicles.

Who's The Pacifist Here?

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Building a vehicle, yesterday

And sadly these problems extend to the enemy AI as well, which is remarkably passive for a revenge-obsessed junta of former world leaders. In a few of the harder missions it seems to have been scripted to throw everything it has at you, but most of the time it will just sit back and let you take down its production and resource areas one at a time without ever responding. Needless to say this doesn't make for much of a challenge, with boredom proving to be your main enemy in all too many of the missions.

There is enough variety in mission objectives to keep things from getting too repetitive, although it is only in the last half dozen missions that you get the most interesting units. For much of the game you are limited to a hover tank, a fast-moving scout buggy and a helicopter, plus a cargo lifter and a slow tracked vehicle which can be used for repairing your units or recycling debris, depending on what equipment you fit it with. Gradually you will build up a choice of about half a dozen weapons to choose from, as well as optional extras like cloaking devices and extra armour plating, but most of the time you will just go for the cheap but devestating close-range chaingun and as much armour as you can afford to bolt on.

The graphics and presentation on the other hand are first rate, as we have come to expect from Rage. Units are nicely detailed, explosions are truly spectacular, the in-game cutscenes are only marred by their terrible music, and the islands themselves are visually impressive, if rather unsuited to the lacklustre pathfinding abilities of your ground-based units.

Conclusion

Hostile Waters is an entertaining enough game, but it could have been a lot more. The poor AI makes playing it something of a chore at times, while the impressive graphics come at a high cost, and you will need a fast PC to get the most out of it. It is also fairly limited, lacking any of the quick play missions, random skirmishes or multiplayer options that most games in this genre sport.

There are suggestions on the official Hostile Waters website that some form of multiplayer support may be patched in later, but it's not entirely clear how this is going to work given that you spend much of your time staring at the tactical map with the action paused, something which is clearly not going to work very well online without some fairly drastic changes.

In the meantime though the twenty mission single player campaign should keep you busy for a week or two, and if you have 30 burning a hole in your wallet you could certainly do a lot worse than this.

7 / 10

Read the Eurogamer.net review policy Hostile Waters Gestalt Review - can the gameplay match the graphics in Rage's new action-strategy game? 2001-03-17T13:51:00+00:00 7 10

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