Friday, 12 September 2014

Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising (Video Game Review)

Before we truly get into the meat of this article there's something which needs to be commented upon: Someone on the development team was obviously a fanboy of British sci-fi. It's either that or they had one of the best casting teams ever attached to a project.

If you were to go into this, just booting up the game without looking up any new information, you might be a little surprised to hear Tom Barker's booming voice serving as the narrator. A little surprising to say the least, but this was from the early 2000s, and Baker had worked on a few video games in that time. Of course, then you see Warren Ellis' name being credited as the head writer, and in the following scene hear Paul Darrow and Glynis Barber discussing a new threat they face.

Yes, this is a title in which the Doctor as narrator, two members of Blake's 7 as your support team and the story written by the mastermind behind StormWatch. Throw in Grant Morrison or BRIAN BLESSED and Hostile Waters would be a one game British sci-fi convention. It also helps that along with this staggering amount of talent you get a fantastic real time strategy title.

The story behind this one is set in humanity's future, several decades ahead of now. Despite years of conflict, war and strife, the world has begun to fully advance into a utopian society. Having cast off the corporations, corrupt governments and warmongers of the last century, it seems at long last that peace might finally reign across the earth. However, old monsters do not die easily. United as a Cabal, the old remnants have united as a single force and are ready to try and take back the world they consider to be theirs, by force preferably. It is now up to a few chosen leaders to re-learn the ways of war and awaken the last of the adaptive cruisers from its watery resting place. A final war has begun, to decide whether Earth's future lies with the people or in a tyrant's fist.

Yeah, it's a Warren Ellis script. The guy might be good at writing, but he's not subtle and a lot of his old tropes appear here. Nanomachines are key to humanity's future, corporations are evil, governments are corrupt, conspiracies are afoot and the ending looks bleak. The presentation of the events building up to the end and the plot twist are a little played out by now, but Ellis still finds a way to keep them interesting with his own unique brand of futurism.

It's admittedly well handled for the most part and the presentation at least is interesting, but there are a few cutscenes which will leave you facepalming. The scene featuring the cabal in particular is so facepalmingly over the top that it simply can't be taken with even a smidgen of seriousness. That said, it still remains far more engaging and better written than what's traditionally found in many RTS games, save for the likes of Homeworld or a few others.

Still, the story here mainly serves to set up atmosphere, drive the tale along and to help justify missions. It's got substance, but it's still largely window dressing, so what are the mechanics like here? Inspired heavily by Carrier Command, you're given the opportunity to create, outfit and deploy multiple units at a time, choosing who pilots each one and what they are armed with. Half the time you control them via a map screen RTS style, pausing the combat and ordering each unit about as they attempt to complete their mission. The rest of the time you get into the thick of the fighting yourself, switching between craft at will.

Its overall style is somewhat akin to the old Battlezone series but it's also far more refined and streamlined. There's certainly no base building present here, you already have what you need, but the real tactical incentive comes from how you approach each mission in turn. For example, resource management is key as you need multiple collectors to scurry about, rooting through ruined buildings and chewing through the hulls of enemy vehicles. As your base is a floating assault carrier and there are no stockpiles of ore, you can't have these hang back and need to cover them in a gradually advancing blitzkrieg. 

This would normally be irritating to those preferring turtling tactics but the ability allowing you to pause, personally take control, and tailor make vehicles to your liking gives a new element. It means you can rely more upon personal skill and careful planning is hardly thrown out of the window, forcing you to keep going but never devolving into a chaotic rush. Even choosing the right pilot for the right job is key as giving them something they are skilled in will yield a damage multiplier.

The levels ease players into this new style with ease within just a few missions. The first few are breathers which gradually build up the enemies after introducing one mechanic after the other until you can start truly fighting. It's a smooth transition and that honestly goes for just about everything in the missions which follow. Several major twists take place, completely changing the nature of the game's big enemies or with exceptionally powerful new units rearing their ugly heads, but it never feels out of left field. This might sound like unnecessary praise, but anyone who has seen this go wrong with too many new elements thrown in at once will know how easily it can torpedo a promising title.

The controls for each vehicle, no matter if they are tracked, VTOL or supersonic jet, are all extremely responsive and easy to use from the start. Given how you are so often expected to take manual control of vehicles and the variety of weapons on hand this is especially welcoming, and it never feels too simplistic in spite of this fact. While you might hunger for a secondary weapon or want to develop some new method of fighting your way inland, this is quenched by the customisation system and the variety of vehicles on offer.

Now, despite this Hostile Waters does have a few notable shortcomings thanks to its age and a few poor design choices. The game's visuals have not aged well, that much is obvious just from looking at it, but that does go for almost anything of its era and at least the animations are fairly smooth with some decent textures. No, the real problems come from the game's set-up and certain gameplay elements.

You might notice the black bars present in each picture so far on this article, and each of those were generated by the game itself. You have to do a bit of fiddling about in order to get the screen right and deal with a few issues like the fact no one has joysticks anymore. It's only a small issue which should be obvious, but if you've become accustomed to most games working right off of the bat then it can catch you off guard. The more irritating problem is that you can't edit screensize or a lot of options in the game itself, and need to leave it each time until you get things right.

Still, that's only a minor qualm. A bigger problem is that there are a few obviously gamebreaking builds which can allow players to stroll through most missions. The really big one is using the cloaking device on the Puma and equipping it with a flamethrower. This will allow you to perform hit and run attacks at key resource locations at your leisure and there's few points which it really doesn't work. Even before getting the flamethrower it's still effective so long as you don't mind risking losing the vehicle, and even then they make excellent spotters for your carrier's guns. For a title with so many customisable options, it just seems like they should have spent more time ironing out the issues behind this specific combination.

The final issue, and perhaps the most irritating one, is that Hostile Waters seriously lacks much in the way of replay value. It's a single player title and you're only given little more than a dozen missions. While this will keep you entertained for the better part of a few hours, there was so much potential here for a great multiplayer or custom map system. The whole mechanic of customising and switching between units would have been fantastic for a skirmish mode title or something similar, and the lack of any options is simply baffling. It's simply lacking a key feature which has been such a major strength within the RTS genre for so long, and keeping it single player limits what could have been something revolutionary.

Despite these issues, is Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising? The answer is a resounding yes. For its price these days you will get far more than your money's worth, and even a single play through will keep you solidly entertained for a good few days of casual playing. It's streamlined, smart and engaging, and despite a few niggling issues the concepts behind it are fantastic. It honestly deserves more love and should be better known, and if you're at all interested by the premise or mechanics it's well worth a look. 

While the game is available on Steam and Green Man Gaming, your best bet for a great experience is to take a look at

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