Making Of: Hostile Waters

By Kieron Gillen on December 7th, 2007 at 3:03 pm.

[Another brilliant game which should have been massive – I recall describing it as the first great game of the new millennium, which will annoy anyone who’s anal over that Popular Millennium thing. In it I interview Julian Widdows, who I – when writing this – realise I haven’t seen for years. Where are you, Julian Widdows? Also, reading it reminds me of one great videogame lost artifact – the Multiplayer Patch for Hostile Waters, which was finished but never released. For God’s sake, someone – do the right thing and leak the bastard.]

Rage's games were all big on explosions. We miss them so.

Sometimes a game’s easy to sum up. For example… Hostile Waters: Lost Classic. There was a time, however that Hostile Waters was captured in a different way. That is, “Carrier Command for a New Millennia”, for that’s what it was. The idea of taking the ancient 80s classic, and riffing furiously off it was Rage’s Dave Percival and Andy Williams, but it was never turned out to be that simple or direct a tribute.

“You may argue, having played Hostile Waters, although you can see the seeds of that in there, it’s very different to Carrier Command,” says Project Manager Julian Widdows, now of Swordfish Studios, “It became clear to us pretty early on that updating it wasn’t going to work. It was a very quiet title.” Good point. While Carrier Command was based around two eponymous carriers and a massive series of islands, explored in a freeform manner, Hostile Waters was a level based Action/RTS hybrid and made good use of Rage’s famed explosion-code. It took a while to actually reach that point, however.

“One of the interesting things about making games is that at the moment there’s few people who differentiate research and development from games development,” Julian says, “We were very much in the R&D phase at the outset, while still having to develop a game on that technology. We were building a technology base, effectively”. The primary problem in this phase that Rage Birmingham, while experienced, had never actually made a strategy game before. “You can’t just reverse engineer other people’s games and make a carbon copy. That doesn’t create a great game,” Julian says, “Sure, it’s possible… but it’s certainly not the best way to go about designing a game”. This R&D state continued for just shy of two years, before amping up to a full – yet still slender – team of eleven people, after which it took almost another year and a quarter to bring it to retail.

The end of the great era in games known as 'We really like Lens Flare and can't get enough of it'. These dinosaurs are now extinct.

“We didn’t set out with the intention of having an extended pre-production title, but we were in a position where we were allowed to build the team up to what we needed in that period. In retrospect, rightly so: it would have increased the cost at the wrong time,” Julian argues, “With all the resources in the world, extended pre-prod is incredibly useful. You can actually work out what you need to know about the game you’re creating.”

Hostile Waters cross-genre basis also proved challenging. Balancing the action and strategy elements satisfactorily proved tricky. “At the time, games like Battlezone were being released, which were very much controlled from the first person,” Julian says, “You were one person, one vehicle. One thing we always wanted in Hostile was the ability to step back from the action. If you’re always in the first person, things get confusing in terms of knowing where all your units are. How do you know what all your units are doing? Audio cues aren’t sufficient. You need to have the ability to take stock of your situation and know where it’s going wrong. But we also wanted the very immediate, visual action where you could pull the trigger yourself, and it felt good. Killing people felt really good. We knew you wanted to be on the floor, looking at the action, feeling the enemy breathing down your front. That engaging dynamic of being engaged in the action”

Their solution, they knew, had to centre on the Carrier itself. This aquatic base was already responsible for the construction of your individual units, but perhaps it could find another purpose? “What if you could take stock of the situation in the carrier as well here, in another room?,” Julian adds rhetorically. This lead to a map and the ability to add way-points, select and move around units. However, this choice lead to a pivotal moment in the game’s development. “I think the key decision we made, and probably the most important thing we did, was to pause the game while you were in there,” Julian says, “This changes the dynamic of Hostile Waters immeasurably. You really can take stock. You can think carefully in a controlled and relaxed way what aspects of the game you’d like to focus on.”

No screenshots of choppers, would you believe it. Pah.

However, they didn’t want to reduce the game to a mere distant control. “We made it as simple and easy as possible to give orders to units in the game, so you didn’t have to go back to your carrier,” Julian says, “You could say “You – go over there”, and it worked and felt satisfying.” The balancing the two desires proved awkward. But, as Julian says, “It’s what made Hostile Waters unique in its way, is that you could really take control or take a back seat depending where you are. If you want it to be a good action/strategy title. The key thing is that it has to be fun to control the vehicle and pull the trigger, because if it’s not people won’t play it like that, and just play it like a strategy title… and that would have ruined it.”

Hostile Waters also brought in an external writer, in the form of the abrasively entertaining comic-writer Warren Ellis, which added much to the game fiction. “Our strength was designing games, not script-writing,” Julian states, “We wanted a high quality story, with cut-scenes as a reward for completing the level. We also knew the challenge for this would be that the story and the game are so closely entwined, it’s very difficult to keep the script current. You have to change it endlessly.” In other words, every time a level changed, the writer would have to rewrite something. Clearly this would be an impossibility in terms of having a writer on constant demand for months. The team hit a novel solution. “We had Warren write cinematics which had nothing to do with the main game narrative: he would do backstory about the world and the carrier,” Julian says, “William Burroughs had something called The Folding Technique, where he’d say you could take chapters and re-arrange them in any order, and it would still make sense. And you could argue whether that was actually true or not, but it was certainly true in Hostile’s cinematics. We wanted to tell the game narrative in the level, but do these ambitious, different cinematics for /completing/ a level. It wouldn’t patronise you by telling you what you’ve just done.”

The fact it was voiced by Tom Baker is another major tick in the plus column, as always.

In the end, Hostile Water’s critical success and commercial failure proved bittersweet. “We’re proud that we got it out… and we’re most proud that the people who bought it really, really liked it,” Julian says, “We got some phenomenal reviews. Including stuff like “The best game you’ve never played”. And still people show interest in the game. I hate saying this, even though I say it every single time, I know that deep down in our souls, we do this for one reason, which is to do good games that people enjoy playing. There’s not one of here who’s driving around in a Ferrari, or swimming pools or a harem of girls.”

However, despite its lack of success in terms of money, it wasn’t a loss, it was far from useless. “It did a huge amount of good – what it didn’t make back in money, it made back in reputation for the companies who were involved.” It was this groundwork which helped Rage Birmingham to reform as Swordfish Studios when Rage collapsed financially. “I wish we shipped with multiplayer,” Julian Widdow says, “Then Edge would have given it nine”. As it was, the publisher didn’t want to have a multiplayer game, despite the huge popularity of strategy-based multiplayer at the time. Not that, as it turns out it stopped them. “We did actually do a multiplayer patch, and there’s a LAN version of Hostile Waters which we completed. But we completed it the day Interplay went to the wall, who were distributing it… and it never got shipped.” Due to a complicated legal situation, it was never released.

Rage’s biggest regret about Hostile Waters and now ours too.

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84 Comments »

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  1. phuzz says:

    I remember playing a demo of this and loving it, where’s my best bet for picking up a copy now?

  2. Kieron Gillen says:

    In stock at amazon for a fiver.

    I admit, proofing this made me think I should dig out my copy.

    KG

  3. AbyssUK says:

    Another brilliant game which should have been massive :- Codename Eagle my friend Codename Eagle , nothing else came close to its mental multi-player, I loved that game so much.

  4. fluffy bunny says:

    I bought this a year ago or so, but could never get it to work. I think it was my GeForce it didn’t like.

  5. Kieron Gillen says:

    Abyss: Codename did get the second chance due to becoming Battlefield though.

    KG

  6. alco says:

    Utterly brilliant game.

    No mention of Tom Baker?

  7. Pete says:

    God yes. Loved this game, utterly top story, British sci-fi legends doing the VO, beautiful for the time (still is), and a wonderful mix of action and strategy. Sometimes retarded AI, but who the fuck cares given all the above?

    It was your review that put me onto it actually KG, cheers for that. Think I remember asking about the multiplayer patch a while back too, strange that it just vanished into the ether. SOME bugger must still have it somewhere, I’d love to play it.

  8. Kast says:

    Brilliant game. Got very fond memories.

    OK, that’s it – I’ve got to go back and play it all over again.

  9. Stick says:

    Excellent game and – to me – completely unique. (But I haven’t played CC or XCOM.) Would’ve been cool with just the mechanics of it, but the narrative and the characters pushed it into “highly memorable” territory.

    … there was code for multiplayer? Awww.

  10. phuzz says:

    Five pounds? For something written by Warren Ellis and voiced by Tom Baker?

    You could have made the entire post just the above info and I’d have been excited :)

    *bought*

  11. Kieron Gillen says:

    Both Ellis and Widdows have told me with great joy the stories about how fun it was doing a voice over session with Baker. He’s about as english eccentric as it gets.

    KG

  12. Hump says:

    @KG

    Yeah but you can’t wing-walk in Battlefield ;)

    re Hostile Waters:

    I thought it was a novel design but when I played it , it just never grabbed me. it was a nice step-up for Rage at the time though because up to that point their games were very simplistic and repetitive.

  13. Kast says:

    Oh, and I’d just like to mention my favourite ever unit bark (even including Starcraft and Warcraft series):

    Ransom: “Uh-huh… this is NOT a helicopter and this is NOT good!”

  14. Garth says:

    I’m really considering getting this, given the comments I’ve read. It will be hilarious should I , though, as I’m willing to bet the shipping cost will be greater than the item cost, heh.

  15. Muscrat says:

    Ahhh makes me happy I bought the game – heck I still have the manual and box.

    Fantastic game – though I never ended up finising it.
    Guess its time for a re-install :P

  16. Kieron Gillen says:

    Garth: While there’s no Budget US release, it seems, there’s a load of people on Ebay who are REALLY selling it dirt cheap. Like a couple of dollars cheap.

  17. Homunculus says:

    I’ve had the manual and overlay for this as a permanent feature on my desk (underneath an otherwise constantly changing pile of Other Stuff) for years now, and I can’t remember why.

  18. Theory says:

    I loved Hostile Waters so much I tried making an ill-advised HL2 mod of it. I can’t have been more than 15 at the time, bless my cotton socks.

    Disgracefully, the only cut-scene on YouTube is the Ransom one. Anyone with video capturing kit want to fix that?

  19. Stick says:

    Kast – oh yes, the unit barks. Banters. Bickers. General cursing and screaming. Patton had some great ones, too. (“Son, I drive tanks” and “God damn this war, I am not a nurse” spring to mind.)

  20. Jarmo says:

    I think a lot of missed sales could be attributed to the hideous, rat-poison-green package. I originally never even picked up the box in the shops as it looked so unappealing and uninteresting. Only when I ran across a really glowing review in the Finnish Pelit magazine did I give it a chance. Boy, was I glad I did. Lots of interesting things to do, with the freedom to do it in my own style.

    Finding treasure like this is reason enough alone to read the hobby magazines and web sites. The same thing just happened to me with Armageddon Empires. Another happy find, this time with the help of Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Thanks! And tanks for the memories (of Hostile Waters)!

  21. Kieron Gillen says:

    Jamro: Agreed, re: Box. I remember being horrified at it around the time.

    KG

  22. Garth says:

    Thanks Kieron, I may just pick one of these up. 7-8 bucks including shipping (for a game touted this much) is fine by me, heh.

  23. Sören Höglund says:

    “God damn this war, I am not a nurse” spring to mind.

    Oh, now I can’t help but remember how “Come to nurse Borden” made me feel all…funny inside.

    Brilliant game. I think it was its presence in the PC Gamer UK Top 100 that made me pick it up on the cheap a year or two after release. Best ten euros I ever spent.

  24. malkav11 says:

    Awesome, awesome game. And they may think not taking personal control ruins the game, but I prefer the hands-off approach to it myself, in most situations. Still a lot of fun, never been close to replicated.

    Ellis has done one other game that I know about – a fun little PS2 shooter called Cold Winter. It seems to have failed much like Hostile Waters did, although more understandably so. It’s probably one of the best PS2 shooters, but that’s really not saying a whole lot, to be honest. It’s fun, the action and levels are solid, kills are gory, and there’s a couple of mildly inventive game mechanics like getting your armor from dead enemies, with more wounds = less armor, or the underused invention system. But it doesn’t stand out from the pack the way Hostile Waters did.

  25. Kieron Gillen says:

    I believe Cold Winter was done by Swordfish, who were the Rage Birmingham Hostile Waters team.

    KG

  26. Marvin the Paranoid Android says:

    This game came with the first PC I had, I completely agree on it’s awesomeness.

    Also, the discovery of the cheat codes gave me enough incentive to play it through again. Anyone who’s playing it after reading this article: put “-setusupthebomb” as the command line parameter, press F8 for the console and try: “deydododatdohdontdeydoh” or “allyourbasearebelongtous”

  27. Simon says:

    A gametap/steam candidate then?

  28. malkav11 says:

    I wish.

    I own it, but for some mysterious reason (probably the fact that my CD drive isn’t the letter the game expects) it won’t recognize my legitimate CD – I’d much rather Gametap it than crack it. And it’d be a great thing to buy again off Steam for cheap, too.

  29. WCAYPAHWAT says:

    I remember playing the demo years ago, then wandering around looking for it in various shops for about 4 years. I was always sadly disappointed. Ebay it is then.

  30. Theory says:

    The IP is owned by Vivendi (or should I say Activision Blizzard?) now, so the chances of its appearance on Steam are slim.

  31. Miles says:

    I love this game. If the multiplayer patch ever does find it’s way into the world, I’ll be up for getting splodesored to smithereens by you Kieron.

    [Is it wrong that I think it’s the best thing Warren Ellis has ever done, though? It’s probably just me.]

  32. Sören Höglund says:

    Yes, it’s very, very wrong. It’s very nice writing, especially for a videogame, but it’s not close to being Ellis’ best work.

  33. Alasatyr says:

    My favourite part of this game wasn’t Tom Baker or even Warren Ellis. It was Paul Darrow and Glynis Barber. Close your eyes and you’re back in season 4 of Blake’s Seven.

  34. Kieron Gillen says:

    Julian Widdows has just mailed me. He lives! Hurrah.

    KG

  35. Dave P says:

    All the Hostile guys are reading this… ;0)

  36. Kieron Gillen says:

    Are the hostile guys friendly?

    KG

  37. Dave P says:

    By “Hostile” guys, I mean the dev team, not a bunch of angry men.

    Well mildly irritated perhaps. ;0)

  38. Dave P says:

    I’d love to do a sequal.

  39. Dave P says:

    Sequel even.

  40. Lachlan says:

    MP Patch! MP Patch! MP Patch!

    Hostile Waters was magnificent. Launching massive amphibious assaults while turning into your enemies’ horrified radio reports…cunningly shutting down an island’s radar and AA network with the sniping laser, before waving in your mighty air wing…decloaking in the middle of an enemy production site at night and then setting them all on fire….zooming in on the little people who wandered around the islands and thoughtfully putting your finger on the mouse button…

    My only quibble was that you never got much ammo for the carrier’s guns, but quiet use of the entire-tech-tree-and-infinite-carrier-ammo cheat made for an extremely fun replay session after completing it.

  41. matte_k says:

    this game was the second ever game i bought for my then new pc, on the strength of the demo. I lent it to a friend who’d never heard of it a few months back, and even he agreed it was one of the best games ever. Script, environment, game mechanics, voice acting and a neat little AI idea stolen from Rogue Trooper (the comic strip, not the game-years later that was) made for a fantastic session in front of the keyboard. And making the squad characters unique in many ways, Leon-lookalike Lazare, Patton being like his namesake, upper class twit Sinclair and that evil little recycler Kroker…dammit, i’m gonna go play it again (now where did i put it…)

    “i could kill you just by lookin at you”- Kroker

  42. Kast says:

    This past week I reinstalled HW and ended up mostly playing it at a LAN party. Having almost forgotten everything but the basics, I was pleasantly surprised to hear unfamiliar barks when I’d made new unit-AI combinations.

    Hearing the delightful Borden croon from within a repair Scarab is an unusually stimulating experience. Patton’s gruff complaints and cheers always brought a grin. Most of all, Church and Walker’s memories on their final acts of the war stir some dull ache within one’s heart.

    I don’t believe it would be hyperbolic to claim that Hostile Water’s voice characterisation was not surpassed until Half-Life 2.

  43. n0l0g0 says:

    Its my favourite PC game – ever! But I never completed it. Some sort of bug kicked in 75% of the way through that made the copters rotate constantly. Expecting to complete it sometime soon.

  44. Kast says:

    Note: I have FINALLY completed it – I always gave up through the painfully difficult final mission. What a setup for a sequal – what are the odds? :P How owns the IP?

  45. Dave P says:

    We do. That is Swordfish/Vivendi I believe.

  46. phuzz says:

    I did indeed buy it for a fiver from amazon and I’m slowly shooting my way through the missions, apart from the massive slowdown in the ops room making controlling units incredibly annoying (which I’ll assume is a driver issue) I’m enjoying it loads. It even distracted me from Zelda for a while…

  47. MadMart says:

    How do you do the command line thing for the cheat codes?
    This game is awsome, I’ve had it for a few years and I keep comming back to it.

  48. guster456 says:

    i love this game is a 10+ this is the game thaet is gold i hope it will apear a part 2 :)

  49. GuestZ says:

    Ditto on the cheat, i cant figure out how to do the -setusupthebomb command line
    can anyone walk us through the process?
    Also great game, i always get stuck on one mission, that is why im trying to cheat to continue on w the game

    • luvin-hw says:

      *Right-click the shortcut to HW. Make a COPY of the shortcut.
      *Right-click the copy of the second shortcut, select PROPERTIES. You should be
      looking at the “Target” box. It should say something like “C:\Program
      Files\Interplay\Rage\Hostile Waters\HW.EXE”
      *You add a space AFTER the end quote, then add the whole parameter
      -setusupthebomb
      “C:\Program
      Files\Interplay\Rage\Hostile Waters\HW.EXE” setusupthebomb

  50. Bursar says:

    If you play FPS’s with WASD then Hostile Waters is absolutely brilliant as all the ‘wingman’ commands are based around WASD key presses.

    The first time I played it I was using cursor keys in FPS’s and it never clicked. I came back to it after a couple of years during which i’d retrained myself to use WASD and it was phenomenal.

    Directing 3 or 4 wingman quickly and accurately whilst driving a vehicle yourself has never been done better in my opinion.