The Flare Path: In Cold Waters

A message for Mr. D. Jones Esquire. Over the next few weeks, thanks to unlikely-to-disappoint Cold War sub game Cold Waters [official site], your locker is going to see a lot of action. I strongly advise you to make space, grease hinges, and evict endangered echinoderms in readiness for the imminent deluge of mutilated missile frigates and battered boomers.

I spent yesterday playing Killerfish’s follow-up to Atlantic Fleet. Moored midway between Grognardia and Simulatia, Cold Waters is a single-unit wargame with sim pretensions. Players are entrusted with a US Navy nuclear-powered submarine of Skipjack, Thresher, Sturgeon, Narwhal, or Los Angeles class then thrust into the midst of one of two WW3 dynamic campaigns (1968 or 1984). Randomly generated missions give shape to these campaigns, but there are also opportunities for freelance predation. I’m mightily impressed with what I’ve seen so far.

The last post-WW2 sub game I played came with a spiralbound manual the size of a family Bible. Dangerous Waters took fewer prisoners than the 12th SS Panzer Division. The realism was awesome but hidden behind so many acronyms and meticulously simulated systems only determined souls got to fully appreciate it. Cold Waters is, thankfully, far more democratic. There’s complexity but 95% of it is tactical. Moving your vessel and using its weapons and sensors = child’s play.  Moving your vessel and using its weapons and sensors in such a way that you stay alive and slay the enemy = dashed tricky and totally engrossing.

Apart from a periscope view, there are no first-person views or traditional sub sim ‘stations’. The rudder, dive planes and ballast tanks are manipulated with key presses while the player ogles their SSN via an external camera or tracks its progress on an icon-sprinkled tactical display. A neat panel in the bottom-left of the screen provides succinct numerical information on sub status, and the positions and behaviour of currently selected targets and weapons. One in the bottom-right corner lets you load and program munitions, analyse target audio signatures, and oversee damage control. Nothing is more than a click away, and, thanks to consistently thoughtful interface design*, decent tutorials, and a useful embedded help system, nothing basic baffles for long.

*Hopefully, the one aberration, the potentially disastrous default binding for the R key, can be altered before release. I’ve now lost two subs by accidentally blowing ballast when I meant to reload torpedo tubes!

Cold Waters’ GUI might be lightweight compared with Dangerous Waters’ but its physics, sonar and environmental modelling are strong enough to bear direct comparison. Subs prowl waters stratified by vari-strength thermoclines and these layers have a profound effect on sound transmission. Putting a layer boundary between yourself and a foe is CW’s equivalent of crouching behind a tree or donning a ghillie suit. Of the alerts that pop up periodically in the message log “We’re cavitating, Sir!” is one of the most alarming. Indiscriminate bubble producers are often the first to die in subsurface skirmishes.

Not that silence is always golden. When push comes to shove and the enemy’s wire-guided torps start circling like excited spaniels, it sometimes pays to make a racket. A stationary noisemaker dispensed here, a screw-mimiking decoy torpedo fired there, and suddenly you’re alone again – free to slink away or double-back. Fans of CW touchstone Red Storm Rising will be pleased to learn that knuckles have made it into the remake/homage. When moving at speed it’s possible, through violent changes of rudder direction, to produce ‘knuckles’ of disturbed water that confuse pursuing torpedoes.

I suspect many CW customers will arrive with sub sim experience, but sub sim experience confined to WW2-vintage craft and weapons. This group is going to love the power and sophistication of modern sub munitions, especially those fielded in the 1984 campaign (in 1968, the USN were still using unguided torps to engage surface vessels). Wire-guided torpedos are generally fired at the first scent of a foe, and thanks to that umbilical link, can be manually configured and guided ‘in flight’. The trick is not snapping the wire through dramatic course changes before your tubular death-terrier is in a position to rely on its own target acquisition powers to close on its quarry.

The fact that I managed to ‘complete’ seven campaigns during my first day with the preview code, says far more about CW’s accomplished enemy AI and my incompetence than long-game longevity. In none of these campaigns did my whale worrier survive more than four sorties. Mostly my executioners have been sly Russian SSNs, but I’ve also been mauled by Bears and surface ships on occasion, and discovered what happens when a flustered 3000-ton bathybeast picks a fight with the seabed.

Encouragingly, my last campaign was my lengthiest and most successful. Apart from a SNAFU outside Arkhangelsk (I really should have read the manual section on TLAM targeting before trying to use Tomahawks for the first time) and the cock-up that ultimately doomed USS Bexhill-on-Sea (one of the aforementioned accidental ballast blows) I was doing rather well. A Soviet bid to land troops at Narvik had been disrupted, a hostile tanker fleet intercepted and damaged. Apart from an unsuccessful attempt to intercept a Red wolfpack in the Denmark Strait everything was going swimmingly.

Campaign engagements are the offspring of icon collisions on the North Atlantic campaign map, a portion of which is shown above. Once a mission is issued the player moves their sub in real-time to the objective with either right-click (fast) or left-click (cautious) movement, avoiding patrolling enemy aircraft and orbiting surveillance satellites en route. Sensible submariners will probably want to avoid contacts with extraneous hostile surface fleets too. How much you see of enemy movements is determined by the automated activity of friendly reconnaissance assets and by NATO’s strategically placed chains of underwater listening devices (the pale blue lines in the pic).

Shifting land force icons together with regular newspaper reports indicate the progress of the wider war, a wider war that seems to proceed slightly differently every time you play, and is, I understand, gently influenced by player success and failure. The need to repair and resupply back at base and unplanned encounters involving an opponent smart enough to use units in hunter-killer combos, should mean the steady drumbeat of randomly generated missions never becomes dreary. Although I’ve yet to experience one, apparently the sub hunting and ship sinking excursions are mixed in with a few stealthier outings. I’m looking forward to inching my way through my first minefield and delivering/collecting my first shore party.

Cold Waters – ETA: any day now – is looking remarkably strong, certainly strong enough to make the concerns I had regarding the single-unit focus and the failure to model crews in any form, seem foolish. Assuming pricing is sensible (All we know at the moment is that the game won’t be as ridiculously cheap as Atlantic Fleet) and bugs are scarce (In my day of play the only issue I encountered was a maritime patrol aircraft a bit over-zealous in its sub hunting duties) commercial success seems likely. Which is great news for anyone hungry for Soviet and British campaigns, and multiplayer – all features mentioned by Killerfish as possible patch/expansion pack content.

*       *       *

This way to the foxer


  1. peterako1989 says:

    Get your marines of sub ready! Hey Sonalysts, are you going to let this pass?!

  2. Faldrath says:

    Oof, this looks great. I liked Atlantic Fleet, despite being absolutely terrible at it, but I think I’ll enjoy this more (especially because I like commanding only one unit, I feel less bad for being absolutely terrible at it!).

    That first screenshot, though… must be one of the worst ways to die, trapped in a sunken submarine. Ugh.

  3. BobbyDylan says:

    As someone who spent waaaay too much time paying Seawolf back in the day, I’m very excited for this.

  4. DeadCanDance says:

    Very nice! I’m very excited for this, played silent hunter for endless hours. However I must respectfully demand a review when it surfaces, Tim.

  5. Stugle says:

    I thought “Dangerous Waters took fewer prisoners than the 12th SS Panzer Division” was a gem, but then I found “tubular death-terrier” and that is just awesome. Throw in the picture of the bathing Bear and it’s a sublimely written preview.

    Oh, and the discussion of the actual game isn’t too shabby, either. Cold Waters went onto my wishlist on the strength of your earlier writing and by the sound of it, it’ll come off when I buy, again based on your enthusiastic analysis. Thank you Tim!

    Of course, a final review would be most welcome, but it’s hard to see how things could turn out terribly different from what’s on display so far.

    • Tim Stone says:

      Thanks. My box of submarine and torpedo synonyms is now empty which will make Wot I Thinking Cold Waters tricky. If anyone has any spare ones I’d appreciate them.

  6. GernauMorat says:

    The Flare Path remains the best thing on RPS. I look forward to trying Cold Waters, although as someone who has not previously played any sub sims, I suspect it may take some learning.

  7. phlipy says:

    I am really looking forward to it having only fond memories of a youth wasted in parts to Silent Service, Hunt for Red Octobre, 688 Attack Sub and finally the formidable Red Storm Rising, which is also an entertwaining early tom Clancy book.

    Thank you for your article!

  8. wombat191 says:

    im really looking forward to that.. and it looks so pretty too :D

  9. celticdr says:

    As someone who grew up reading every Tom Clancy book I could get my hands on I have been looking forward to this game ever since it was announced – we haven’t had a decent (though I never got into Dangerous Waters) SSN-sim since Seawolf… really looking forward to the USSR DLC for this – I hope there’s a mission where I can defect my Typhoon class sub to the US ala Marko Ramius… I’m already practicing my Sean Connery Russian accent :)

  10. corinoco says:

    USS Bexhill-On-Sea? What was it armed with? Batter puddings? Wire-guided NAAFIs?

  11. Pravin Lal's Nuclear Arsenal says:

    “There’s complexity but 95% of it is tactical. Moving your vessel and using its weapons and sensors = child’s play. Moving your vessel and using its weapons and sensors in such a way that you stay alive and slay the enemy = dashed tricky and totally engrossing.”

    This right here is the reason why I’ll definitely buy Cold Waters. Way too many sims lose me with their obsessive attention to detail: I appreciate that there’s a market for that and I have nothing against people who enjoy it, but I applaud a design that keeps complexity in the interesting places and streamlines the uninteresting ones.
    I’ll stop ranting now and put Cold Waters in my wishlist.

  12. Stellar Duck says:

    I’ve been looking at screenshots and videos of it, but I can’t tell. Is it first person? I mean, do you get to be on the bridge or what have you like in Silent Hunter?

    • Stugle says:

      Hi Stellar Duck! It’s not first person. As far as I can tell, you have status screens (like the overview of the sub with different compartments that Tim posted), a plotting map, and a third person camera to track your sub or your targets. I suspect it looks a lot like Atlantic Fleet, just with a bit more detail to the various submarine sub-systems.

  13. hfm says:

    Man I played the snot out of Red Storm Rising on my C64 back when it came out. I think it’s probably still one of my all time favorite mil sim games. (A genre that I admittedly don’t pick up as my first or even second game choice).

  14. LewdPenguin says:

    Great to hear this seems to be living up to the promise hinted at previously on these pages, whilst I might well wait for a Wot I think before jumping in I have a fair bit of trust in Killerfish off the back of Atlantic Fleet to not screw this up.

    Speaking of which they seem to be becoming a bit of a studio to watch, I appreciate them wanting to avoid becoming pigeon-holed as a 1-game outfit so making this instead of continuing the *** Fleet series immediately which must have been tempting. As someone already mentioned they seem to get it right focusing on the fun complexities and difficulty whilst streamlining the less interesting stuff, if they can continue doing so, acorss somewhat varied game types to boot then the future seems bright for them.

  15. Gunnyhighway says:

    That is what the message about “Cold Waters” says of “Dangerous Waters”: “The last post-WW2 sub game I played came with a spiralbound manual the size of a family Bible. Dangerous Waters took fewer prisoners than the 12th SS Panzer Division. The realism was awesome but hidden behind so many acronyms and meticulously simulated systems only determined souls got to fully appreciate it. Cold Waters is, thankfully, far more democratic.”
    What “Democratic” means in that context?…What are the gains from comparing a 2004 sub game with a 2017 subgame not released yet?…The messenger likes “Arcade” games better, BUT to make appear “Cold Waters” as a better game, the message pulls down “Dangerous Waters”.
    The message that can’t assess a new game without comparing to an existing, much older game, to a prospecting client that would not have played or never played the former game, create an unhealthy dynamic that I find suspect and biased. Besides, the fact that I had to explain one of the developer of “Cold Waters” what a “Doppler effect” is, goes hand in hand with that message. Palm face for that suspect message from a landlubber, but I keep an open mind. As the message is not the game!!!!

    • hamilcarp says:

      “democratic” here is referring to CW’s supposed accessibility compared to DW. democracy is a system where everyone can participate. A democratic simmish wargame means it is easy for people other than sim nerds to get into.

  16. J.C. says:

    I can’t find any info if Cold Waters also will have a playable Russian campaign with a Submarine. That would definitely enhance replayability even more.

    My favorite historical, semi-historical, or what-if strategy games are always ones that let you play as any side. That’s why Combat Mission is one of my all time favorites having learned so much about the types of units used by various Nations.

  17. StuzaTheGreat says:

    I spent waaaaay too many hours playing RSR as a teenager, waiting for tapes to spool through until it found the bit of code it was looking for. Granted, we have HDD’s now but, this might be a little too addictive! :)

    I just hope it’s a better trip down memory lane than Elite: Dangerous.

  18. neotribe says:

    Well, Cold Waters came out. And I have to say, I’m not finding it nearly as satisfying as Tim did. It’s awfully simplistic. And it quickly becomes more tedious than engrossing given that the systems have no depth. As it were.