Strategy games seldom come with a premise more creative than "what if aliens?", or "what if robots?", or perhaps "what if alien robots?", and while this often works - their appeal tends to come from systems and details instead - it does leave a gap for more imaginative fair. Take, for example, Hostile Waters, Rage Games' 2001 release inspired by the 1988 naval/aerial action strategy hybrid Carrier Command.
The central premise of Hostile Waters' setting is essentially this: What if the Occupy movement had won?
Set in the distressingly near future of 2032, it immediately rejects the usual "near future" dystopia in favour of the precise opposite - an honest to god utopia. The people of the world rose up to overthrow the "old guard" - the greedy, megalomaniac bankers, politicians, and warmongers who held the world in check for so long - and via the wonders of nanotechnology, established a universally prosperous global society, free of poverty, disease, and war. It is, as narrator Tom Baker puts it, "a world gone sane". The year that they carried out this revolution? 2012. Chronology fans might have already noticed something spooky about all this.
Of course, the game proper kicks off when the old guard, known as the Cabal, reappear, launching missiles at an unsuspecting world, demanding to be put back in charge. The world, as a whole, has forgotten war, so the few who remember it resurrect a unique carrier to invade the island chain the Cabal are hiding in, shove their collective face in, and restore the world to peace and harmony.
That, of course, is where you come in. As the disembodied pilot/commander, your essence was captured on death in a "soul chip", and is now plugged into the carrier, which also doubles as a vehicle manufactory, allowing you to build and direct a fleet of smaller vehicles to gather resources and creatively ventilate the enemy. Additional soul chips, imbued with the personality and skills of other dead soldiers, can grant independence to any vehicle, each of which you can outfit as you like, and commandeer at any time.
Hostile Waters thusly used its setting to justify its central gameplay contrivance, but it achieved a lot more than that. It established meaningful stakes, exploiting real world concepts with almost alarming prescience. Rare it is that a strategy game has a more compelling motivation than "defeat everyone because you want to win", but here it's made clear exactly what the enemy are. They're not just pointlessly threatening to blow up the world, they're something far more insidious.
They're a group that's seen how happy and productive and equitable the world is without them, who have been proven beyond doubt to be absolutely bad for everyone but themselves, and they're still determined to force themselves back into power, just because they feel entitled to it. They're a human, social force personified, their evil proven not by threats of their presence, but by what the world has become in their absence. It's remarkably effective. Argue all you like about how realistic the setting is, but in the timeline of Hostile Waters it is beyond doubt that these people are evil and must be stopped.
The game achieves all of this with very economical storytelling. We never really see much of the world, busy as we are fighting to protect it. There's no need to show the Eiffel tower or Great Pyramid, nor to have the villain light a cigar with the first folio while jumping up and down on the last ebola vaccine. Instead, our first glimpse of utopia comes as our commanders, Walker and Church, bitterly reminisce about the war - the last war ever - and talk with horror and self-loathing about what it means to kill someone, even as they swear to do it again. They're not only our commanders, they're our link to the world - the main humans in the game, seeing as everyone else is a soul chip. The player, unnamed and literally bodiless as it is, is not the protagonist at all.
If the Cabal are the low animal brute we used to be, Walker and Church are the struggle and hope to grow beyond them, and the challenge of their reappearance is not only military; it's a personal, dark reflection of their own flaws. I'd be remiss if I didn't link to the defining moment of the game. It's through these characters that the game is elevated beyond its basic form of "gather and fight". Their low-key characterisation, courtesy of none other than Warren Ellis, makes the fight more personal and important than any of Starcraft's imperious rumblings (entertaining though they are) or the superficial cultural touchstones of Total War.
Finally, and least pretentiously of all... gosh, it's fun to blow stuff up yourself. I guess I'm more Cabal than I'd like. Because here's the thing about most strategy games: you don't do anything.
There comes a point in any job where I'm tired of researching things or solving problems. That's when I want to take a break with some filing or washing up, something tangible. To get my hands dirty. And let's face it, strategy games are essentially jobs. After a while, they get distant and repetitive, and you lose sight of what they're about. Hostile Waters understood that. You only have enough soul chips to drive a few vehicles, so you're encouraged to get stuck in everywhere. Coupled with the game's mix-and-match attitude to weapons and equipment (you can attach any weapon to any combat vehicle, and finding your own combinations of equipment, chassis, and pilot is about fun as much as efficiency. Want a helicopter with a flamethrower? Do it. A laser tank? It's yours. An EMP cannon on a cloaked chopper? What the hell!), there's always something to dig into.
Charging into the fray alongside your lackeys connects you with them in a way that's quite neglected in most games today. That personal relationship is often missing, as the fashion now is to turn every unit into a sack of stats to tediously pick through in an attempt to foster individuation. More often than not, this has the opposite effect. Units become sources of micromanagement and each fight becomes needlessly complex busywork, inducing apathy and resentment.
Hostile Waters has none of that. Each soldier has a personality and preferred vehicles and weapons, and crucially, they're right there next to you, reporting sightings, covering your back, complimenting and swearing and snarking with each other. You see nothing unless they do, and you'll soon learn who they are. Patton's all about the artillery. Borden's an all-rounder but loves her hovercraft. Sinclair is a liability, but stick him in a turret with a laser, and enemy aircraft will become convenient resource deliveries for your coffers.
I'm hesitant to reveal more about the troops, because I use them in different roles to the strategy guides, and I don't know whether that's because the guides are wrong, or because Korolev once swooped in with a glorious rocket barrage to save my neck and I've overvalued her as a pilot ever since. Though you'll hear it repeat ad infinitum, their vocal feedback is helpful, and while losing a vehicle costs resources, any "dead" troop can simply be loaded into another soul chip immediately, reducing the frustration and reluctance to risk a useful character that any Jagged Alliance veteran will recognise.
As is oddly common in games, the end of the first act sees an enemy base bloom into a bionic ... thing, kicking off a sudden lurch into an alien invasion story. Unusually, this twist works, raising the stakes thematically and developing your relationship with the villains. It works on a systemic level as well, by increasing the mission variety. Some missions lend themselves to slow scouting and probing followed by massed assaults, but the game is at its best during the alien-heavy missions where you struggle with constant pressure to hold and advance a front line, choosing how much of the logistics and the fighting and commando raids to entrust to your troops, and how much to do yourself.
Hostile Waters doesn't let you get bored. While the graphics are now lo-fi and the environments repetitive, its variety of toys and playstyles means there's always something else you could be doing. Let Ransom handle that defence and take a little downtime to manually hoover up resources. Sneak behind enemy lines to blow up radar towers. Systematically obliterate the whole enemy island, or have your troops swarm the main base while you fly in low and airlift the objective out.
It is unique among strategy games for its imaginative plot and sociopolitical theme, but it sacrifices nothing to achieve this, and remains a highly playable, criminally overlooked example of game design.