Skip to main content

The Flare Path: In Cold Waters

Refreshingly fathomable

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

Read this next