‘Cold Waters’: First Impressions

© 2017 Killerfish Games

This is not a review. It is. as the title suggests, a first impressions blog post based on my limited experience with Cold Waters and contrasted with my more comprehensive one with its indirect “ancestor,” Red Storm Rising.

Recently, I bought a copy of Killerfish Games’ Cold Waters, a 2017 submarine simulation that puts you in command of a U.S. Navy nuclear-powered submarine during a hypothetical Cold War-gone hot conflict at sea. Created by the Adelaide (Australia) game studio behind Atlantic Fleet and the upcoming WWII-in-the-Pacific game War at Sea, Cold Waters is a 21st Century tip-of-the-hat to the Sid Meier-designed Red Storm Rising, a popular late ’80s game based on the 1986 WWIII novel by the late Tom Clancy.

Although it looks like a promo photo or a main title animation, this is an actual gameplay screenshot from the game. © 2017 Killerfish Games

As Cold Waters’ manual – which I just downloaded from Steam – says:

From 1947 until 1991 the world was gripped in the Cold War, an era of geopolitical tension accompanied by massive military expenditure and build up by the two major superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union. Thankfully the war failed to materialise, despite several close incidents, but what if it had?

Cold Waters puts you in that very situation as the commander of a nuclear submarine when the Cold War goes hot. Rather than focus on specific operational details of a submarine, Cold Waters puts you in the Commander’s chair where your tactical decisions will determine mission outcome and whether you and your crew return home. (Cold Waters manual, page 4)

“Conn, Sonar: New Contact, Bearing 0-4-0!”

“Conn, Sonar: Lost contact Sierra 3 bearing 5. Contact breaking up.” Mk.48 ADCAP torpedo hits a Soviet Don-class sub tender in the “Wire-Guided Torpedoes” training exercise. © 2017 Killerfish Games

I’ve only owned Cold Waters for two days, and I’ve just recently downloaded the manual from Steam, so I am not prepared to tackle anything beyond the Training missions or a Single Battle. I’ve learned a few of the basics, such as how to fire two types of torpedoes and anti-ship missiles, but I still need to take the tutorials for Navigation, Sensors and Masts, and Tactics and Damage before “really” going to war.

The Training options menu. The Training options menu.© 2017 Killerfish Games

Although Cold Waters boasts sophisticated graphics and an immersive sound design that blends music, sound effects, and voice acting that is light-years beyond anything that Sid Meier and his design team at the old MicroProse could achieve in the late 1980s, there is a lot of Red Storm Rising in its cyber-DNA. They both put you in command of fast attack boats in a Third World War that can take place in different time settings. They are designed in such a way that you go from Training to Single Battle to Campaign in incremental levels of difficulty and complexity. Lastly, both Cold Waters and Red Storm Rising try to strike a balance between realism and playability.

In 1988, this was state-of-the-art PC gaming. Don’t judge!

Obviously, Red Storm Rising‘s graphics and sound effects are primitive by early 21st Century standards. If Sid Meier, Arnold Hendricks, Ken Lagace, and the rest of the MicroProse Red Storm Rising team had had the tools available to Killerfish Games, their PC game based on the best-selling novel of the 1980s would have stood the test of time. For a 1988-era game, its now-pokey VGA graphics and 16-bit sound were state of the art, and I could suspend my disbelief while I was in my role as a submarine skipper, doing battle with the Soviet Navy in the Norwegian Sea.

Cold Waters‘ designers are fans of Red Storm Rising and even cite the game as a precursor to their own creation:

Inspired by the 1988 classic “Red Storm Rising”, command a nuclear submarine in a desperate attempt to prevent “mutually assured destruction” when the Cold War gets hot and WWIII begins.

Killerfish Games’ Cold Water product page
A Soviet ship explodes internally as it sinks. © 2017 Killerfish Games

So far, I’ve noticed that even though the look of the game and much of the game play itself are different, there have been many times in the 10 hours or so that I’ve devoted to Cold Waters where I see the influence of Red Storm Rising on the screen.

© 1988 MicroProse Software and Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd.

Remember the “newscasts” in Red Storm Rising that kept players updated on the Third World War and put them in the heat of Clancy’s fictional war between the Warsaw Pact and NATO?

Here’s the Cold Waters version of the news updates. © 2017 Killerfish Games
And the weapons control display has icons that look a lot like the ones in Red Storm Rising. ©2017 Killerfish Games.

As I recall, when I bought Red Storm Rising in the late 1980s, it took me about a week-and-a-half to learn how to play the game. Of course, this was during the years when you bought computer games either at a brick-and-mortar store or ordered it by mail, so you not only got the installation and game discs in a box, but also you were provided with a manual. I usually spent time reading the instructions on game play plus the technical data about my boats and their Soviet enemies, then I’d gradually play through Red Storm Rising by going through the two training scenarios (sub vs. sub and sub vs. surface warship), then playing each Single Engagement, and eventually undergoing the entire Campaign.

© 2017 Killerfish Games

Here, I’ve done things a bit differently; I started playing Cold Waters without the benefit of the manual, although the game is not so real-life complex that I’d actually need to join the U.S. Navy and earn a commission before playing it! The gameplay is – like most modern games – heavily reliant on the mouse (Red Storm Rising was a mostly-keyboard controlled game) and tends to be more cinematic than a real-world “see inside the subs” affair.

There are quite a few keyboard commands that players have to learn, especially when it comes to “camera viewpoints,” helm, depth, and weapons controls, and the boat’s status.

Here is where having the manual is helpful, especially if you don’t know how to give basic helm or speed orders to your crew.

Use Q and Z to adjust speed.
Your submarine’s speed can be adjusted in the following increments:

  • Back Emergency
  • All Stop
  • Ahead 1/3
  • Ahead 2/3
  • Ahead Standard
  • Ahead Full
  • Ahead Flank

And if you want to use a wire-guided torpedo, here are some of the steps you need to follow, per the manual:

Torpedoes on a wire have additional commands available:
Cut Wire: Use Shift 4 to cut the wire on this tube.
Activate Torpedo: Use 4 to set the torpedo into enabled mode, just as if it had reached its waypoint.
Edit Waypoint: LEFT CLICK (M) waypoint on either the Tactical Map or Mini-Map and RIGHT CLICK (N) to place it at the current mouse position. Only torpedoes on a wire that have not yet reached their waypoint and become activated can have their waypoint changed.
Steer Torpedo: Use Keypad 4 (Control A) and Keypad 6 (Control D) to manually change torpedo course.
Torpedo Depth: Use Keypad 5 (Control W) and Keypad 8 (Control S) to manually change torpedo depth.

In some ways, having experience in simulated sub warfare via Red Storm Rising has been helpful; many of the older game’s basic concepts are present in Cold Waters, The icons on the subs’ heads-up display look similar to those on Red Storm Rising control display window, especially those that show a target’s bearing, course, and speed.

Top: The Weapon Control screen from Red Storm Rising. Bottom: The Map Screen from Cold Waters. Note that the Cold Waters screen is more versatile, as it gives a commander more data visually. Note that Tube 1 is being reloaded with a UGM-84 Harpoon missile (in white).

So far, I’m enjoying Cold Waters. While it is not a total remake of the 1988 Red Storm Rising game, its designers were fans and incorporated a lot of callbacks to it in their 2017 underwater warfare game. It’s not insanely difficult like Gary Grigsby’s War in the West (a strategy game set in World War II that is so detail-obsessive that it almost requires a West Point education), but it’s still tough enough to master that you will need to at least download the manual and scan through it before attempting to go beyond the Training scenarios.

KA-BOOM! A Chinese cargo vessel explodes spectacularly after being hit by a torpedo fired from a Seawolf-class attack sub. (The three-boat Seawolf class has eight torpedo tubes, whereas older classes have only four. © 2017 Killerfish Games

I love the graphics; they are so cinematic and real-looking that you can almost smell the salty tang of the sea air in those exterior shots that show your missiles in flight or exploding, burning, and sinking enemy vessels on the cold waters. I’ve never had a sub simulation game that boasted the kind of graphics Killerfish Games’ programmers and artists have created for Cold Waters.

I also like the sound design; in Red Storm Rising you had only a few sound effects to enhance the somewhat cartoony graphics – engine noises, the “pings” of active sonars, the “toilet flush” sound of deployed noisemakers, and the nerve-racking womp-womp-womp-womp sound of hovering Soviet ASW helos (usually Ka-25 Hormones or Ka-27 Helixes) overhead, but no voices. (Silent Service II, MicroProse’s next sub game, featured a few digitized voices, but I would not own that game until 1992 or so.)

© 2017 Killerfish Games

Here, you don’t see your crew, not even in cutscenes, but you do hear them. The crewman you hear most often is the sonar operator; he’s the guy that says “Conn, Sonar: New contact bearing 0-1-0. Designating contact as Sierra One…” and whatnot. The Weapons officer and Chief Engineer are also heard, especially when torpedoes and missiles are in use or if your boat is hit and damaged by the Russian or Chinese enemies in Cold Waters. Each member of the crew is played by a different voice actor, so even though their tones are usually clipped and controlled, their voices are distinct enough so you can tell who is speaking. (Although, to be fair, the game also has a “log” of the messages in text, which often have more info than the aural prompts from your crew.)

© 2017 Killerfish Games

Cold Waters so far seems to be a fun and immersive submarine game that lives up to its designers’ concept of being the “spiritual successor to the MicroProse classic Red Storm Rising. It is visually striking, and even though it takes liberties with many aspects of modern submarine warfare, such as the pace of a submarine battle or the processes involved in acquiring, identifying, and engaging the enemy, in order to give players an approximation of naval tactics while still making the game, well, playable. I’ve enjoyed trying it out and learning how to play Cold Waters, and I look forward to giving my readers a more complete review soon.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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