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Cold Waters
Sometimes you get what you need
June 10, 2017 by Neal Stevens


It's been a long dry spell since the last modern-era sub game. Dangerous Waters came out in... 2005? That can't be right, can it? That was like three presidents ago. Well, Dangerous Waters was an ambitious title from an experienced military contractor, Sonalysts, and the game set the bar for modern-era naval simulations. Is it possible for a new game to fill its shoes?

My answer is yes. Killerfish Games is a small but talented dev team that just released a sim that can hold its ground: Cold Waters. I liked KF's previous games; they started with Pacific Fleet, a pleasant mobile game, and then progressed to Atlantic Fleet, which was a turn-based mobile naval game that was ported with success to the PC. Now Cold Waters arrives with real time action all the way and that makes a real difference in the gameplay. Killerfish have spent nearly two years of time and money creating their latest game, billing it as the spiritual successor to Red Storm Rising, a game that many subsim vets remember fondly. And yes, the design stays true to its roots but delivers a lot more visual appeal that its 1988 predecessor.

AI Bot running SUBSIM, what could go wrong?!

The game has a set of evenly-paced tutorials to get you started, along with a decent help file and Operations Manual. You can print out a keyboard Quick Reference guide here.

Once you have a feel for the game, you may wish to tackle the single missions. There are 10 of them with the game underway from modders here at Subsim. The missions contain a generous dose of randomness to keep them replayable. Each time you start a mission, your ocean conditions (depth, surface ducts, thermal layers, weather) can change; the ships you face can vary in number, type, and location. Sometimes the enemy comes to you, sometimes there's a chase and you can't make the kill - your unseen adversary gets away. It's designed to make replaying the missions worthwhile and challenging.

And there's the campaign. Actually, two campaigns--one set in 1968 and one in 1984. Each campaign provides the player with the correct weapons and ships for that era and the AI tactics are adjusted based on historical research to make the enemy act properly with the tech he had for that time period. The story that unfolds is rich with atmosphere; news flashes update the player on the events of the conflict between the US and NATO and the Soviet Union. Artwork is first rate. The player is given a time-sensitive mission and then begins on a map of Western Europe and the areas of combat. Small plane and satellite icons whizz along, tanks stake out ground on the continent, ships and subs cross the map in accelerated time, giving you an impression of a busy world that you are a part of. You move your sub at two rates of speed; patrol speed (15 knots) or full speed (25 knots) to intercept enemy convoys, stake out areas to trap Soviet hunter/killer groups, and look for opportunities to fight your ship. Your encounters are dynamic; you will learn what you face when you make contact. You may start in an advantageous position or you may find the battle starting with the enemy holding an unhealthy advantage. But you're commanding an American nuclear fast attack sub, that's what they pay you for, so no whining.

The player navigates his sub through a 2D tactical map with the familiar naval icons and the 3D viewer. Contacts on the 2D tactical map are only as reliable as the sonar and visual detection can make them. The better your solution, the more you can count on a Kilo being where the map says it is. A small HUD exhibits the player's sub's speed, course, and depth, as well as the selected contact and the designated weapon. I would prefer the map to list the contacts by their NATO designation (Sierra 1, Sierra 2, Master 3, etc) even when a platform is identified, but I think Cold Waters is using the same naming convention as Red Storm Rising. This can get a little confusing when you have to cycle through three different Grisha contacts that are all labeled "Grisha". (Update 6/14/17: This has been improved with the v1.02 patch.)

You may not see an enemy in the 3D view if he has not been detected in the sonar suite or by visual contact in the scope. To deliver a better grasp of what is happening around you, the event camera will switch to action taking place that may affect you, such as an undetected ship launching a SS-N-14 Silex your way. The devs tell me "if you are running with 'hide low solution contacts' on it comes off working much like the hidden aliens in XCOM taking potshots at you." So be warned, there are aggressive enemies out there even if you have not detected them. Raise your periscope or ESM mast for too long or cavitate and you may get some event camera fun.

The user interface relies heavily on hot keys. Course and depth are managed solely by WASD keys. This was part of the game design. The idea is to require the player to manage manually and keep the player in constant touch with the sub's performance. You want to descend to 500 ft, you have to supervise that with care. While I understand what the devs were going for, a lot of players (myself included) feel it would be wise to include a helm station where the Captain can order periscope depth or a designated course and direct his attention to other matters, such as setting up for complex shots at a convoy or evading a multitude of vengeful torpedoes. Choices are a good thing and the devs are hard at work on an attractive solution.

New helm stations in the making

Unlike Sub Command or Dangerous Waters, in this game there are no dedicated TMA or fire control stations. If you found manually classifying sonar contacts and doing Target Motion Analysis too tedious, you will appreciate the approach Cold Waters employs. You do not have to struggle with the nuts and bolts of TMA and sonar, in Cold Waters you are the captain and your AI crew will do most of the pencil-whipping for you. If you want to get involved, you can help speed up a good solution by using the signature classification tools. But it's optional. You still have plenty of gameplay to manage by determining your course, depth, and speed and using the thermal layers to maintain a stealthy profile.

You do get a nice periscope station but you better be wise with how you use it. The enemy has radar and extensive use of the scope will be detected, as it should be. And the damage modeling can be pretty neat; I went to flank speed with the scope up and damaged it, I couldn't even lower it after that. The crew message scolded me and said the repairs could only be made in port.

The enemy ships will exhibit very sound and reasonable AI and tactics. I've been playing Cold Waters for a little over 26 hours and overall I am impressed with the logic that the game uses to conduct AI moves. Your own sub sound profile and range plays a significant role in the AI behavior. Enemies can detect your sub with active sonar if you allow one to close the range with you, no matter how stealthy and quiet you are. You have noisemakers, knuckles, and MOSS decoy torpedoes to counter the enemy with, but these cannot always save your skin.

If you launch a surface-breaking Harpoon, it will get picked up on the enemy radar and they will have a good sense of your location and deliver a missile-dropping torpedo to that spot. Enemy ships will shoot at Harpoons with high speed guns and chaff, so you are not guaranteed one missile, one kill, and would be advised to use salvos. The enemy doesn't like to swim any more than you do, they will defend themselves.

Enemy subs display a range of moves. If you fire a torpedo within an enemy sub's detection range, he will drop noisemakers and crank up his screws. Often they will rely on active sonar to keep you at a distance. Some Soviet subs are easy game to detect and classify, but others will evade your passive sensors until they launch a torpedo at you. Having easy prey and tough adversaries in a single mission really heightens the tension: you may find yourself in peril while concentrating on a noisy sub when a stealthy sub gets in your baffles for a kill shot.

When you set up for a torpedo attack, pay close attention to what kind of torps your boat is equipped with: MK16 are straight runners good for surface ships; MK37 are slow as hell and require point blank range, and the MK48 is the "yeah it will sink stuff "model. US subs do not get the SUBROC (attention modders!).

Cold Waters is extensively moddable; all of the vessels' characteristics are stored in text files. The developers took extra steps to keep a lot of the game files external to the Unity game engine. Subsim players have already started modding the game to add ships and missions.

The game has some areas that need tweaking; Soviet aircraft are too capable and persistent. Tu-142 Bear bombers will get called in on almost every mission, show up within seconds and zero in on you and make continuous passes (you can see the plane's shadow on the seabed), dropping sonar buoys and torpedoes. It would be better if this was a less frequent and pervasive threat. There is no way to pull up history in the message bar and there are no crew voices to inform you about changes in depth, course, passing layers, contact updates, but this will change in future updates (Can't wait to hear "Torpedo in the water!" in this game). It would be nice to see dead vessels stop emitting sonar signatures. And I have not encountered any neutral vessels yet. So yes, there are some areas for improvement but this game is good enough as it is to minimize nit-picking plus the developers have pledged to continue with improvements to this game (first patch could be the weekend of this review) and they are noted for follow-through.

Options: You can turn off the event camera for more realism and surprises. There are difficulty settings for Easy, Normal, Hard, and Elite (no auto-classification of targets); plus an option for scaling the speed of the game that should satisfy everyone who may think the game is too slow paced/too fast paced....using this they can get it just right. In-game time compression is also included.

The modeling is noteworthy. Over 40 planes, subs, ship, and missiles are included in the game and while some edges show they are all rendered in impressive detail. Hover over a Tango class sub and admire the masts, limber holes, vents, hatches and railings; Harpoons throw off a booster midflight; surface explosions are much more than fire and streaming bits of smoke--often there's a stunning flash that white-outs the screen for an instant, a really marvelous visual effect. The cut scene graphics are top notch, depicting undersea warfare and the struggle in Europe with the talented execution of a much larger production. Play Cold Waters with headphones and you will be delighted with a score that blends with underwater sounds, sonar pings, and sinking ship rumbles to form the perfect accompaniment to the visuals. It's tense and subtle without being intrusive. It's easy to see great care has gone into this game.

I found it a great pleasure to fire up this game again and again, to explore the depths and lock horns with the Soviet Navy. It's not intended as a direct replacement for Dangerous Waters or Sub Command but Cold Waters brings a new wave with an old flavor to a genre that has been dormant for too long and this is a moment all subsim enthusiasts can celebrate. This is not simply as case of being the only contender in the field, Cold Waters is a truly great game. Killerfish has a lot to be proud of. They've transitioned from a mobile game to a turn-based PC game, and now a fitting heir to Red Storm Rising and Fast Attack. And they hint that this is just the beginning, they have many other areas of naval warfare they would like to explore. They are really building momentum and it shows.

Developer: KillerFish Games

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Cold Waters discussion forum


Update June 14, 2017: Killerfish Games has been hard at work enhancing this game. See the link here for the patch report.

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See also:

Mods for Cold Waters
Cold Waters video
Tactics & Tips
What kind of subsim skipper are you? Sub skipper Quiz

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