Dangerous Waters
Preview 8/4/04 by Tim Grab, SSR

Developer: Sonalysts Combat Simulations
Producer: TBA

SCS - DANGEROUS WATERS Raises the Bar on Modern Naval Simulations

            It's been nearly three years since the release of Sonalysts' Sub Command, the submarine simulation that gave us the capability to take the helm of three different modern nuclear submarines.  Prior to that, Sonalysts gave us 688(I) Hunter-Killer, arguably the most realistic subsim of its time, and Fleet Command, a tactical naval sim putting the player in control of entire task groups of naval ships and aircraft.  Up until recently, the capability to truly command and control both surface and subsurface naval units in the same simulation has been a figment of the sim community's imagination.

            With the announcement late last year of Sonalysts Combat Systems' latest title, Dangerous Waters, the community was abuzz with anticipation - “at long last, have our prayers been answered?”  We got our hands on a pre-release build of the new sim for a test-drive, and the answer seems to be a resounding YES!  Since the build we received was pre-beta, some of its features are still being “tweaked” and worked out, but there is more than enough functionality in this version to reveal a simulation that should capture and hold the interest of veterans and newbies alike.

            The old familiar platforms - the 688(I) Los Angeles class, the SSN-21 Seawolf class, and the Russian Akula class -  from Sub Command are still available to command.  Introduced to us in Dangerous Waters are the Russian Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine, the U.S. Navy's Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate, the MH-60 multi-mission helicopter, and the P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft.  In case you hadn't done the math, that's seven platforms, all simulated to the high degree of fidelity we've come to expect from Sonalysts.  Each platform contains the tactical stations you'll need as the commander to fully exploit the naval battlespace, with a competent Autocrew in place to let the player concentrate on the big picture of tactical command if he so desires.  Alternately, neophytes to naval simulation can turn on the Autocrew and play the game directly from the Navigation station, or NAV map, as they become familiar with the operation of each platform and its sensor and weapons capabilities.




The NAV Map and 3-D View

            Sonalysts has kept the Navigation interface familiar to players of Fleet Command and Sub Command, with a few new goodies added to make the station not only more immersive, but more functional.  Country borders (which, as an option, can be turned off) add to the realism of the sim by giving the player a better geographic reference than existed in Fleet Command and Sub Command.  The resolution of land and hydrographic features has been increased as well.  Functionally, the NAV map contains the same filters, drawing tools, and layers, but now the player has the ability to drop tracks right from the map, rather than having to go to the TMA station to do so, which is a plus, when you consider that the MH-60 and P-3 do not have TMA stations.  Since the surface, subsurface, and air platforms all communicate tactical information via datalink, the player also has the ability to promote new contacts to the link, informing other units in the battlespace of their presence.

            The 3-D view in Dangerous Waters is a real winner; the improvements over the previous Sonalysts titles are obvious.  The most obvious upgrade to the 3-D view is the water.  It really looks like an ocean this time around, and at higher sea states, can almost make you seasick (don't forget the Dramamine!).  Ships plowing through the ocean throw up realistic bow wakes - I cranked the FFG up to flank speed and was treated to a bone-in-the-teeth bow wake in the 3-D view -  and a persistent wake from the stern.  Reflections and shadows on the surface from the ships, aircraft, and even the sun are well detailed, and the level of detail of all of the graphics in Dangerous Waters is fully customizable to account for player tastes and PC performance.  You can even choose whether or not you wish to see land vegetation, which is a real plus for littoral operations.

            One of the most impressive sights I saw while playing this sim is the quality of the explosions when a weapon hits a target.  Gone are the simple fireballs of 688(I), Fleet Command and Sub Command; these explosions treat the player to flying debris and a shock wave visible both in the air and on and in the water, and the screen shakes with the force of the detonation.  Secondary explosions continue to throw debris, but the shock wave is limited to the initial weapon impact.  Explosions of submerged targets produce a fully three-dimensional spherical shock wave, which, if the explosion happens close enough to the surface, will create a wave and a plume on the surface of the water.

            Environmental conditions are well-modeled.  On some nights, the moon is even visible in the sky.  In one particular test mission, I sat at periscope depth while driving a Kilo-class submarine.  The weather topside was so inclement that the view to the horizon was nearly obscured by the overcast, fog, and high sea state – something that I can tell you, from real-world and game experience, is a major improvement over Sub Command.

            Another nice improvement:  if you look really closely, you can see the fully functional weapons tube doors on the playable submarines!


The Physics Model

            One thing that separates military sims from other games is the fidelity of the physics model.  Hardcore players are famously picky about how their platforms respond to gravity and course, speed, depth, and altitude changes, and will be pleased to discover that Sonalysts has improved the physics model in Dangerous Waters in comparison to its earlier efforts.  Submarines no longer cruise straight to ordered depth; they experience minor “excursions” beyond what you've ordered, and correct themselves in a timely fashion.  Neither do surface ships, submarines or aircraft turn or stop on a dime; when you order the FFG, for example, to execute a sharp turn, you can watch it heel over, slow down, and take a curving route to its new course.


The FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry Class

            By far the most complex of the new models introduced by Dangerous Waters is the FFG-7.  This ship bristles with sensors and weapons, as evidenced by the pre-mission loadout screen, and the number of stations available to the player can seem overwhelming.  My advice to the first-time FFG driver: let your Autocrew share some of the burden, at least while you're learning to drive the ship.  Almost every station has multiple views related to the functions available at that station.  As with Sub Command, cruising around stations in an attempt to do everything yourself can cause you to lose track of the big picture, until you gain some experience with the ship.

            One of the primary missions of the FFG-7 is anti-submarine warfare, and she is well-equipped for the task.  A combination of active and passive shipboard sensors, as well as offboard sonobuoys, give the commander a wide range of options in how he chooses to search for his submerged enemy.  (Correlating all the information available from these sensors can be a daunting task, but the Autocrew is quite competent, and Sonalysts has included detailed sections in the DW manual for sonar system operations.)  In addition to the hull-mounted active/passive array and the passive towed array, the FFG-7 also carries the DIFAR, DICASS, and VLAD sonobuoys, which can be deployed and left behind to detect contacts that might be out of the frigate's shipboard sensor range and will transmit the data back to the ship.  BTs (bathythermographic) buoys can also be deployed to get information on the ocean's acoustic conditions.  From the Acoustic station (one of three separate sonar stations on the ship, the other two being the Towed Array and Hull Sonar stations), you can control which buoy's data you want to see and the modes of operation of each buoy. 

            For collecting data on other types of contacts, the FFG is equipped with air and surface search radars (the only control the player has over these is to enable or disable them), an EW (electronic warfare) suite, and of course, the ol' Mk1 Mod0 eyeball, or lookouts.  You can even eyeball surface and air contacts yourself from the bridge wings, which provide a nearly 360-degree view around the ship, and binoculars to help you zoom in and visually classify contacts.

            Once you've got all the information you think you'll need on your tactical environment, you're going to want to start shooting.  The FFG-7 is equipped with the Mk46 and Mk50 torpedoes for attacking submerged targets, the Harpoon and SM-2 Standard missile for attacking surface and air targets (launched from the “one armed bandit” Mk13 launcher), a 76mm gun, and 50-caliber machine gun.  The controls at the Weapons Control, Weapons Coordinator, and Torpedo Control stations are largely straightforward and can be learned with a little effort while you let the Autocrew detect and track your contacts while you launch weapons.  The 50-caliber machine gun is controlled directly from the gun itself, which is a lot of fun when you've got small targets to take out.

            Maneuvering the ship can be done from the NAV Map (by setting waypoints), the menu bar at the bottom of the screen, or, if you want to helm the ship yourself, from the bridge station.  There are controls at the bridge for the rudder, engines, and APUs.  Also available at the bridge station are controls and indicators for authorizing flight operations for the helicopters, but the majority of control for such ops is at the ASTAC station.  At the ASTAC, you will launch the MH-60s, assign search, buoy, and weapons-drop waypoints, and control the status of the datalink.




The MH-60 Helicopter

            When controlled from the FFG-7, the MH-60 helicopter is essentially a valuable extension of the frigate's sensor and weapons capabilities.  However, when you fly the Seahawk, you become that extension.

            Having no experience with flight simulators myself (and no joystick!), I was restricted to ordering course, speed, and altitude changes from the menu bar.  Nevertheless, I often visited the pilot and ATO stations, not only for a look around at the outside world, but to deploy such sensors as the dipping sonar and MAD sensor.  If you do choose to fly the helo yourself, you have the option of using a joystick, or controlling it with the mouse using the throttle, course, and speed indicators. 

            The helo's sensor suite includes the aforementioned dipping sonar and MAD sensor, as well as radar, EW, and a store of sonobuoys.  The information from these buoys is processed at the Acoustic station, which is necessarily smaller than the station on the FFG, but also easier to see than the small “grams” at the FFG Acoustic station.  You still receive the same information from these buoys as the frigate does, but you can't monitor as many channels as the FFG. 

            The MAD sensor is probably best left to the Autocrew, unless you have a good idea where your target is and simply need to confirm his presence; it's also a bit of an adrenaline kick to hear the MAD/EW Autocrew shout “MAD! MAD! MAD!” when he has detected a submerged target!

            The dipping sonar is a capable and fun sensor to operate, but due to the operating parameters to which you must adhere while using it, it can be a little unnerving to hover vulnerably over one spot while you use it, especially in light of the new SAM capability given to all the playable subs!  The ATO station, as mentioned, contains the controls for deploying and retrieving the dipping sonar and MAD sensor, as well as controls for launching sonobuoys and weapons.

            All-in-all, the MH-60 is easier to control from a sensor and weapons standpoint than the FFG, and newbies and non-flight-simmers should find the platform relatively user-friendly and fun to play.


The P-3 Orion

            The other air platform modeled in Dangerous Waters is the P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft (MPA).  Being a larger platform than the MH-60, it has a larger Acoustic station, with 16 “gram” windows for processing sonobuoys information, as well as a larger weapons loadout.  Players can configure this loadout for a variety of missions, including ASW, ASUW, and Strike warfare.

            Sensors included on the P-3 include its stock of sonobuoys, an EW/MAD station, surface search radar (sorry, hardcore buffs, ISAR view not included), camera turret, and  lookouts.  The camera turret provides a 360-degree view of the surroundings beneath the plane, and has normal, LLLTV, infrared, and grayscale viewing modes.

            I found the P-3 to be a very capable ASW platform, although it was a little touchy to fly, even from the menu bar; you have to be more aware of flight dynamics when flying the P-3 than you are when flying the MH-60.  The increased number of channels available for monitoring at the Acoustic station allows the player to cover a lot of search area, and indeed, it is possible to fly out of range of some of your buoys; the P-3 is truly a long-range search platform.  You could conceivably drop a field of buoys in several different search areas, flying between and among the fields to check up on whether they've picked up a contact!

            ADDITIONAL AIRCRAFT NOTE: Both of the playable aircraft can land on or “board” just about any other object in the sim; this is especially good for certain types of objectives (rescue the ambassador, insert Spec Ops teams, etc).


The Kilo-class Submarine

            The newest addition to Sonalysts' submarine force is the Kilo-class submarine.  In the sim, the Russian and Chinese variants of the Kilo are both playable, though the only discernible differences between them are the weapons loadout and crew voices.

            Everything about the Kilo says “low-tech”, from the control interfaces to its capabilities, which, while certainly functional, also add to the immersion of driving an “old-style” diesel boat.  Also contributing to the atmosphere is the hum of the electric motors, which increases in volume as you crank up the turns.  As modeled in Dangerous Waters, the Kilo carries no towed array, has 12 weapon reloads, and only two automatic target trackers.  The sonar station is devoid of such niceties found on the Akula such as a SNR readout and “Cycle Contacts” button, and of course, every once in a while, you'll have to snorkel to recharge the batteries, which can turn your “hole in the water” into a noisy target of opportunity for your enemy.

            Commanding this submarine will be a challenge for veteran Sub Command skippers who are accustomed to having the latest in high-tech sensors and weaponry.  I got within 2 nautical miles of a Los Angeles-class sub in one test mission, and did not detect him until he went to flank speed in reaction to being shot at by another AI sub!  Additionally, the Kilo tends to cavitate at much lower speeds than the other boats in the game.  When running on batteries, however, the Kilo will truly become “acoustically invisible” and a capable skipper can prove to be a deadly diesel assassin when employing sound tactics.

       Considering the type of mission that the Kilo is intended for – littoral operations –  it should be more than capable of performing against older, noisier subs as well as making things difficult for surface shipping.  However, against modern nuclear subs, the Kilo skipper's best bet is to sit at a quiet 2 or 3 knots and let the other guy make the first mistake. For subsimmers who like a challenge, this will be the boat to drive; just watch your battery level!


Quick Missions and The Mission Editor

            The powerful Mission Editor we have come to know from Sub Command has even more features in Dangerous Waters.  Most notable are the Wind and Water regions, which increase the level of realism by allowing the mission creator to insert water currents and winds in their scenarios.  Other new features include:

  • Complete campaign functionality is included as a selection on the Editor's menu bar; no more editing your “editor.ini” file! 

  • The Goal Doctrine language, also formerly only available if you modified your “editor.ini” file, is now a standard feature in Dangerous Waters.  This Goal Doctrine enables goals to be dependent on the resolution of other goals, the detection of platforms, creation of dynamic elements, etc. When a goal/trigger is completed, it can create a dynamic group of objects (which may include other goals) or it may run a Script to invoke a sequence of actions or commands that can act on any object currently in the mission (Example: to damage a platform).

  • Scripting – This object is a series/sequence of events which will happen as designated by the mission designer. A script can be called by multiple goals (triggers) as the “post action” for those triggers. An example of a script would be “Change ROE” or “Alter Alliance” which are all feasible in the Scripting language (which looks very similar to the Goal Doctrine language).

  • Standalone aircraft can be added to scenarios without having to attach them to an airport.

            For those of you who are too lazy to create your own missions, can't download missions created by others (what? In the Internet Age?), can't figure out the Mission Editor, or just want a simple hunt-and-kill mission with minimal tasking, the Quick Mission generator is for you.  It lets you pick the type of platform you want to drive, the type of mission you want to play (ASW, ASUW, etc.) and the difficulty level of the mission, and in seconds, you will have a brand new scenario ready to play, no muss, no fuss!


To Crew or not to Crew

            One new addition to the Autocrew that naval simmers have been asking for is delivered in Dangerous Waters, and that is the Active Intercept Autocrew.  This crew seems to be reasonably accurate in plotting the positions of inbound torpedoes, which should make many virtual sub skippers very happy.  Like all the other Autocrewmen, this one can be toggled off by the player.

            Sonalysts gives us the same caveats for the Autocrew of Dangerous Waters that it did for Sub Command: they're good, but not perfect.  In fact, the documentation (which, like the sim itself, is still under development) gives a list of what the Autocrews for each station will and will not do, which means there are a number of tasks the player must perform whether Autocrew is used or not.  For example, the EW Autocrew will mark and update EW contacts, but it will not classify them.  Tasks like this can still give neophytes something to do that will make them feel like a part of the sim, while letting the Autocrew take care of the tasks they haven't quite got the hang of yet.

            Speaking of documentation, there are hundreds of pages of it.  Most of it is the familiar “knobology” type of manual, which tells the player how to operate each system and drive each platform, but there are distinct sections intended as training guides for Sonar and TMA functions.


The future...

            As stated at the start of this article, a few of the features promised for Dangerous Waters are not quite ready for prime-time; we haven't yet looked at the new Multiplayer features, and the submarines' SAM launchers don't quite work yet (or at least, I was not able to hit anything with them!).  However, from what we have seen in the development build of this upcoming sim, the future of modern naval simulation looks bright. 

Attention on Deck!  Dangerous Waters is on the horizon!


Also see:

Dangerous Waters forum

Dangerous Waters Dev Team interview





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