Cold Waters is a game that is trying to tread a fine line. Whilst it stumbles in some places, for the most part it’s a game that succeeds in what it sets out to do — even if the end result isn’t what some were expecting. You may know Killerfish Games from their last title Atlantic Fleet, a nice little turn based WW2 naval combat game. This time around, they’ve jumped forwards a few decades to the Cold War, or at least an alternate version of the Cold War where the US and the USSR got tired of simply eyeing each up from either side of the Fulda Gap and decided a good ol’ fashion conventional war was the only way to solve things.
Unlike Killerfish Games’ last foray, Cold Waters places you in command of only one vessel at a time. Specifically, a US Navy nuclear submarine of your choosing. The action is all played out in real time and you’ll be controlling your sub in third person throughout the entire duration. Unlike Silent Hunter, Sub Command or Dangerous Waters, individual stations (sonar, weapons control, conn and so on) are not simulated on screen. On the one hand, this cuts downs on the constant screen switching that often occurs in subsims but it also makes the game a lot less immersive. It’s here where one of Cold Waters make or break points lies in wait for it’s target audience: Killerfish Games haven’t made a hardcore subsim for die-hard fans of the genre nor were they ever intending to. Cold Waters is, for lack of a better term, an action sim (though it leans a little to sim than it does action) in the style of 1988 Microprose classic Red Storm Rising, which was based off the Tom Clancy novel of the same name.
Content-wise, you have two dynamic campaigns, some single missions and a group of tutorial missions that help explain the mechanics. Like most subsims, the tutorials only go so far explaining the game’s ins and outs, but luckily Cold Waters’ manual is available in game and it answered most questions I had. Whilst the single missions are a fun distraction, the real heart of the game lie in the campaign(s). You have the choice of beginning a career in alternate versions of both 1984 and 1968. Upon making your choice newspaper reports and World in Conflict style artwork will give you a rundown of how and why the world’s two biggest superpowers are now at war. Both campaigns take place in the same stretch of water, the North Atlantic, and are fairly similar. The key difference is that in the 1968 start you have less subs to choose from and due to the earlier time period sensors and engagement ranges are reduced, making it the harder of the two campaigns. After picking a sub and loading it up you’ll be given your first mission.
The campaign map gains points from me based on its simplistic visuals that easily convey information, but it loses a few of those points due to how you move around. You just click and drag your cursor in the direction you want your sub to move. It often feel a little unresponsive and maneuvering around land masses or through straits can be unnecessarily fiddly.
Once combat is initiated Cold Waters shows its depth. Whilst things like sonar haven’t been modelled to meticulous accuracy they serve well enough to be convincing. Players will have to keep an eye on things like thermal layers will obscure surface and submerged vessels from each other at a certain depth along with employing their subs various sensors to their full potential whilst also being aware of their drawbacks. For instance in one of my first mission I successfully located an enemy Victor class sub using active sonar and sank it with a wire guided torpedo. I’d forgotten though that active sonar has a shorter range than passive but can be detected from some distance away. I then had the joyful task of dodging two torpedoes before locating and sinking the November class sub that had fired them.
Torpedos and their modelling have to be one of Cold Waters’ high points and you have to be careful about not diving or turning to fast if don’t want to break their wires. For anyone reading who isn’t up on their sub knowledge wire guided torpedoes let you control them after they reach a certain preset waypoint. Torpedos can be fooled by noisemakers and smart piloting however. My proudest moment so far is when I managed to lure torpedo back towards the sub that fired before kicking off the engines to go silent and watching it sink its owner. Weapons as a whole are easy to use but take time to master. I have to say though that a few little tooltips explaining them in-game wouldn’t hurt. And would also stop me trying to use a TLAM on a Kanin DDG again.
Missions come in all shapes and sizes from hunter other subs, to inserting spec ops teams, to preying upon landing forces. For the most part their well balanced and I’ve yet to run into any that felt impossible or unreasonably difficult. That’s not to say you won’t be visiting Davy Jones a fair amount of times. Death will arrive swiftly and suddenly. I met most of fates at the hands of sub hunting surface groups.
Whilst in tactical combat you control your sub’s rudder, ballast, diving plans and speed manually and this leads to a bit of a double edged sword. During the delightfully intense moments when you’re conducting evasive maneuvers to outrun and outsmart torpedos it works quite effectively so long as you don’t get yourself turned around. However when you’re just trying to move into position or if you’re trying to do something else at the same time the controls become a little more cumbersome. I would’ve prefered two control modes one (like the current one) for evasive maneuvers and a second where you can simply set heading and depth like in Silent Hunter.
Cold Waters is a pretty enough game to look at though it does have its rough edges. Explosion can often look a little flat and lackluster for instance. For anyone running with an older or weaker machine though you’re in luck as Cold Waters runs on damn near anything. And due to the control scheme and general UI layout it can be played with touchpad and keyboard too, for anyone planning on playing it on the go (though it is a bit easier with a mouse).
At the end of the day, Cold Waters is a game I can’t help but enjoy. It definitely has it’s faults and some die-hards might be turned off by how simple it appears on the surface but like Atlantic Fleet the complexity hidden below provides a surprising amount of staying power. Due to how easy it is to dive into I would recommend it to anyone looking for gentler entry into the sub-sim genre and I would recommend to most people who are already fond of the genre to at least give it a try before writing it off.