Thoughts: Cold Waters

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Cold Waters is a game that certainly seems to know its audience. In the little headline box underneath the game logo on its Steam page, right where most other games would put a quick, attention-grabbing summary of what their game is about and why you should read further, developers Killerfish have instead written this, and only this:

Spiritual Successor to the Microprose Classic “Red Storm Rising”.

Now, on one level that sentence certainly does its job since it is a pitch-perfect description of the game to those who know what it’s actually talking about. Cold Waters is essentially a modern remake of Red Storm Rising with some added 3D bits that leverage the engine used by their previous game, Atlantic Fleet. On another, it’s totally meaningless to anyone who didn’t play Red Storm Rising, and so Killerfish are very deliberately targeting the overlap between “people who have played a submarine simulator that was released in 1988” and “people who are browsing Steam in 2018”.  If I had to guess I’d say that overlap would be very small, but it can’t be that small because, well, I’ve played Red Storm Rising. It’s a Microprose game. It was co-designed by Sid Meier. It had the obligatory brick-thick manual with all kinds of background information that went far above and beyond what you needed to actually play the game. Of course I’ve played Red Storm Rising. Assuming I’m not just an extremely odd outlier, perhaps I’m not giving Killerfish enough credit here. Maybe that marketing blurb is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. It certainly worked on me.

For those without experience of ancient sub simulators or the terrible Tom Clancy doorstops1 they’re based on, Red Storm Rising was conceived at a time just before the Soviet Union fell apart and the West was still very worried about Soviet armoured divisions suddenly pouring through the Fulda Gap and kicking off World War III. Red Storm Rising the book posits how this mid-’80s World War III would have played out across multiple theatres of battle (obviously because it’s Clancy writing it the Americans win at the end), but Red Storm Rising the game chose to focus on one theatre in particular: a conflict between the NATO and Soviet naval forces in the Norwegian Sea. At the time this was thought to have been a key element of any hypothetical WW3 since, given the overwhelming strength of the Soviet land forces (on paper, at least), the NATO armies would have crumpled pretty quickly without massive supplies of men and equipment from the United States. If the Soviet navy can disrupt those supplies, they win the land battle in Europe.

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You’re put in command of a US nuclear attack submarine and tasked with stopping this from happening, but Red Storm Rising has a somewhat more freeform structure than you might expect. Much of the game is spent looking at a map of the Norwegian Sea that also has Scandinavia and significant portions of northern Europe on it. Recon aircraft and satellites make regular overflights of the region and give you intermittent bearings on the positions of Soviet fleet elements, and you can set a course to intercept in real-time so that you can attempt to sink them in the tactical battle portion of the game. The very nice thing that Red Storm Rising did, though, and a big reason why it’s remembered so fondly, is that it directly tied your battle achievements to the wider war. All the time you’re staring at the map you can see the red tide of the Soviet forces gradually encroaching further and further into western Europe in real-time. If you screw up all your missions and give the Soviet navy free reign to do what they want, their land forces eventually reach the English Channel and NATO will capitulate. If on the other hand you manage to sink a few of their ships and submarines the Soviet army slows down as NATO resistance is stiffened by the supply convoys that have managed to make it through. Sink a lot of submarines, and the Soviet advance will stall or even be thrown back to its start point. Ultimately it’s all just tied to a player success number in the background that fires scripted events when it hits certain positive or negative points, but I — along with most people who played it — very much appreciated Red Storm Rising’s attempts to give some wider context to this number beyond “Win fifteen missions to win the war”.

The reason I just spent two paragraphs describing a thirty year-old game is because as far as the campaign is concerned Cold Waters is pretty much a direct copy. Everything that Red Storm Rising’s campaign does, Cold Waters’ campaign does also. It’s somehow a little less assured in its execution — instead of that inexorably creeping tide of red, Soviet progress is now represented by a series of static tank icons representing control over various regions that flip from blue to red (and vice versa) as control shifts from one side to the other — but these few changes that exist are comparatively minor; in terms of what you actually do in the game it plays out in the exact same way. You’re put in command of a US nuclear attack sub based out of Scotland; exactly what type of sub you’re commanding is something you pick at the start of the campaign, with the choice basically being between the older Sturgeon-class subs, the mainstay Los Angeles class, and the super high-tech Seawolf class. The Sturgeon is hard mode because it’s louder and slower; the Seawolf is easy mode because it’s faster and quieter and has a whopping eight torpedo tubes compared to the four on the Los Angeles and Sturgeon, presumably for when you really need that entire Soviet fleet in front of you to go away very quickly. You’re given a mission which usually has a time limit — sink a wolfpack of enemy submarines, stop a Spetznaz team from being delivered to a friendly coastline, conduct a cruise missile strike on a Soviet port etc. etc. — and from the glimpses of enemy ship positions afforded to you by the recon overflights and SOSUS sonar networks you have to guess at your target’s position, sail towards it and take it out, preferably while avoiding enemy anti-submarine patrols but also engaging any particularly juicy targets of opportunity along the way.

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When you arrive at your target and enter battle Cold Waters transitions to its tactical battle layer, which is a little different from how Red Storm Rising did it. The controls for your submarine are somewhat arcade-like, as you set the speed and use WASD to control the planes (up/down) and the rudder in the 3D view — this is the preferred view once you hear the first shout of “Torpedo in the water!” and have to do some hard maneuvering to dodge them, but until then there’s very little to look at as the undersea terrain is rather spartan, so you spend most of your time staring at the top-down sonar map, which is much closer to Red Storm Rising’s take. You might start a battle with a single faint sonar contact, but it’s far more likely that all you’ll have to work on is a last known bearing. This is a game that’s primarily about submarine warfare, after all, and submarines are very good at hiding, so your first order of business is to find the enemy so that you can maneuver into a favourable position to shoot at them.

To find enemy submarines you use your passive and active sonar. Active sonar sends out a loud sonar ping that’s very effective at giving you a bearing but also advertises your position to anyone nearby, so you only use it when you have no other options available. Passive sonar is safe since you’re just sitting there listening for enemy contacts, but if you’re travelling at high speed the propeller is going to create a lot of noise and make it much less effective, so much of the pre-battle search is spent creeping along at 5 knots trying to pick up just the faintest trace of their location. Once you have that you start building up a target profile; this is represented by the percentage accuracy of your targeting solution. A solution of 40% is no good at all, and you can see it’s no good as the target’s location pinballs all over the general vicinity. Any torpedo you fire at 40% accuracy will very likely be wasted, as you’ll be firing it at a ghost contact. To boost the accuracy higher you need to move closer and spend more time listening to the contact, both of which carry the risk of detection. A higher accuracy means a more precise contact location, and you can get the targeting solution to 85% the contact suddenly pops into clear focus with the exact location of the contact and their direction of travel.

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This marks the second phase of the hunt: getting into a good position for a torpedo attack. There are really only two good places to be when you’re firing a torpedo:

  • Behind the target. Submarine propellers blind all of your sonar when moving at high speed, but even when you’re sneaking along at a snail’s pace there’s still a blind spot behind you as your propeller churns up the water and creates turbulence. The same is true of enemy submarines; if you’re behind them they’re less likely to detect you, and there’s a chance they might not even hear the launch transient of your torpedo (which are ejected from the torpedo tube by a blast of compressed air) and will remain completely clueless until the moment the torpedo goes active.
  • A long way away from the target. This, again, reduces the chance that they’ll hear the launch transient, and also gives you plenty of time to react to any return fire.

It takes a lot of time to progress things to a point where you can launch a torpedo in Cold Waters. A lot of time. It takes time to acquire the contact (or contacts) in the first place. It takes time to build up an accurate enough solution to pinpoint their location. It takes time to maneuver into a good firing position without giving yourself away. And then, assuming that everything has gone smoothly, it even takes a couple of painstaking minutes for your torpedo to travel out to its planned activation point — this the point at which the torpedo will switch its target acquisition and homing stuff on, which has a surprisingly short range so you want it to be as close to the enemy sub as possible.  Consequently a lot of Cold Waters is basically just waiting around staring at the sonar map with time compression turned on, and even then it takes a long time to do anything. Hunting subs requires patience above all other things, and it’s very very easy to get bored during this process of repeatedly creeping and listening, creeping and listening, over and over.

And then your torpedo will go active, or (even worse) you’ll hear one that’s been launched at you go active, and everything goes straight to hell.

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It’s possible to sneak a torpedo in so that the target won’t ever hear it coming until just before it detonates, but this is rare. Much more likely is that they hear it the moment it goes active, or (worse) that they hear the torpedo launch transient, and this is bad because the very first thing you do as captain of a submarine that’s just had a torpedo fired at it is to fire one of your own back down the incoming torpedo bearing. You don’t particularly care if it hits or not, you just want that smug bastard sitting at the helm of the other submarine to have to spend the next two minutes of their lives engaged in evasive maneuvering instead of babysitting their torpedo in via the wire-guided controls – modern torpedoes and anti-tank missiles trail a very long spool of wire behind them that’s connected to a control unit at the launching end which can adjust the bearing via remote control, but if they’re maneuvering hard to avoid a torpedo they’ll probably break the wire. If the target submarine has any friends in the area who are in range then they’ll probably also fire their own torpedoes at what they think your likely location is, which is your cue to fire your own torpedoes back down those bearings. All of this means that about thirty seconds after your first torpedo goes active the immediate area around you is going to be absolutely jam-packed full of active torpedoes, all of which are searching for a target. And this is very, very bad for you, because modern torpedoes are so good at finding and killing their targets that they’re basically cheating2.

When a torpedo goes active it’ll switch on a very short range sonar that looks straight ahead of it in a 90 degree arc. If the torpedo can’t find anything in the immediate vicinity it’ll go into a search mode, which for sub-launched torpedoes usually means it swims forward in a zig-zagging pattern, constantly turning left and right so that it can sweep a wide area with its sonar.  If the torpedo can find something, or later on finds something in its search mode, it’ll lock on and relentlessly home in on it; they don’t have great turn speeds and can’t change depth all that quickly, so if you’re very, very good with those arcade submarine controls you might be able to dodge the torpedo in real-time, but this is risky. It’s safer to drop a noisemaker decoy that temporarily confuses the torpedo and causes it to go into countermeasure homing mode; this translates to “swim in a circle so that the noisemaker is gone by the time the torpedo is back on its original bearing”, which is usually the case. A noisemaker buys you a few seconds at best and it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to get out of range of the torpedo’s lateral sonar arc — however, torpedoes are not very good at looking up (or down), so a very rapid change in depth immediately after dropping the noisemaker might just shake it from your tail.

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It’s therefore possible to consistently evade a single torpedo. You’ll have to dial up your speed to maximum and do a bunch of hard turns and ballast blows to do it, which will cause a shitload of cavitation noise and advertise your position to anyone in the immediate vicinity who didn’t already have it, but it’s better than dying. If there’s two torpedoes coming for you on different bearings, though, you’re basically screwed. You might survive if you’re very lucky and very good with the submarine controls, but you can forget about continuing your attack on the enemy submarine group; more likely is that you’ll take at least one hit that cripples your submarine, so unless you’ve managed to dispose of all enemy vessels with your initial salvo you’ll be easy prey for their followup attacks. And that’s just the problems involved with fighting enemy submarines; you also have to contend with ASW destroyers (which have rocket-launched cluster depth charges), anti-sub aircraft that drop sonobuoys all around you to fence you in before following up by parachuting in a torpedo or two, and the dreaded helicopters which (as far as I can tell) don’t have any weapons of their own, but which come with a dipping sonar that they’ll use to tell everyone else where you are.

The absurd lethality of undersea combat puts Cold Waters in something of an awkward position. I don’t doubt that this depiction is accurate, but “accurate” doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as “fun to play”, and the sheer difficulty of evading enemy torpedoes turns a lot of the early encounters to a crapshoot: your torpedoes will usually kill them as the enemy sub AI doesn’t appear to be the sharpest at evasive maneuvers, but their return fire will often end up killing you a minute or two after the wrecked hull of the enemy sub has hit the sea floor. Learning the reliable methods of dodging single torpedoes via noisemakers and rapid depth change makes the outcome of one-on-one encounters a little more certain, but the problem here is that the undersea battles of Cold Waters are almost never one-on-one. It’s always you as the lone NATO sub versus an enemy wolfpack of submarines, or a nuclear missile submarine that’s guarded by attack subs and ASW destroyers, or a harbour patrol force that includes several cheap ASW frigates with support from ASW aircraft, and there aren’t all that many things you can do to even the odds. About the only thing I’ve found that works semi-repeatably is to fire off a MOSS decoy at the same time as my initial torpedo salvo — the MOSS trundles along at around 10 knots with the same acoustic signature as a submarine, so if you turn in the opposite direction and rig for ultra-quiet it can potentially draw off most of the return fire.

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Still, it’s a bit disheartening to spend fifteen or twenty minutes staring at a sonar plot while you set up your attack, only for the attack to fail in the two minutes of utter chaos following it because there was one more torpedo in the water than you could dodge, or that it was just coming in from an awkward angle while you were evading another one. The thing that really bugs me about Cold Waters’ submarine combat is that the iterative feedback loop of failure teaching you lessons about how (not) to play the game so that you do better on the next attempt doesn’t really work thanks to the heavily fragmented nature of what you see on the sonar plot. The immediate reason you died will always be obvious (you got hit by a torpedo) but the chain of events leading up to that point is hidden from you. For example, when I rig my sub for ultra-quiet I have no idea what trace I’m leaving on enemy sonar plots, and what this trace will look like versus when I’m thrashing the propeller at 25 knots and causing a lot of cavitation noise. Since I don’t really know what I look like to the enemy I don’t have any information that I can use to improve my method of approach; I don’t know what prompts them to start pinging away with their active sonar and why that’s different to the times I’ve been able to sneak up on them completely undetected. Equally it would be good to know, after an engagement, where the enemy subs actually were and compare that to where I thought they were, so that I can get some idea of how my sonar works.

Red Storm Rising partially got around this by having an after-action replay that showed you how the real engagement played out from start to finish, but — curiously for something that’s following the formula so faithfully — this is one part of its predecessor that Cold Waters fails to replicate. Consequently Cold Waters feels rather more impenetrable than it should do in spite of its supposed wargame-lite credentials. Submarine warfare is a complicated thing to learn, and the game does you absolutely no favours as you try to pick up the fundamentals; it boils down to a simple matter of trial-and-error, and this becomes more than a little bit wearing when the lead-in to each engagement is ten to twenty minutes of creeping about at 5 knots trying to get into a good position for an attack. It doesn’t help that there are some mission types that are nothing but creeping, with the cruise missile strikes requiring you to sneak close enough to an enemy port to launch your Tomahawks — this is effectively just twenty minutes of waiting around before you can leave the mission area, and it is criminally boring. It also doesn’t help that the numerous tutorials spend 100% of their time teaching you the controls, which is not the same thing as teaching you how to play the game. There’s a lengthy manual that you can bring up at any time by pressing F1 which I did appreciate, and which did go into more depth on several concepts like thermal ducts and the shadow zone, but there’s no information in there on how that translates to gameplay. (In practice it’s just being on the opposite side of the duct boundary from the enemy submarine.) For all of its supposed arcadey-ness, Cold Waters shares the common wargame flaw of absolutely sucking at telling you how to play it and making the alternate route of learning by doing prohibitively expensive.

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Cold Waters’ submarine combat therefore comes across as substantially more confusing and tiresome than it really should do. The developers clearly agree with me that there’s a great game concept in the submarine warfare of Red Storm Rising, but there’s always going to be a natural tension between making an accessible game and making a realistic/accurate one; while Red Storm Rising was perfectly prepared to hand the player entirely fictional weapons in order to make their lives a little easier (like a Stinger missile mast to get those irritating helicopters and airplanes to sod off), Cold Waters makes no such concessions and comes down far too heavily on the side of accuracy at the expense of gameplay. There are occasional flashes of what the game could be, when everything just works and you can take apart a wolfpack of enemy diesel submarines in a terrifically tense stealth engagement where they never even spot you, or when your knifefight with an ASW destroyer ends with you surfacing your heavily-damaged submarine less than a hundred metres off its stern and firing a pair of torpedoes at point-blank range to make sure of the kill. Unfortunately, for every one of those encounters you’ll get three where you’ll stalk a target for ten minutes and then a torpedo will come out of nowhere because somebody else detected you somehow, or you’ll have disposed of all of your floating opposition but still be unable to exit combat for a long time because of the single helicopter that’s buzzing around and won’t go away and that you can’t do anything about.

Which ultimately means that even for the game’s target audience Cold Waters is a bit of a dud. The campaign layer is perfectly fine, but then it should be seeing as it’s a direct copy of Red Storm Rising. As soon as Cold Waters tries to do something different in the tactical battle layer it comes unstuck; even the 3D graphics are far less of an asset than they should be because the only time you look at the 3D view is when you’re dodging torpedoes or manually guiding them into their targets, and that makes up less than 10% of each engagement. What at first appears to be the usual wargaming cruft quite quickly becomes deeply grating as you realise that you’re going to spend the vast majority of your time in the game just waiting around, and even the How-To videos from usually-reliable grognards on Youtube can’t do much to clear the fog of war that prevents Cold Waters from achieving more than a fraction of its potential. I liked Red Storm Rising and I find submarines inherently fascinating, and even I couldn’t put up with Cold Waters’ flaws for more than the length of a single campaign. Perhaps if you’re a real-life attack submarine commander it makes more sense; for the rest of us I think that while Cold Waters isn’t devoid of merit, the good parts aren’t good enough to be worth putting up with the numerous bad parts, and that Cold Waters doesn’t do nearly enough to prevent the patient stalking that’s characteristic of submarine warfare from bleeding over into unalloyed tedium.

  1. Red Storm Rising is actually the one half-decent book he wrote, by which I mean the multiple unrelated story threads mean it’s literally half of a decent book. The other half is just as bad as the rest of Clancy’s work.
  2. At least, according to the manufacturer’s specifications. I suspect the actual wartime performance of these things would be very different.
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