Big Steaming Pile – Cold Waters

Much like penguins and the Trabant, submarines are something I have a deep fascination of for reasons that I can’t really quantify.

Maybe it’s the curiosity factor of being stuck in a windowless tube for months on end, maybe it’s the idea of a ship whose entire purpose is to sink beneath the surface, I don’t know, but you can bet if I stumble upon a documentary about submarines or a movie like The Hunt for Red October or U-571, I’m going to be glued to the couch. And over the years, there have been a number of classic sub-based video games, like 688 Attack Sub or Red Storm Rising, both games that went above and beyond to bring the science of submarine warfare to the player, which brings us to today’s piece of the Big Steaming Pile, Cold Waters, by the aptly-named Killerfish Games.

Cold Waters puts you at the helm of a number of real-life American submarines that saw service between the late 1960s and the turn of the 21st Century. The meat of the game is the Campaign Mode, where you can participate in one of three fictional conflicts, two NATO vs. Warsaw Pact scenarios (one in 1968 and the other in 1984) and a newly released campaign taking place in 2000 in the South China Sea where you square off against the navy of the People’s Republic. The campaigns have aspiring sub drivers performing a litany of missions, like intercepting convoys of supplies needed for the enemy war effort on the ground, hunting wolfpacks of attack subs, trying to locate and destroy elusive enemy ballistic missile subs, to taking the fight to the enemy by closing in on enemy naval installations and bombarding them with cruise missiles. In a nice touch, instead of just being handed these missions in a predetermined linear fashion, you basically draw them at random, and you’ll have to sail to certain locations on the map to await the enemy or intercept them before they reach their destination. Not only that, but not every enemy ship you encounter is your objective; there are plenty of chance encounters along the way you might find yourself in before you reach your destination. Also, you don’t get a fresh batch of weapons and a perfectly repaired boat every mission; you’ll be sent out on multiple ops with a finite amount of supplies, and can only re-up (which means having to steam from wherever you are all the way back to home port at Holy Loch, Scotland) when fleet command allows you to do so. Despite being only a single sub in a vast ocean, you still have a great deal of influence over the outcome of the overall war; perform well and you’ll begin receiving reports that the war is going well for your side, fail missions and the enemy will take the initiative back, if not clinch victory outright.

I think that’s a kill, skipper.

Now, before going off to buy this right away, you should know that this is not a casual game by any stretch of the imagination. This is very much an in-depth simulation of submarine and anti-submarine warfare, and even the “Casual” difficulty level requires you to have a basic understanding of what is going on out there and the capabilities and limitations of your vessel if you want to survive. To that end, the game does feature a very competent tutorial, not just explaining in-game terms that you need to know and be mindful of, but also the real-world rationale behind the game’s concepts. For example, while you might think that submarines search for enemies by banging away with sonar pulses and waiting for returns, this is very much not the case, as “active” sonar can give away your presence as much as it can that of the target ship and any escorts. Instead you’ll be more reliant on “passive” sonar, listening for the propulsion noises and transient sounds of potential contacts. Each kind of contact, from whale colonies to merchant ships to enemy attack subs, makes a signature noise, and if you can match the contact signature to one of the list of known acoustic fingerprints yourself, you can identify what you’re up against faster and more definitively than relying on your sonar crew.

Indeed, no stone was unturned in the quest for a realistic submarine experience here. Aside from the aforementioned passive sonar, you’ll learn how to utilize convergence zones to detect and range contacts, isothermal layers to help camouflage yourself from enemies to evade them or get the drop on them, your sub’s maneuverability and deployable countermeasures to escape incoming torpedoes, and wire-guided torpedoes that you can manually control as long as they’re tethered to you. While this seems like a lot to learn, and indeed, it is, once you get familiar with the mechanics of the game and the concepts of submarine tactics, you can actually get quite creative in the way your prosecute contacts. Facing a group of enemy attack subs escorting a critical surface ship? Poke your head above the layer, fire off a mobile submarine simulator, and duck back below the layer to pursue your quarry while the wolves go on a wild goose chase. Want to ambush that Alfa that can outrun your torpedoes in a straight chase? Launch one away from him, use the wire guides to turn it back into his path, and then wait for him to foolishly evade right into your real line of fire. Oh, and in case you were curious, the “you’ve killed us!” tactic from the end of The Hunt for Red October? IT TOTALLY WORKS HERE.

Nowhere to run for you, comrade.

I do have some minor complaints here, as well as one major one. While Cold Waters looks and sounds great, you really won’t have all that much reason to look at it; most of your attention will be either drawn to the various command stations of your sub or the command map that lets you know where you are in relation to other contacts and shows you a record of where you and they have moved from since you’ve been tracking them, so while it’s fun to lock the camera onto your torpedo and watch it relentlessly pursue its target, it’s not really recommended you do so unless you’re positive that’s pretty much the last bit of opposition around and it’s not likely to shoot back at you. There are a lot of controls you’ll have to learn, as well, and while the learning curve is far from insurmountable, if you put this game down for a couple weeks and go back to it later, you might have to re-learn what does what almost from scratch before you can hop back into your campaign. Sadly, you can’t participate in the campaigns from the Soviet/Chinese perspectives, which is kinda disappointing if you wanted to take the reigns of a Soviet Alfa and terrorize the North Atlantic in the world’s fastest submarine. But my biggest issue, though, is the price. Cold Waters, as far as I can imagine, only appeals to people with an above-average interest in submarines, and the regular $39.99 price tag means you’d better damn sure be intrigued by the subject matter before you take the plunge; this isn’t something you’re likely to pick up on a whim unless you have a lot of disposable income, so not all that many people are likely to scoop this one up, which is kind of a shame.

That said, if you do have an above-average interest in submarine warfare, especially if you’re a veteran of games like Red Storm Rising or SSN-21 Seawolf, Cold Waters definitely takes the baton from those classic sub sims and runs with it. The lower difficulty levels are ideal for those who want a taste of realistic submarine action without needing a degree from Annapolis, and the higher difficulties are more than capable of challenging seasoned armchair admirals. It is a bit cost-prohibitive, to be sure, but if you’re looking for the definitive modern experience of serving beneath the waves, this is the way to go. Whether you’re the kind of person who knows what the baffles are or you just really enjoyed Das Boot, Cold Waters is the game for you.

Current Price – $39.99

Is It Worth It? – Unless you are REALLY into submarines, probably not, and this one doesn’t even come down that much in price during Steam Sales.