Red Storm Rising is of course based on Tom Clancy's novel and puts you in charge of an American SSN submarine in the Norwegian Sea Theater with the overall role of a hunter killer performing various missions in the context of the global conflict described in the book representing a campaign.
As with the USS Chicago in the book, the game concentrates on the Norwegian Sea theater, placing you as captain of a single USN nuclear-powered submarine tasked to disrupt Soviet forces in the area between the Kola Peninsula and the Greenland-Iceland-UK barrier. Missions may include interdiction of tanker fleets, stopping amphibious landing forces, eliminating Soviet Wolf pack submarines and many others. The background story remains true to the book's plot but the final mission is always to prevent the Soviets from launching nuclear missiles by locating and eliminating their ballistic missile submarines.
You may choose any of four different timelines. Starting in the early 1980s limits you to Permit, Sturgeon or early Los-Angeles class submarines, but the Soviets have weak sonars, whereas starting in the late 1980s allows you to use the improved Los-Angeles class and even the new Seawolf subs. Weapons improve accordingly, with Tomahawk missiles and improved Mark 48 torpedoes included in later timelines but the Soviets begin deploying nuclear powered aircraft carriers and much better anti-submarine warfare ships.
No matter what timeline or which class of submarine you command, the ultimate goal remains the same: inflict as much damage as possible on the Soviets in the Norwegian Sea, thus allowing safe passage to supply convoys coming from America and preventing amphibious forces from conquering Norway and Iceland.
In order to make contact with enemy forces, you must navigate the sub in a map of the northern sea, depending on his sub's sensors as well as allied airplanes, satellites and SOSUS arrays to detect the Soviet forces. The speed and direction of closing in to make contact would be the initial speed and direction in the battle map
Once contact is achieved, the game turns into a crude graphic battle map where all units are displayed as small squares. While graphically inferior, the simplistic graphics are more than made up for by the tactical realism and intensity. Acquiring targets without being detected is not easy, as you are limited to using passive sonar and, if facing surface ships, ESM and periscopes. Use of active sonar and radar allows for easier target acquisition but would also reveal your own location, as it would in the real world. Different sound-convection patterns can make a difference as can the strength of the thermal layer. Although older boats have a hard time keeping up with the Los-Angeles class submarine, the more modern ones, particularly the Kirov, Kara and Kresta II cruisers and Alfa, Victor III and Sierra submarines can hold their own and in certain conditions prove more than a match for an unwary captain. Tactical considerations such as speed, approach vector, weapon selection and range of firing are all major factors in the success of an attack and a bad decision could lead you to being chased by four ships and a helicopter.
Success or failure of the missions impacts the progress of the war depicted by shifts in the front line on a simple map of Europe. If you fail in a mission then Soviet forces capture more territory, but if he succeeds then NATO is able to resist the Soviet attacks. In the course of the campaign you can gain rank and possibly earn medals as well. In the end of the war, a final score is calculated and you are awarded a post-war rank if NATO wins the war; this rank can vary from Commander to Admiral depending on how successful they have been in their missions. A poor performance in the game, particularly in the final mission, means that the Soviets win the war and you end up with the rank of Tov. (comrade), becoming a political prisoner in a communist-ruled America.
The highlight of Red Storm Rising is its dynamic campaign engine, which is capable to generate a random campaign on the fly. The campaign follows roughly the plot of the novel Red Storm Rising but the performance of your sub determines the outcome of the campaign and the type of the generated missions. The campaign engine generates a variety of missions.
In short Red Storm has a near perfect balance of realism and gameplay. It is no surprise that RSR is considered one of the best sub sims ever made.