It is with trepidation I descend through the hatch into the confines of a review for a simulation game.
Down here the crew members are a tight knit group that know each other and are wary of outsiders. They are the sub-simmers and they have been playing Silent Hunter games for a good decade now.
If you pardon the pun, I feel a little out of my depth. Simulation gamers are usually a passionate lot, within their own sub-genre (I promise the poor puns will end) and can be even further categorized into being very specific in the types of simulations they play.
Despite this passion, they are also forgiving souls, seeing the hardship of bugs, or technical annoyances as merely par for the PC simulator course, and a hurdle to be overcome as part of the experience of playing a hard-core simulator.
So we come to Silent Hunter 5, our first underwater mission for three years, and a package that ups the ante in watery graphics as well as the ability (for the first time in the series) to tread the decks of your U-Boat and dock in first person mode. Whilst a little clunky, it is amazing just how much further this adds to the ambient experience of being caught in a vulnerable tin-can during WWII.
A new SH5 devotee needs to contend with a significant learning curve, and don’t expect the game to help you out much, the initial campaign mission teaches nothing more than how to press the fire button, and not much beyond that. Want to plot a firing solution? Or work that Hydrophone? Then good luck. Your best bet is to hit the forums for hints and advice from those that can tell a type VII A U-boat from a type VII C.
So once you have worked out which pointy end is the front, and that going underwater with the hatch open is not such a hot idea, it is time to hit the campaign trail. Unlike previous iterations, SH5’s campaign will ask more specifics of a U-Boat captain than simply “zink the damn Englanders!”
With patrol routes mixed in with specific targets or defence missions, there is plenty to do, and with success of failure the tide of the wider conflict will shift. Sink those merchant ships and the enemy will be unable to reinforce their land campaigns, but miss a few and the Fatherland will feel the pressure.
A typical session of SH5 will mean some time spent fitting out your vessel with various torps, and other equipment, plotting a course and getting to know your crew mates, including the new RPG style levelling system, where accumulated points can be spent on crew attributes, extra abilities that may just be the edge needed to get to safe waters.
Crew skills are also dependent on morale, and this – like the RPG points – is accumulated by completing objectives (both major and minor) and simply sinking the enemy.
I have heard of people that play out a mission of Silent Hunter in real time, thankfully for the sane amongst us the time compression feature will get the sub closer to the action in a fraction of the time. Be careful however, there still seems to be an un-patched bug that may cause a crash to desktop or (worse) unnoticed damage to your sub during these quick transitions. Be careful in course plotting.
Once the enemy is engaged, the game of cat and mouse – roles that flip-flop throughout the course of the battle as submariners strive against their Destroyer seamen and pilot counterparts. A skilful U-boat captain, can infiltrate under the cover of darkness, let loose his cargo of carnage and then slip off into the night.
This is part of playing such a game; much of the action is in avoiding action. It may be difficult to find likeminded individuals to join in some co-op multiplayer missions under such a structure of battle avoidance.
For those that want to get stuck straight in, the canned historical missions will provide some – outside of the campaign – instant action to enjoy.
It is hard to resist the ‘cheat’ of using an external camera during success in a battle, watching an enemy ship go under after successful torpedo strike is gratifying, not to mention somewhat hilarious, as the underwater view of the doomed ship shows the crew walking the decks, going about their business, having a chat and a smoke, whilst heading to a watery grave.
I have made it through the entire review without discussing Ubisoft’s DRM requiring a connection to the internet even during single player, and synchronising of saved games. That is only because I never had an issue with it, apart from delays initially loading the game. Others may have differing experiences here.
It is an obvious statement; PC’s do simulation at their best and despite its foibles, and rough edges, Silent Hunter 5 reinforces our thanks that we live in an age when we can ‘play’ out the scenarios of the past, rather than live through them.