Perhaps the most exquisite feature of Silent Hunter III isn't how detailed it is, but how detailed it can be while remaining accessible. The realism/difficulty options are many and varied, ranging from simply giving the player unlimited fuel to making him calculate his own torpedo solutions and turning off map icons. At its easiest, the game is very easy and the progression of the war - from the happy times of 1940 though the menacing threats looming in 1943 and 1944 - makes learning the submarine's capabilities as well as the ever-increasing danger from escorts and aircraft into a very natural process.
Silent Hunter shines at its best with full realism on - or at least with manual targeting and map contacts turned off. Limited fuel is a chore, though only because even with 1024x time compression, it can take 15 minutes to make it halfway across the Atlantic at cruising speeds. It's best to turn limited fuel off and ride around at maximum speed. In all other respects, even dud torpedoes make the game more itnense. If a dud failed to sink that 2000-ton coastal merchant, who is now aware of your position, is it worth using another torpedo? You never know if you'll see another target this sortie, or if that torpedo could be the one that sinks a T3 tanker! The same goes for sinking a lone escort - it's all too easy to fire a stern torpedo at a pursuing destroyer at 700m and watch it break his back (Editor's Note: The 1.2 patch addresses this
). It's quite something else to decide whether to do that, or crash dive. As a final example, the automatic calculation of torpedo solutions isn't perfect (it tends to undershoot distant/fast targets), but it makes hitting at close range extremely easy. Not so with a manual torpedo data computer - between the time the player calculates range, angle on the bow, and speed - the target has moved so much relative to the sub's position, that a 1km shot, which seems long with auto TDC, is pretty standard for the manual.
There are also other, more subtle levels of detail. Take magnetic triggers, for example. While highly reliable near most of the latitudes around Germany and central-southern England, move up North around Norway (in 1940 or 1942 and later), and interference from the Earth's magnetic field makes them prone to detonate prematurely. Also, magnetic detonators permit the player to place a shot under the keel of a ship. While it may take a dozen hits to sink a battleship, put 3 or 4 under it, and you can break its back, causing it to snap open.
Ships also have other weak spots like fuel storage, engines and even the cargo they carry - flaming a tanker is no difficult task, but a cargo ship loaded with generic goods or tanks is a considerable task. The guns on the Type VII and Type IX U-boats can be used to hit these vital areas, or to hit under the waterline and cause the target to draw water and sink. Enemy ships list realistically, to port or starboard, on the bow or stern, depending on where they've been hit. With realistic sinking times enabled, it may take over half an hour for one to go under the waves.
These small details are quite excellent, but it's truly the atmosphere that sucks the player in. Great huge waves in the far North Sea or out in the open Atlantic rock the boat, the high command radios in locations of ships and convoys and the player can too. If he's close enough, air support may show up to help cripple a convoy - though we wouldn't radio in a lone ship you plan to sink yourself. This would just rob you of tonnage, putting you further behind the great aces of the war, whose own tonnage is recorded realistically.
Success gives Prestige points, which are used to upgrade the submarine with better engines, batteries, conn towers, AA guns and torpedoes. Enough prestige can even buy a new kind of sub, like a Type VII, Type IX or even the vaunted Type XXI Elektroboot - which marks the beginning of modern submarine design.
Finally, there is the crew. Not only must the player assign crews to stations (though there are handy pre-sets available), which then affect their efficiency (such as torpedo/gun reload rate), but he handles promotions and awards. Crew members get better and more resilient as they gain experience, and can become specialists in areas areas like loading torpedoes, handling the deck gun, working the engines, and so on.
There are a few points where the game does fail to live up to the standard it sets. Other than some odd visual bugs, like torpedoes that go through the air between waves, there is an intermittent crash bug. The developers still have not been able to address the particle bug which causes the bow wave to obscure the periscope/UZO view if the sub is moving too fast, though those particles can be turned off with the new patch by pressing ctrl+p. Of more concern is the unorthodox and punishing save system, which means well and intends to preserve realism but has some odd side-effects. Long sorties, especially in some of the fleets that send ships to the Caribbean or South Atlantic, will no doubt spawn many save-games within the same sortie. This clutters up the list and it would be nice to delete those in-sortie saves afterwards, but deleting any single save will also delete all others following it.
There are also some features that didn't make the game. Particularly glaring is the omission of wolfpacks - groups of submarines that would co-operate to disable the well-protected convoys that spring up around late 1941/early 1942, but from a developer's perspective that would be a monumental task to accomplish. How one would even begin the model the AI and its co-ordination with the player necessary to make wolfpacks work is almost unbelievable. Also, we do wish that the crew management was done slightly better - the pre-sets are somewhat limited in certain situations.