Summary: The simulation genre has been stale and weak for a long time, and no other category has suffered more than the submarine simulation. No longer! He has given us a sign - and it is not, I repeat not - a shoe, but rather the most breathtaking submarine simulation seen in a decade, finally a worthy successor to the mighty Aces of the Deep.
Take a look at simulations. If you're striving to make the most realistic yet engrossing and playable simulation, you are working towards a very specific goal. There is no single definitive first-person shooter, since there are so many kinds - multiplayer, realistic, non-realistic, historical, and so on. Yet, when someone simulates something, and if he does such a good job of it that he creates the definitive simulation of its type, then it cannot be surpassed.
While it is no doubt that this is a flight of my own personal fancy, I sometimes like to think that Aces of the Deep was so good, it killed the submarine genre. It just could not be surpassed in any reasonable means. For years, the best that one could do was to simply improve the graphics, and that wasn't enough. There were sub sims set in different eras - like the cold war - or different theatres like the Pacific, but there was just no point in tackling a U-boat sim with Aces of the Deep around.
Of course, time marches on, graphics improve and... operating systems become obsolete. It soon came to pass that Aces of the Deep was almost impossible to run on modern PCs, certainly not bug-free and fully-featured. UbiSoft apparently saw the lack and commissioned a Romanian development team to address this fundamental hole in the gaming line-up.
They may well have killed the U-boat sim genre. Silent Hunter III is just so damn good that the ways it can be improved are either miniscule or so difficult as to be almost unrealistic. In fact, I do believe that it would not be a stretch to say that Silent Hunter III may revitalize simulations in general. Unlike titles such as the IL-2 line from 1C: Maddox Games, SH3 is accessible to new players and actually has personality. IL-2 is an excellent simulator with a dry, soulless campaign mode and generally weak immersion. SH3 is an excellent simulator with a fantastic dynamic campaign and the most immersive atmosphere since, well, Aces of the Deep.
SIDEBAR: I lost about a week of time with Silent Hunter III. I got the game, played, and next thing I knew it was April.
Silent Hunter III doesn't just dazzle the player with scenic views from the North Sea, Atlantic, Caribbean or Mediterranean. The water is impressive enough certainly, as is the sky and clouds and weather effects (though, for all the storms, rain and snow are quite rare). Most of the focus is on the various ships in the game, which have a very impressive level of detail though their texturing isn't always top-notch. There's a certain flatness to some textures, and others are clearly low-resolution, like the conn tower on the Type XXI U-boat. The game engine also doesn't expend much pixel shader or bump mapping effort on the ships, saving it for the weather effects and occasional iceberg.
The single strongest point, graphically, of Silent Hunter III is in its particle system. Explosions are wild and impressive, particularly that of a torpedo exploding against or under the hull of a target. The smoke afterwards is especially intense, though it can bring even the most powerful systems to its knees.
A lot of effort clearly went into detailing submarine interiors - each type of sub is different and the character models and sub model itself are interactive and very attractive. The menu permits the player to simply jump to positions, though for maximum immerion we'd suggest moving via the hatchways and doors - at least once - since this shows off many details that can be lost with the menu system.
Oddly enough, the graphics resolution is limited to 1024x768 and cannot be changed, even by fiddling around with the configuration files.
Fittingly enough for a submarine game, sound effects are top-notch. Since so much of the player's time can be spent listening for targets and escorts, or worse, depth charges, the developers have gone to a lot of effort to ensure the proper experience. There is a very clear difference in the sound a ship makes when the player listens from above the water, in the water, and the hydrophone. In a nod to realism and immersion, the game permits the player to man the hydrophone himself - with experience it's even possible to tell apart the sound effects of a warship or merchant, though we're not sure if there is a difference between specific types of merchants and warships.
The voice acting is very good, available in the native German of the U-boat crews, or a more user-friendly English. There isn't much variety in what the crews will say, but at least it's done properly.
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.
If not for the few bugs, the forced use of Ubi.com, and the lack of certain key (though difficult to implement) features like wolfpacks, it could score a lot higher. Fortunately, a leaked UbiSoft production schedule already lists Silent Hunter 4!
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