I don’t usually play simulations, especially on a subject as obscure (for gaming) as submarine warfare. While I’ve dabbled in Combat Flight Simulator 3 and IL-2 Sturmovik, my longest stint with the joystick was with Star Wars Battlefront 2.
In any case, I’ve tried this game about eight months ago. At the time, I found its interface obtuse and gameplay in general a tad too slow for my liking. Regardless, I recently installed it and gave it a week. I’m glad to say that my opinion of the game has changed.
It should be pretty obvious what this is about: you command a German U-Boat (“underwater boat”; submarine) in the Atlantic theatre of operation – as far as I know, the only major theatre they were engaged in – during the Second World War. It’s pretty much what you would expect if you’ve watched Das Boot, or even The Hunt for Red October; the game is slow, methodical, and the majority of it is spent planning your routes and ambush sites (and in some cases, escape routes).
Your very primitive sonar in “Do It Yourself” mode (Not Recommended).
First things first – the game map is huge. I need to emphasize this. Let me give an example: the first training mission has you charting a course and navigating a channel. For interest, I did it at Flank speed and it took almost 10 minutes. However, when you go to the map and zoom out, you’ll realize that this little channel (in which your boat is an 1.5cm pen stroke) is about 1/100 of the actual game map, which recreates every nook and cranny of the Atlantic ocean.
I don’t really know how realistic the game is, and to be honest, I don’t really care much, because it’s “realistic enough”. Most of your career, you’ll sent on various patrol routes, which can be somewhere in the middle of the ocean, or a bit closer to land. The Career Mode is completely random, so there are occasionally special missions and tasks, and enemy patrols (both air and sea) can come unexpectedly. Your main task in the game is to sink as much Allied tonnage as possible – that is, sink their mechants and supply ships. For those with a loose grip on the history of the war, the early years in the Atlantic consisted of American convoys shipping supplies to Britain, which was the sole remaining Allied country in the Europe.
Attack periscope view. Don’t keep this above-surface for too long; they’ll see it eventually.
Anyway, the fun of the game comes from, of course, planning hit-and-run attacks on Allied convoys when you run into them during your patrols.* You usually start the in-depth planning when you get to within 2000m… which ship to hit first, from what angle, with which tube(s), and your route after your first salvo connects (because they’ll run like rabbits once you hit something), all carefully timed to make the maximum impact in the smallest timeframe. You also have to mind any escorts: armed trawlers (not much of a threat), destroyers (your main opponents), and other armed ships, not to mention fighters and torpedo bombers, that can make your day miserable. Not many games out there can give you the same feeling as when water starts leaking into your boat and depth charges explode around you.
* Remember what I said about being randomized? You can get sent on far-flung patrol routes and end up not sinking anything bigger than a trawler. Unfortunate, but at least it’s better than being sent to somewhere infested with destroyers.
Much of the game can be managed by the computer – crew assignment, patrol patterns, calculating torpedo trajectories, operating the deck gun and flak guns, etc. – so you only really need to take command when something really bad (or good) happens.
The Crew Management screen… which you won’t see much if you leave it to the AI.
Despite being a simulation, it actually looks very nice – especially when oil tankers are lit on fire and explode like fireworks. Weather is fully rendered, and the inclusion of a Free Camera lets you see things that otherwise wouldn’t be possible, with you sitting 25m below the surface and all. Voices are available in English or German, which adds to the immersion. You can also “walk” around a bit of the boat, seeing the different stations, and even lying down for a bit on your special bed next to the Radio. Music can be imported into the game and played via the gramophone, which actually has an effect in-game of masking your boat’s activities as “radio noise”.
Of course, one of the down points is that you have to commit to the game – the Career Mode can be extremely long (though you can turn the speed up, and it will reset when you make contact with something), and the game in general requires much planning (which I’ve always thought was the most tiring part of Rainbow Six). It is mainly for this reason that I uninstalled it after a week or so of play. I would love to continue some other time, but not right now.
All in all, I can’t say how good it is as a simulation, but as a game, it’s top-notch. Great mood and tense atmosphere, serviceable visuals and audio, and an extremely deep Career Mode add up to a splendid, and nigh-unique, experience.
PS: Pictures not by me (for given reasons).