Written by  :  Professor (107)
Written on  :  May 16, 2010
Rating  :  3.43 Stars3.43 Stars3.43 Stars3.43 Stars3.43 Stars

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A Good Simulator... With a Grab-bag of Bad Thrown In

The Good

This is a seriously pretty game. Even though I began playing it 4 years after release, I was impressed by the visuals. The team that put this together wanted it to look good, and they succeeded. When you leave harbor on a campaign mission, a dockside navy band plays stirring martial music while an assortment of nurses and dockyard guards wave you away. A pretty nurse throws roses to the departing U-boat. While these figures look somewhat Lego-ish if you zoom in on them, they are animated smoothly and present quite a show with dozens of them in action at once. And if you take your camera far away from dockside, there are still interesting vignettes to discover. The world is not just your U-boat. At sea, the waves have natural motion, the sky takes on a broad palette of expressions, and even the moon rises and sets. The models of the Allied merchantmen and warships are as detailed as the 1/2400 scale pewter miniatures I use in wargaming. Cargo ships on their way to the bottom emit streams of bubbles, strew cargo crates, and have masts and derricks broken from their decks, and when they hit bottom they raise a plume of mud. I delight in taking screen shots to display just how realistic this game looks.

The game lets you tailor your experience, choosing realism levels that suit your abilities and interests. If you choose to let the game do your torpedo targeting, it will lay the fish dead amidships on a non-maneuvering target nearly every time. Or you can use target portraits at various angles to estimate the angle of your approach and do your own targeting with your estimates of angle, speed, and distance.

One item I get a kick out of is the tools for the map. An aircraft (presumably) radios in a contact report on a distant ship, giving a time, estimate of speed and direction, and an approximate location. I love working out my intercept vector, given whatever speed I can muster, and end up finding that ship inside three or four kilometers from where I expected after a two game-hour run. The ruler and compass lets you graphically work these intercepts out without much trouble (and a little math!) I wish, though, the map would indicate an approximate visual range in the existing weather. There is no way to know what parameters the game uses for visual sighting.

The Bad

One problem with this game is its insistence that you be the U-boat's nanny... not its captain. You think you have an XO who will see to the regulation of your crew's shifts so that everyone is awake enough to do their job? Think again. And again. When you suddenly sight a closing enemy destroyer and crash dive, and your boat's propellers whir to a stop just after submerging because everyone is asleep in the electric motor compartment - you've just been stabbed by the game. There is no excuse even for a realistic simulator to make you personally manage 51 souls on board to make sure each of them is fed, rested, and has gone to the head. After each successful patrol, you get a handful of medals, promotions, and qualifications to hand out. Pinning an Iron Cross on a guy improves his attention span, believe it or not, so you'll have to send him to quarters for rest less often. By your tenth patrol, everybody has promotions and a chestful of decorations, so it's less onerous... but then you're blind-sided because you expected SOMEBODY would reload that torpedo tube and nobody jumped to it. Unacceptable!

Another issue with your minions is having to repeatedly ask for information because your attention is on the map screen (see below about time compression). I wish someone would report a CHANGE in the weather to me, but no, I have to keep asking, or go to the bridge, which dumps my time compression. And, hey! If you make a mistake and draw a course through a small island or peninsula, no one warns you you're going aground - you just do it! Your bad!

Do you want to live through every moment of every patrol? You can! (You will.) In good simulator fashion, you must find your targets on the ocean; they do not line up in a shooting gallery. Ubisoft is commended for not making your patrol unreasonably target-rich. On some patrols you may see only one or two ships. That's perfectly reasonable. But you invest hours of your gaming time in a nonproductive patrol and feel unfulfilled. Sure, there's time compression up to 1024-to-1 to speed up the dreary slogs to your patrol station. The game will drop the compression when you encounter a ship. But beware! It may not drop you out of hypertime if aircraft sight you, and I've been bombed to the bottom by aircraft that only advertised their presence by your "stealth indicator" suddenly flashing red. Losing your patrol to this makes me mad, especially because THERE IS NO AUTOSAVE. It's easy to run up a string of well-fought fights, forgetting to save off, and get whacked by the game. I was once crisscrossing an area in a storm where I calculated I'd find a ship, based on an earlier sighting, and got rammed by it and sunk because my multiple lookouts didn't see 8,000 tons of steel coming their way (in such fights, you spend your time on the map screen, NOT the bridge, because you have to maneuver frequently to quarter an area, and anyway, compressing time while in the bridge view is unacceptable in weather, due to sped-up wave action). That's all well and good - but I don't intend to terminate my captain's career because his lookouts were asleep. So I resort to the last save point. Presto! Brilliant patrol erased. Last night I was refreshing my acquaintance with the game to prepare to write this. After two hours, I had had extraordinary luck in downing two destroyers and five merchantmen (two by deck gun), and a British bomber found me, at night, in heavy seas, 200 km offshore, and sank me - boom! Guess what? No backup. Patrol never happened. This game needs an autosave!

While many of the simulation aspects seem well-done to me, one thing doesn't that is very important. YOU can be sunk by progressive damage, if your damage-control team lets leaks get ahead of them. But it doesn't seem to work that way for merchantmen. I have put two solids hits on, say, a C3 cargo ship under the keel. (That often splits a ship.) There are nice fires going, pieces of above-deck equipment have fallen flaming into the water, the ship slows and... keeps going. Just to check, I have lingered in the vicinity of badly-hit merchantmen for hours. The fires burn, the ship keeps chugging. Wow! I would have thought merchant seamen would head for lifeboats when their hull was opened to the sea. I have even tried ramming a damaged ship to take it down. (If it's too choppy to man your deck gun and you're out of torpedoes, you don't have much choice.) No dice. I'm attaching a screen shot of a Ship That Would Not Die. It was down by the stern, dead in the water. I repeatedly rammed it without effect (I took no damage either.) Then I was inspired to see if I could ride up on the awash deck and force it under. I got astride that ship, but darn if it didn't hold my U-boat up just fine. Finally I reversed off and left it.

Did you catch that piece about time compression? The only place you're going to be while your sim runs at high speeds is the map screen. (The bridge view bounces badly at compressions above 2 and the max compression in bridge view is highly limited.) So nearly all of your patrol will be watching featureless ruled paper while your little circle (U-boat) crawls along the course you've plotted. All the beauty packed into the camera views is out of sight for most of your encounter with this game, and that's a pity.

You will need to refer to the target handbooks next to the periscope to identify your prey. Unfortunately, the titles are in German in the English version, so if you haven't studied German (I have), good luck finding what you're looking for. I would prefer there to be one handbook with the ships of all enemy nations in it. Anything not matching can then be assumed neutral or friendly.

One final gripe and then I'll leave off. Your missions are always of the form "go out to this map square and swan about a while, then come home." There is no rationale given for WHY you are going there. You almost never see anything there - so if you were being sent to intercept a convoy it would have made sense to tell you WHEN to be there. But your orders amount to "go there if and when you feel like it." I've had no reprimands for returning without visiting the map square, though I usually am a good troop and go there, damage permitting. So the game needs to give you a better reason for burning all that diesel fuel. If you collect some prizes on the way and radio back a patrol report, you always get a response "keep up the good work!" To be a viable simulator, you need to have a sense that you're affecting Germany's war effort in a positive way. Without better intelligence from HQ, you're back in an arcade, not a simulator.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I play this game because I like submarine actions and I don't have a better game. By version 3 of this series, I expected my quibbles above would be smoothed out. Version 5 came out recently and online reviews are panning it. I guess this developer is just working on the eye candy and not fixing the fun.