I've always been interested in outer space and underwater, with books and films like 2001 and 20,000 Leagues but there have been very few decent simulations that delve into my second area of interest, they're usually based on traditional and realistic methods for the navigation and control of a submarine.
This is all well and good but in the day and age of cutting-edge graphics and affordable personal computers, I have been itching for something to fill this void for a long time, ever since I played Subwar 2050 on my old 486. It's been quite a while coming but I have found a game that really caught my interest and provided a nice mix between historical realism and out and out fun.
Ubisoft's latest simulation to grace our PCs is set in World War II and follows the career of a promising U-Boat captain (you) as the war progresses. Silent Hunter III is the name of the game and it fuses cutting-edge graphics with solid gameplay and controls.
The story in Silent Hunter III is what you make of it; the player creates their own personal war journal and story as the dynamic campaign progresses against a historically near-accurate model of WWII raging on in the background. So there isn't a cut and dried story flowing to guide you, you're given orders from HQ and it's up to you how you fulfil those particular patrol criteria.
Career mode is where it's at in SH III and after selecting a few criteria, such as the year you begin your career in and the flotilla plus type of U-boat, you're taken to an office and given the choice of accepting a mission from the map screen or tailoring your crew and U-boat with your 500 points of Renown. (1000 points are added if you pass the Naval Academy exams in the tutorial section).
Successful missions and patrols add up to more Renown and better equipment, U-boats and so on as the campaign progresses. You're given radio messages from HQ as the war goes on and that's about it regarding the story, you're given free reign to sink as much of the enemies war machine as possible and cripple their supply lines - the more you do means the more toys you get.
Alongside the career mode there's a single mission mode and the cooperative multiplayer where you can team up in wolf-packs, to sink enemy ships and wreak havoc in either single missions or generated ones. There's also nothing to stop you using the LAN function of the game to set up your own generated missions just for you against any number of enemies and their escorts - one word of warning - the game will fill the oceans with ships based on the time period and the state of the war, so even if you think there's only merchants out there ripe for the plucking, you might still catch the attention of a destroyer or troop ship.
The control of the submarine is done via a fairly intuitive interface and of course there are the numerous keys and keyboard shortcuts, if giving orders via the GUI isn't your thing. Some inventive players have also found voice-activation software works a treat with this game and have configured it so they don't need to touch a key to give orders. For those of us who rely on the traditional keyboard and mouse, this game is a breeze to control, everything is laid out within easy reach and most of the control dials are easy enough to read, apart from the compass which is a bit of a strain on the eyes.
The excellent tutorial videos explain all aspects of controlling the sub and provide some useful examples, especially how to search and track down a convoy from the sonar man's information. It's worth watching all of these as they will teach you far more about Silent Hunter III than the manual to be honest.
I love virtual cockpits and compartments, so I was really pleased when the first thing that greeted me as I got into the first skirmish in Silent Hunter III was a 3d representation of the forward compartment. You can either use the mouse to look around clicking on officers to give orders via little icons that pop up, or right click and enter the station yourself to use the equipment there - this takes some getting used to but really does add to the level of immersion.
With a click of the mouse or a tap of a keyboard button you can take a look through the attack periscope (providing you've bothered to raise it and are at periscope depth) - you can even opt to lock targets and fire torpedoes from this view, allowing you to take a less simulated approach to the whole acquisition and destruction of enemy targets. A small triangle appears and gives you an indication of how likely you are based on various factors, to hit or miss your target.
I note right now before the clamour from the realism crowd grows any louder, the various difficulty levels in the game are fully customisable and you can select from any number of options to tailor your SH III experience to how you want to play it.
100% realism and you'll be keeping an eye on fuel, air and so on, with no visual aids to help you target and attack ships, you can set everything manually inputting the gyro-angles and flicking through the ship recognition manual based on various silhouettes - set the depth of your fish and hope you have the target identified correctly.
At 0% realism you can sit back and play a more arcade-style version of the game where you're only worried about firing solutions from your weapons officer and not having to go through the hard work of setting everything up manually.
Silent Hunter III brings the submarine to life with crew management and other features, they'll get tired and exhausted depending on how you treat them, their fatigue grows the more they remain on station and you can have vital members of your crew pass out leaving you without propulsion or worse still no means of piloting your U-boat. The developers seem to have forgotten a crew-rotation button in the game although you can click on things like the submerged attack, cruise and so on (or surface variants) and that will refresh your crew cycling the awake and vibrant members for the ones that are dead on their feet.
It's sadly not one of the options that you can turn off in the realism settings so unless you work out how to mod the game (the good news is that it's very moddable as far as settings go) you're pretty much stuck with crew management and fatigue.
For those long days at sea there's the time-compression facility that allows you to go as high as 1024 times when on the main map screen and 32 when in external cameras.
Apart from those minor niggles, finding and eliminating enemy vessels is a pretty simple task once you've worked out how to search for them, the developers have provided a nice set of map tools for the player to plot trajectories and bearings (with fan-sites already providing even more tools and enhancements), to provide information and create a suitable search corridor, based on the projected sightings (via radar) from the radio man and HQ of convoys, lone merchants and warships.
The navigation screen and the TDC (Torpedo Data Computer) are all nicely modelled and appear like a map, with bearing lines and markers as they might show on a proper representation of the map in a real U-boat. The screens are rarely cluttered and are nice and simple to use/read - giving the player just the right amount of information to help them get a target.
To cut a long and potentially boring section short, SH III features some of the best GUI and control systems out there in sim land, it's easy and fun to control the U-boat and the payoff from sinking an enemy ship comes in several ways.
Thar she blows!
Not content with modelling the U-boat down to every dial and bolt, the developers have used a next-generation engine to simulate the real world outside of the game's cramped interiors. For the first time in any submarine simulation there are external cameras and the gorgeously implemented 'event' camera which triggers based on important proximity events such as torpedo launches, targets being hit or sunk.
If you press V while the tiny window is open you can swap into a letterboxed full screen version of the camera, for that true movie-like experience.
The game and graphics engine for SH III is working overtime; it has to model a realistic sea and weather system while working out several factors (day or night, storm or shine) that all influence the shipping moving along trade routes or straying to check out suspected U-boat sightings.
It's keeping track of so much it's easy to forget there's a competent and complex simulation running under the skin of the gorgeous graphics and stunning models, complete with a layered damage system where vessels can take differing amounts of damage and you can send a mast hurtling into the sea with a well-placed shot from the deck gun (providing you're not in a storm).
Silent Hunter III is full 3d and it's packed with nice graphical touches and suitable texturing, the bubbles from the propellers and the swirl of the water as your U-boat glides silently through the waves. It implements a whole new look for the sub-sims and I hope other developers follow suit in the realisation that while having historically and realistically accurate simulations are all well and good for the sim-crowd, people like me do like their bells and whistles in this respect and watching a nice explosion from the external or event camera gives us a sense on unparalleled pleasure.
The interior graphics are as good as the exterior and when the U-boat is under attack or moving, the camera sways a little. If you take serious damage you can look forwards to seeing water bursting from pipes and dials cracking from the impact and rattle of depth-charges.
So SH III has excellent graphics and models coupled with a nice damage system and great lighting, it all helps to bring the game to life especially as the sub runs on red lights at night and the moon glimmers in her various phases as time passes on. (Yes there's day and night cycles along with weather and time as the years roll on. The sea can be as calm as glass one day or toss the U-boat around like a rag doll as a storm rages in the heavens above).
The character animations in SH III are good, they have animated crew on the deck and in the compartments, they have a number of simple but effective ambient animations that help to bring them to life and they respond to orders often with a lip-synched dialogue, simple again but it does the job.
The vessel animations and those of hostile air-craft are also pretty good, from the spin of the submarine screws to the whirl of the propellers on the various planes. Various parts of the ships like the flags, wave in the wind, radar towers rotate and smoke belches forth from funnels.
It reminded me of a 'Jane's Combat Sim' but with a graphics engine that far outshines those games, with much more depth and certainly a lot more replay value. (Considering it comes with a full editor allowing you to make MP, SP and Campaign missions).
SH III has some nice atmospheric music that keeps the tension and changes with the various actions, if you're about to go head to head with a ship then you'll find that it'll switch to something more action orientated and back again if you dive to a safer depth and outrun an enemy vessel. There's also a Gramophone where you can put your own MP3s and OGG files, filling the directory with WW II mood music or the hardest rock.
The voice acting in SH III isn't going to win any awards and it's passable, officer responses to orders are clear and understandable and there really isn't much dialogue apart from that. There's a nice mix of ambient and spot effects, from the rattle of the engines to the patter of footsteps and the clunk of the hatches as you submerge the boat beneath the crashing waves.
All in all I have no real complaints about the sounds since I don't really know how a real U-boat would have sounded.
Play with friends
SH III can be played multiplayer across either LAN or Online and offers the player a chance to team up with their friends and participate in wolf-pack hunts against a configurable enemy fleet. A number of options can be altered in this case and you can even play with unlimited torpedoes (not accurate but fun) to give the new players a better edge, since getting a good firing solution can be a pain in the neck sometimes.
Das Boot II
There's no story told with elaborate cut-scenes so this might put some of the players off the game, since it is really all about you and your U-boat. The dynamic campaign world is different every time and some patrols can be un-eventful, thus boring and if you're a fan of instant-gratification and hardcore action then you'll want to steer clear of Silent Hunter III since it is a sim regardless of how you look at it.
If you like the thrill of the chase and don't mind sitting for a few minutes working out bearings and angles, plotting a decent interception and waiting patiently for the right AoA (Angle of Attack) so you don't waste a single 'fish' then you're going to love Silent Hunter III because it simulates that whole aspect of the hunt while retaining enough gameplay to make the game actually fun to play.
There are a few bugs and already the hard-core simmers are complaining about the level of realism, the UZO bug is about the worst and the developers released 1.01 to counter it - there's a tendency when you're running at speed on the surface for the particle spray from the front of the boat to become too strong when viewed through the UZO and white-out the screen (In 1.01 you can hit ctrl-p to toggle the particle system off and avoid this bug).
There is also a 7th Flotilla bug where the submarine will still keep getting orders from HQ even though the war has ended. The community has provided a work-around for this and it's thanks to gamers like Beery and company that we can look forwards to extra content and fixes.
I recommend if you do get Silent Hunter III then zip on over to Subsim.com and hit their forums.
There are also a few bugs where captains are given land-locked grids for their patrol and again it's the community to the rescue.
I should really give credit to the developers for making such an open and moddable game as Silent Hunter III but they do lose a few points for these errors in the first place, a case of not quite getting their firing solutions correct and missing the target by a few feet.
There's probably a load I've missed in the review, but the main point was to provide a gamer's eye view of the game and not baffle everyone with polygon counts or game specifications.
Silent Hunter III is a great addition to the submarine sim genre and allows the player to build their own personal story during WW II. With an upgradeable submarine, crew experience and renown system that allows you to request transfers to different flotillas and earn the right to use new U-boats, including the type 21 (XXI) prototype armed with six torpedo tubes and better engines, SH III provides endless hours of submarine goodness all from the safety of your PC monitor and keyboard.
I look forward to seeing an expansion or a sequel to the game to see where the team can take this engine to next, for me it's the perfect sim that I can devote as little or as much time to while enjoying some of the best graphics and modelling from fully moveable cameras, a true first for this genre.
Note: Silent Hunter III patch 1.02 is now available that addresses some of the issues, this was discovered after the review went to print - nice to see the dev team are on their toes! (Ed)