It hardly seems like any time at all since I was diving into the deep blue sea amidst the crack of thunder, the roar of displaced water shaking my command room as the U-Boat rocked from side to side in Ubisoft's Silent Hunter 3, one of the best Submarine sims to grace the PC in a long time.
We gave the 3rd full 3d instalment a whopping 9/10 because it was truly one of those games that deserved it. It had something for everyone and the sales figures as well as the modding community proved time and time again that there was always something new to play with.
Now it's the turn of Silent Hunter 4: Wolves of the Pacific (Yeah, I dig that title) to go under the periscope. After such a success with 3, have Ubisoft cracked the genre wider than ever before with number 4?
Ubisoft have taken a long hard look at the various feedbacks from established sim fans, from all over the gamer-world. They've listened to a lot of the concerns that many people at the Subsim website raised from the previous version, and also made sure the game is more accessible to the non-submarine sim gamer too.
Now you might just think that I'm talking cavitations here but I'm not. I had the help of Serpent on this one. Serpent isn't a sub sim gamer; I don't think he's played a single submarine simulation ever - so he was the perfect (stooge) accomplice for this particular test.
Serpent was able to dive into the game after a few control explanations by me, which took about 5/10 minutes and in a quick MP session we co-operatively sank several Japanese merchant ships.
So it meets the accessibility criteria for a good game for definite. The GUI and controls have been tweaked since the last game; it's now fairly easy to navigate through the various control stations via mouse or keyboard shortcuts. Double-clicking on a particular icon takes you to that station or function and in combination with the keyboard you can very smoothly control your submarine.
The World War 2 theatre is back and this time you're in charge of US Navy submarines as they sneak around the Pacific and sink various Japanese vessels and assets in a War Patrol, Quick Mission or a dynamic campaign that builds on the same living world system as the previous title, but does it so much better this time around.
Crew management and general boat management is slicker, there's less emphasis I think on the whole micro-aspect and the whole thing functions in a tighter manner. I have to admit I love the fact that you can tailor the game's experience to your own personal preferences - taking down every single realism option if you just want to get a feel for the game at first and slowly increasing the options until you're playing the game as the hardcore sub-simmers will surely do.
I also have to say that I was impressed to see such excellent after-sales support, since a patch followed the game's release by a short time and addressed some of the issues I already had - if you want to see those issues then check out the patch notes on the Silent Hunter website. I won't go into them here and I'm also pleased to note that a lot of those issues were kind of cosmetic and the game out of the box was playable enough for me.
You crew earn experience as you play the dynamic campaign and you can save at any time, saving replays this time around too. A quick note on the replay feature, you can also take control of your sub at any time during that replay and re-do a fatal mistake or change a course heading that may have led you into trouble in the first place.
Silent Hunter 4 has all the navigational tools on the main map, you can plot your angles and if you're into maths, then you can use these tools to get fairly accurate firing solutions without the aid of an officer or other methods. Moving crew around the ship has also been streamlined.
To summarise the game plays like Silent Hunter 3 only far superior, with all the niggles of the original smoothed out (not as though I found the original lacking really)
The gameplay isn't the only thing that's been tweaked/refined and polished, Silent Hunter 4 is graphically slick and when you rack up every option to the top it delivers an intensely atmospheric experience. It has some of the best water effects and weather effects in a game to date.
The attention to detail on the submarines, of which there are numerous types including the Gato, Balao and Salmon to name but three is superb, you can see the water cascading off the hull when the boat's running on the surface and the tiny whispers of cavitations as the propellers push it through the water.
There are rust marks and other features prevalent on the textures for the subs and other vessels in the game, the Japanese merchant ships have big funnels that belch out smoke as they churn on across the surface.
The lighting, the shadowing and the various other graphical features are all combined to bring the Pacific Ocean and the world of Silent Hunter 4 to life. The sea is suitably murky the further you go down with the full 3d external camera and you can even see algae as the sub whispers on by under it, the periscope breaking the water in a slow or fast wake.
Raise the camera up from the water and it's as though you have actually dipped a TV camera into the sea, the water drips from the screen and the camera blurs. It's a simple effect but one that is totally solid and even lends to the atmosphere of the game rather than breaking it.
The event cameras are back and they are smoother than before, they capture the critical moment as a torpedo either hits or misses the target and the aftermath. And what an aftermath this time, with all the graphical features stepped up the explosions and damage effects in Silent Hunter 4 are superbly done, the fire roars and the physics kick in as the ship is decimated, rocked from side to side by the vicious impact.
Its movie like in execution and quality, the whole thing is pretty flawless, you might even shed a tear as the vessel leaves cargo floating and sinks to a watery grave almost peacefully.
Having a full 3d command and control centre adds to the atmosphere as well, especially when the sub takes a hit from a depth charge. Depending on the level of damage things may break, water may rush in from burst pipes and dials shatter as the glass cracks. The lighting changes from a comforting white to an angry red, flickers and then goes out.
You're left in the dark as you watch the depth gauge slowly increase, it gets faster and faster - you know at that point that there's no coming back and you are about to meet your fate as the crushing embrace of the ocean crumples your submarine like it were made out of tin.
And like the previous offering the dials, gauges and various controls aren't just there for show - you can interact with all the stations via the mouse.
The game has realistic day/night cycles and features advanced weather system simulation tied into the graphics, running below the thermal layer and taking your boat down to perilous depths all have an effect on the graphics and animations, the crew aren't static and neither are the various parts of the ship.
The opposition, neutral and friendly forces have the same gorgeous amount of detail as your submarine and half the fun of the game is switching to the external camera to admire all the vessels and aircraft as you sneak about under the ocean.
Of course none of this would be any good without some decent sound to back it up, and I can say that Silent Hunter 4 post patch has a lot more in terms of crew vocals, it seemed a little barren pre-patch 1.1 but this didn't really affect the gameplay. I'm all for having more and more interactivity and atmosphere and the 1.1 brings it in buckets.
The submarine engines and the various other sounds are all there as they were in SH3, except this time there's more oral detail than before. The sounds as the submarine dives into dangerous depths increase, the pressure on the hull makes the vessel shudder and you can almost hear the various bolts and welds giving way as you push further down, you know you can only stay there for a short while before the whole thing buckles but it's worth it to keep from being detected.
The sound helps immensely to draw you into the atmosphere the developers have tried to create, the soft thoom of the water as it's displaced by the depth charges and the heavy crack as they go off, muffled by the water almost shakes the submarine. It is worth it to get into trouble like this just once, to hear and see the effects.
Married to the absolutely cracking audio is a sumptuous full orchestral sweeping soundtrack, the music to the game being one of the highlights for me overall - I love a good theme tune and Silent Hunter 4 has some truly uplifting pieces. A personal favourite of mine is the pounding introductory military tune that rises to a blistering crescendo and then slowly trails off.
You can feel the emotion that Rod Abernathy and Jason Graves have created in their soundtrack to the game; it works perfectly and gets top marks from me.
The AI in Silent Hunter 4 is a lot better than 3 and has been tweaked; the destroyers will run search patterns and attempt to flush you out. Merchants might make a break for a safe passage and you can use this in co-op to set up coordinated attacks where one of you plays the bait and attempts to lure defensive ships away from the juicy cargo freighters.
Watch out however, because the AI will use radio communications to bring in other assets from the area, aircraft and sub-hunters can be dispatched along with other fleets depending on where you are in the Pacific Ocean and how close you are to an enemy port or allied area.
The theatre of war is not static; it will continue to evolve as you play based on your actions as well as actions of allied/enemy/neutral units involved. You might surface your boat close to Midway to find you're in the middle of a battle there or suddenly discover that an allied fleet is being attacked by an enemy fleet, you can choose to divert your submarine and assist them.
I love living worlds like this.
So with excellent gameplay, fantastic music, good sound and some highly detailed graphics Silent Hunter 4 rises well above Silent Hunter 3 for me. But that's not all, there's also the return of the multiplayer, featuring co-op gameplay with a wolf pack of up to 8 other players, against various scenarios and even some randomly created missions where the host sets up the parameters and decides on the presence/strength of enemy units.
New to Silent Hunter 4 there is an adversarial gameplay option where one player is in control of a fleet and the others are tasked with sinking his assets. The player can give commands to his units whilst the submarines sneak around and engage targets at will based on their orders.
Based on your realism options (no external camera etc) you can further tailor the MP experience to how you want it, if being unable to see your targets in glorious 3d floats your boat (as I know it does for some hardcore sub sim folks) as you work to coordinate attacks with your comrades whilst avoiding the eagle eye of human or AI players, you can do just that.
The MP was flawless on the two machines I tested it on, and thanks to Serpent for helping out there too.
No Silent Hunter review would be complete without a big shout out to the folks at Subsim.com who provide the best forums for submarine related information and modding support on the net for virtually every sub game you can think of. Their support of Silent Hunter 3 and the level of quality of the mods made the game even better - I can't wait to see what they have in store for Silent Hunter 4.
So to Neal Stevens and the folks of Subsim, I fire off a post and pre-emptive thanks!
Added: 03rd April 2007: I'd like to note that as mentioned in the forum post of the game, I experienced no game breaking bugs in the 1.1 version of SH4, no crashes to desktop, no errors with crew members eyes popping out of their heads, or their models going 2d etc.
I experienced no frequent crashes to desktop when using the submarine for extended periods, I could fiddle with the realism settings to my heart's content (and did) to see the various options. I had no missing sounds or strange blocks sticking up out of the water - nothing happened that spoilt the game for me and since I don't run a microscope over the code to look for bugs, nor do I actually have an advanced trigonometry knowledge regarding the exact angles used for attacking in manual mode, so I couldn't tell you if there was a bug there either.
Every icon worked perfectly, every dial was fine...and I could manipulate a lot of the controls (not as though I really sat down and played with the Sonar or so on for more than a few moments - not with enemy ships to sink)
The same can be said about the second computer the game was tested on, Serpent had no problems at all on his machine and he is running a vastly different configuration to myself.
However, in the spirit of cooperation here's a list from Subsim's forums of the various glitches and bugs that can be present in the game - since they didn't happen to me or Serpent we can't intentionally rate the game down (especially for things we never saw).
If you want to wait until 1.2 before getting the game, you'll be missing out on a superb simulation of submarine warfare. But there will be people out there of the highly vocal majority that'll tell you the game sucks - as always, don't listen to me (or them), make up your own minds by playing it.