Silent Hunter III
Here's a review from that clean shaven young lad Sanjuro. Enjoy!
Having cut my teeth on submarine simulations at an early age with Silent Service for the NES, I had spent an appreciable amount of time sifting through pre-release screenshots of Silent Hunter III, which puts you into the shoes of a German U-boat captain in the Second World War. In the week before the shipping date, I rented Das Boot and watched it more times than I care to mention. One can imagine my excitement, then, once the game was in my hands. Allied cargo ships and tugboats beware: Sanjuro is coming.Opening the box and inspecting its contents reveals an immediate feather in the cap for Silent Hunter. In addition to the single DVD-ROM, there is a quick reference card, manual and map. I glanced over the map, a glossy, not-quite-card stock affair that clearly delineates U-boat patrol grids, Allied convoy routes and air cover limits. The manual is neatly presented, easy to read, and liberally adorned with illustrations and screenshots. Unfortunately, the high production value belies the manualÃ‚'s inadequacy, which is something weÃ‚'ll get more into later.
The game itself makes a fine first impression. The sepia-toned intro video shows off the gameÃ‚'s excellent graphics and the spots and celluloid scratches evoke a vintage newsreel. The game is loaded with these stylistic near-clichÃƒÂ©s; the menu fonts, for example, are the mottled typewriter letters with which gamers have been indoctrinated to associate with World War II. This is far from a knock, SH3 is not trying to put you into a U-boat, itÃ‚'s trying to put you into a U-boat movie.
After completing the rudimentary (and vaguely defined) tutorials, I embarked upon Career Mode, the heart and soul of Silent Hunter III. Given a choice of starting years and units, I selected Flotilla 7 (the one that Gunther Prien, he of the audacious attack on Scapa Flow, was assigned to) based out of Kiel. I was then treated to a shot of my office, which doubles as a menu interface in the oft-imitated style of the venerable Impressions games. The graphical interface here is good, logbooks and filing cabinets to be clicked on, showing you your medals and patrol logs and the like. Technological upgrades to your boat (improved hydrophones, armaments, etc.) can be installed and experienced sailors recruited at the cost of prestige points, which one accrues by making successful patrols. After using my modest starting sum of points to out fit U-52, my Type VII U-boat, with the latest and greatest in 1939 torpedoes, I made for the salt water.
The first thing I see is the interior of the sub, illuminated for night operations with red bulbs. The game is viewed from a first person perspective, and while you canÃ‚'t move about freely, you have 360 degrees of rotation from your otherwise static position, from which you can click on individual crewmembers to issue orders. Many (but for some reason, not all) of the same commands can be made via hotkeys. My chief engineer, totally rendered in 3D and quite realistically at that, looks at me expectantly. With brief consultation of the reference chart and a keystroke, I stand on the bridge. As it is 1939, and there is no threat of Allied air strikes, there are off-duty sailors realistically commiserating amongst themselves along the slip, and the buildings of the fully rendered port city are lit by streetlights playing against the first rays of the sun. My sailors on the bridge look around idly; they wonÃ‚'t start using their binoculars to scan the horizon for ships until weÃ‚'ve left the enclosure of the sub pen, a nice touch. As I order 2/3s speed ahead, I am awestruck by the beauty and attention to detail in this game. I tear myself away from the North Sea sights and sounds and head below decks to the navigation station. It takes a few simple clicks to plot and execute a course through the mess of Danish islands and around Jutland. Satisfied with my brilliant seamanship, I start to tour the rest of the boat, familiarizing myself with the monstrously complicated Torpedo Data Computer (a device that IÃ‚'ve stubbornly disabled the AI assist for) when I hear the unmistakable sound of metal scraping. Very, very loudly. The honeymoon is over.
My chief engineer reports in the text box in the middle of the screen: Ã‚"WeÃ‚'re taking damage, sir!Ã‚" I rush to the bridge. My beautiful U-52 has made a 45 degree intercept of concrete jetty on which KielÃ‚'s lighthouse stands. The irony is killing me, and quite literally killing my boat. After a few minutes of awkward fumbling, U-52 dislodges himself from the jetty. The damage report screen shows that all systems are functional, but our hull integrity is less than 50%. The navigation map shows that we are in open water, which is patently untrue. After securing my tail between my legs, we return to port.
The summary court-martial in my head goes something like this:
Me: Sub-Leutnant Hartmann, you were the senior man on the bridge at 0330 this morning, were you not?
SbLt Hartmann: Yes sir.
Me: So then, surely, you noticed that our course was taking us directly into the Kiel lighthouse.
SbLt Hartmann: No sir, I did not. I am not programmed to see any lighthouses at all, much less the Kiel lighthouse. I only see ships.
Me: Indeed. You are not programmed to give any kind of collision warning whatsoever?
SbLt Hartmann: No sir.
Me: I see. Petty Officer Vogel, load Sub-Leutnant Hartmann into torpedo tube V and make ready to fire.
Undaunted, I went right back out to sea after repairs were complete. In the course of many patrols, I experienced many Ã‚"Holy crapÃ‚" moments that gave me the same feeling that pulling out of the U-boat pen did. Torpedoed vessels, die in a gamut of distinctive, visually magnificent ways. The North Atlantic storms and rough seas are brilliantly realized and convincingly turbulent. An external camera (which the realism-obsessed can disable) tracks fired torpedoes or allows you to follow your submerged sub from a birdÃ‚'s eye view, giving the game its most cinematic moments. My first duel with the lone destroyer guarding an enormous Allied convoy bound for Liverpool was one of the most satisfying gaming experiences of my life. Later in the war, when you are outnumbered and outgunned by Allied air power and convoy escorts, the challenge of getting home alive is truly enjoyable. The patrol in 1943 where I was sunk for the first time was the kind exercise in stress and paranoia that true grognards live for.
The opposite side of the coin is those moments that inspire armchair sub captains to launch sailors out the stern tube. The gripes that can be made about Silent Hunter III are largely trivial, but they add up to a significant stack. For a game that lavishes so much attention to detail on seagulls and accurate rank insignia and awards on 3D crewmen, itÃ‚'s frustrating that so many little things were ignored; in the navigation screen the Ã‚"Clear allÃ‚" button does nothing, radio communications from U-boat command consist entirely of Ã‚"Good job!Ã‚"-type trivialities, the torpedo loadout screen can be easily exploited to fully load your boat with torpedoes that are supposed to be scarce, your crew lacks the ability to keep you informed on important matters (Ã‚"Lighthouse ahead!Ã‚" is only one example.). Nagging problems such as these are compounded by a glaringly incomplete manual. Those who do not bring a working knowledge of World War II to the table wonÃ‚'t get any leeway from SH3; sinking neutral ships is a no-no and costs you prestige points, but the game never tells you when itÃ‚'s OK to start torpedoing American or Norwegian ships, for example.
In the end, Silent Hunter III is likely to foster a love/hate relationship with those who buy it. Games such are interesting in that they are not marketed to the mainstream gamer and have no expectation of success outside of a very specific niche. Admittedly, SH3 has problems. It is missing some important components that make the venerable Aces Of The Deep great (wolfpacks, radio chatter, etc.), and itÃ‚'s held back by a score of small but annoying problems. Frankly, the average submarine simulation buyer will be much more likely to play around these problems than give up, and when these problems are considered in light of the abundance of truly exciting moments that the game makes possible, they come out in the wash. I can recommend Silent Hunter III wholeheartedly. Happy hunting.