Silent Hunter 5: Battle of the Atlantic Review
By James Archuleta |
Have a lot of spare time on your hands? If so, Silent Hunter 5: Battle of the Atlantic might be the game for you. The latest addition to Ubisoft's venerable submarine simulation franchise is so confusing and unfinished that it would be less of a hassle to join the Navy and get firsthand experience underwater than to figure out what's going on here. While the game has strong points and shows potential if you want to wait for developers and modders to (hopefully) fix the current problems, at present you have to do everything the hard way. The opening tutorial mission teaches you nothing about how to captain a sub. Key functions have been stripped from the interface in favor of clumsy commands and giving orders to the crew in person. The new morale system for crewmen is broken. And let's not forget the generous assortment of design quirks and bugs, which are joined by an obnoxious copy-protection scheme that requires you to be online at all times. There are a few glimmers of hope, but much of the time this is one of the most grueling experiences below the waves this side of Das Boot.
Like its predecessors, Silent Hunter 5 is a thorough World War II simulation of life spent hiding under the waves in a German U-boat. Just about everything can be configured, so you can go for total realism or take advantage of crutches that make it easier to spot enemies, shoot torpedoes, and so forth. And it's a good thing that you can dumb everything down, because Ubisoft has made it tough on rookies. The early hours are frustrating, largely because the tutorial mission is a waste of time and the 35-page on-disc PDF manual covers virtually none of the core concepts you need to understand. It's absurd how little you're told. The tutorial sees you do nothing but sink sitting-duck cargo ships and use the map screen to plot a course, while the manual spends more space on cheesy bios of your crew ("Emil is usually very quiet and somewhat nerdy") than it does on the nuts and bolts of the sub operations necessary to get everybody home to Hitler. Even worse, the manual has been scanned at a low resolution, so you can't zoom in on maps and illustrations without them turning into blurry messes. First impressions don't get much worse than this.
If you can get over this steep learning curve, you'll find a full-featured game awaiting you on the other side. You assume the role of a U-boat captain in the lengthy single-player campaign, as well as in the handful of one-off historical missions where you do things like protect the Bismarck and sail down the St. Lawrence River to attack the Canucks. Most of these historical missions are brief and flavorless, wrapping up fairly quickly after you fulfill basic objectives, such as sinking a specific enemy vessel or sending a set amount of cargo tonnage to the bottom of the sea. Multiplayer (LAN or online) offers a more intriguing hook with co-op teams of up to eight U-boats working together to hunt ships in the eight included scenarios. Objectives range from simple quick strikes against small convoy groups to large-scale assaults on task forces that include dozens of merchant ships along with battleships and even a carrier. Modders are already making missions for the multiplayer, which should give it a long life span. Unfortunately, the online game suffers a lack of players, partly because this is a niche sim and partly because of connection problems that force some users to manually open a handful of ports on routers. At least you can try multiplayer missions solo, so you can get a taste of how they play even if you can't connect with anybody else.
Campaign missions start as the war begins. Your first assignment is to play the first officer aboard a sub patrolling the Polish coast during the German invasion in September 1939. From there, you are promoted to captain and given your own boat to guide through a branching series of assignments that take you into 1943. Oddly, the campaign can be sort of a snore. Patrol objectives seem arbitrary and dry. Your directives are sensible and usually involve taking down a couple hundred thousand tons of merchant shipping in the North Atlantic or sinking specific Allied ships by set deadlines, but the way they're presented leaves a lot to be desired. Aside from short briefings on maps at the start of scenarios, the rationale for missions is never explained. It's a little too much like you're clocking numbers, hoping to win the war if your sunk-ship totals wind up higher than the other guy's. At least these goals are situated in a way that makes you feel like you're part of the war. You pitch in to help with the greater German war effort every step of the way, fighting the British blockade during the phony war, aiding in the invasion of Norway, hammering UK shipping after the surrender of France opens up rather convenient new sub harbors, helping Il Duce in the Mediterranean, and going toe-to-toe with the Royal Navy when the tide begins to turn against Germany in 1943.
Regardless of these lukewarm patrol assignments, combat is challenging and the mood is dark and ponderous. Playing an underwater assassin stealing across the ocean on starry nights is addictive. It's incredibly satisfying to stalk enemy vessels, whether you're zeroing in on a convoy of wimpy cargo ships or creeping into a task force of destroyers and launching a salvo of torpedoes before slinking off into the deep. It's like you're playing a nautical chess game. You have to think a couple of moves ahead, assessing the risks involved in revealing yourself long enough to fire torpedoes or even taking your boat to the surface and finish off wounded prey with the deck gun. You're always tempted to try something outrageous, like sliding into the middle of a task force and sinking a battleship. So situations can get very crazy, very fast. One moment you're admiring a kill, and the next you're running from a pack of destroyers that are trying to crack your hull open with depth charges. And as the war moves along, the Allies get smarter, throwing more warships, more escorted convoys, and better sub-hunting tactics at you even as your Mark VII line of U-boats improves through a couple of new model iterations.
Still, as much as you want to get immersed in the reality of life as a U-boat boss, it's easier said than done. There are loads of problems. The biggest is with the overhauled interface. So much has been streamlined that key features have been removed entirely, in particular most of the gauges that gave the earlier Silent Hunter games a WWII-era atmosphere. Now when you're on a periscope screen, all you see is a black background dotted with the Tactical Action Interface minimap--which looks a lot like a GPS--and some modern-looking icons. This is definitely more realistic in some ways (look through a real periscope and you don't see gauges all over the place), and the black makes it easier to spot enemies at night, but this screen remains awfully blah. At a glance, you wouldn't know if the game was set during WWII or today. Many functions have been ditched, such as the compass that allowed minute course alterations. Now you have to plot all course changes on either the main map screen or the minimap, which isn't fun in tight moments when you're engaged with a convoy or fleeing from warships. There isn't even a way to check your depth under keel. Fan mods are already starting to address some of these deficiencies, but still, it's incredible that Ubisoft removed such vital parts of the interface.
Silent Hunter 5 has moved to fully 3D sub innards and a first-person point of view where you see your boat through the eyes of its captain. Now, instead of commanding in a Fuhrer-like fashion, you run to different parts of your boat and give orders via dialogue trees. At first, giving face-to-face commands adds to the realism and makes you feel like you're the captain of a real sub. Telling the XO to go to silent running sure gives you a rush. It's also amazingly intense in the corridors of your boat while under attack, watching as the Atlantic sprays in from bursting seams, causing water droplets to run down the screen. But then tedium sets in. Having to race around giving commands is annoying. It's impossible to do it effectively during combat, because by the time you get back to the engine room to tell your engineer to overcharge the diesel, you're on the bottom of the ocean. Doing so much in person is a bit nonsensical, too, given how real U-boats featured onboard voice tubes that let officers boss around the great unwashed (literally--U-boats didn't have showers) from a distance.
Crew members now come with personalities and skills. The former is represented by morale and the latter by abilities that can be boosted to provide passive bonuses to operations, such as greater speed and deeper diving, as well as active abilities you have to select, such as revealing hidden enemies and preheating torpedoes. All seem over the top. Having to look after crew morale is just a bother. You won't care about how Dieter's wife and kids are doing back home or how Wolfi's brother is handling life on board the Bismarck, but you'll ask, because otherwise the lads feel neglected and their morale plummets. Skills make more sense and can be useful in battle, if you can get to the crewman in question and give the order before it's glub-glub time. Still, it's one thing to try to get more efficient tracking abilities out of the sound guy, but it's another having to goose morale by ordering the cook to prepare a special meal. Also, the whole system doesn't work right now. Individual morale sometimes goes down even after you engage in small talk, and the entire crew's morale frequently plummets to zero for no reason. When morale flatlines, a crewman stops accepting orders, making it impossible to give face-to-face commands. Boosting some skills messes up gameplay. If you improve the talents of your torpedo man, you get longer-running, faster torpedoes that aren't correctly tracked by the targeting system, causing shots to miss. Unfortunately, right now you're stuck with all of this, because there's no way to shut crew abilities off.
And there are many other glitches. Enemy vessel intelligence is all over the place. At times, Royal Navy patrols seek you out. Enemy planes pass overhead when you surface or get spotted by a merchant vessel, and whammo, here come the destroyers. Warships can track and sink you like rabid killers. On other occasions, you can stalk and destroy Allied vessels, and they won't get perturbed about it. An effective hunt can result in your sinking an entire task force. You can nail a couple of enemy ships instantly at periscope depth and then pick off their buddies when they come looking for you. Even when you are targeted and seem destined for a watery demise, you can often crash-dive and hang out at 40 meters for a few minutes until the coast is clear. The Royal Navy leaves ports undefended. You can occasionally cruise up to docks and unload torpedoes on merchant ships at anchor. Both allied and enemy ships along coastlines appear to be helmed by utter morons. Cargo ships ram into docks until they catch on fire. Ships of all sorts move back and forth like prison guards across the narrow straits opening into harbors. As a result, friendly ports can be the most hazardous locations in the game. Heading into Wilhelmshaven is like running a gauntlet, with other German ships constantly darting in front of you. Nothing says "epic fail" quite like getting sunk by your own navy on the way home from a patrol where you took out an enemy task force single-handedly.
The digital rights management copy protection now featured on Ubisoft PC titles is incredibly intrusive. It requires that you be connected to the Internet at all times while playing, which causes outages if you have problems with your ISP or if the main Ubisoft servers go down, which has already happened on a couple of occasions since the game's release. Even your saves have to be synchronized from the servers every time you start a game, which is an issue that can cause delays of a few minutes or more. The wait gets longer as you move through the campaign and accumulate more save files. Sometimes saves don't sync up properly. You can save with torpedoes in the water, watch them hit an enemy vessel, then load the save and see them miss by a mile. Or you can save a game during a calm, starry night and load it up to find waves swamping the bow of your boat. Loading a save at the start of play typically takes around two or three minutes, too, although it's impossible to tell if this is because of DRM or because the game is just slow.
Visual and audio problems are common. While Silent Hunter 5 looks great--if jarringly modern instead of authentically WWII-ish in its menus and maps--performance leaves you wanting. Even though there is an incredible amount of detail both inside your sub and across the rolling ocean through the periscope and when you're up on deck, with exploding enemy ships sure to bring a smile to your eyes (especially when they crack in two), you pay a high price for the prettiness. Frame rates can plunge to the single digits or teens, especially with time compression on during long trips. This sluggishness, plus the annoying hitches where the game freezes momentarily when you move suddenly, can make it difficult to navigate both inside the sub and on map screens. Other times the graphics don't work right at all. Icons turn into white blocks, making it impossible to tell what's what. The docks and sub pen at Wilhelmshaven routinely vanish from the maps, leaving you to navigate in and out of port from the conning tower. If you look closely at enemy vessels that you have just torpedoed, you can see crewmen casually wandering around the flaming, exploding deck. Audio causes more trouble. You'll wish you could turn off the stuttering course change announcements and the "Would you like to plot a new course, captain? Perhaps a search pattern?" lines that come up just about every time you reach the end of a series of waypoints.
It's going to take a lot of patches and user-made mods to get Silent Hunter 5 into a playable, satisfying state. Ubisoft's track record with this series and the incredible dedication of the game's fan base mean that this is likely going to happen, sooner or later, but for the time being, you would be well advised to get your submarining fix from Silent Hunter 3 or 4, two extremely impressive games that have been well seasoned with patches and mods. Right now, despite the undeniable promise and more than a few moments where excitement and tension make you forget about the many bugs and design flaws, the fifth edition in this series just isn't ready to be released from the drydock.