Silent Hunter V: Battle of the Atlantic
There was a scene in Das Boot where...oh hell, this preview is coming just
two weeks before the game is going to be released, no time for prosy
openings. Normally I would be
writing this preview a few months before release day, but
Ubisoft has been shielding this game carefully.
The devs demo'ed Silent Hunter 5 in September at the Copenhagen Subsim meet, but since
then, there's been a total blackout of information. It took a mighty effort
to get details about the most basic elements, but since
interview in Jan, followed by the revelation of a DRM scheme that
players object to, there's almost nothing about the game left to guess
about except: will it be any good? That question will have to wait a few
weeks for the review to answer. But for now, I can shed some light on the
overall scope of the game, and many of the elements created by Ubisoft
Romania looking to achieve a Das Boot experience.
When Silent Hunter
many players were expecting (and hoping) for a SH3 2.0, a solid, realistic
simulation with a few key
upgrades, such as a fully detailed U-boat interior, more crew interaction,
and wolfpacks. It looks like their wishes have been answered, to a degree.
You have access to the whole boat, but you are limited to the Type VII and
its variants. You can strike up a conversation with the crew, like Kurt
Faust, torpedoman, who is "not a real Nazi but gets a kick out of sinking
other ships". But it remains to be seen if he can hold up his end of
Now with the whole boat to explore, you're probably
wondering, will it get old? Possibly, but I have to tell you, at least
initially it's (holding back superlatives here...) ok, it's outstanding.
Between encounters, I would slow the time compression to 1X and go through
the compartments one by one and look around, check out the crew. Being able
to walk through a virtual U-boat offers an
intangible element that only requires a little imagination to open up the
game in new ways. One might ask what
gameplay elements can be gained from full boat access; possibly helping with
repairs, or having the player perform routine checks? Many players will
argue correctly that's not the captain's job--if you remember the scene in Das Boot
where the sub was trapped on the bottom with a horrifying list of critical
repairs, the captain
sat around eating while the crew struggled and worked, but that hardly makes for an
interesting game. Although it's way too late in the game to offer feedback,
how cool would it be to allow the player to perform duties and interact with
the crew at normal speed while the game was running at 512x while transiting
long stretches of ocean?
SH5 takes flooding to a new level.
An ammo ship goes ka-blooey!
You're not alone in this sub, your crew is there with
you. There were 27
men aboard the boat in the preview build, leaving the torpedo room
looking a little empty. This may be a limit imposed out of necessity by the
program to avoid bogging down the game. The interactions were somewhat
limited in the preview build; I was able to hold casual conversation with a
few of the crew, but it was restricted to a couple exchanges. When engaged in
conversation, the AI crewman speaks and text is provided. Lightly
German-accented English and German language were available in the preview
build. As an unabashed
supporter of SH3, I always appreciated seeing the AI crew and watching them
respond to orders. In SH5 the character animations are still a work
in progress so we will see how they behave in the retail game. Certain
design decisions, such as cartoon speech balloons over their heads and an
outline glow when selected give the game a distinct Sims-feel. All objects
that can respond to player interaction can be highlighted by simply using
the Alt key.
The crew management features that began with SH3 are very
different now. You are no longer tasked with having a certain number of men in a compartment. In Silent Hunter V you only manage the officers and some key
sailors. You, as Captain, may take steps to improve morale and manage
their abilities. Abilities represent improved skills in their area of
expertise, so for example, Radioman Wolfram Raabe (he's not a Nazi, either)
will become more proficient at exercising care when sending radio messages
to avoid being located by British HF/DF. That makes sense, although I would
question the way the abilities are categorized: Level 1, Level 2, etc. Maybe
the developers never considered the word "level" as having negative
connotations in a simulation. Perhaps "green, proficient, skilled, expert"
would have been a better choice. Some of the abilities fit into the
historical world better than others. Motor Officer Willi Pelz (who wants to
win the war but is not a Nazi) can achieve abilities to "overcharge the
diesels", and the soundman can improve levels of sound coating. These bonus
abilities have a whiff of "action game" that may appeal to casual gamers but I
think they could have been presented a little more realistically.
Abilities and morale
Willi knows his diesels but will he
crack under pressure?
Improving morale can be as simple as sinking ships, and as
specific as having the cook make someone's favorite meal. The cook has a fondness for bad violin. Of all the crew, he's
the only Nazi aboard your boat. Be nice to him, he's making your food.
Of course, we already know that the campaign only spans the
first half of the war, when the U-boats were a threat to the Allies,
1939-1943. The campaign is dynamic, and your actions will have an
impact on shipping lanes the Allies choose, enemy patrols, and tactics. The
campaign begins with you as the First Officer, and the war is about to kick
off. This mission is scripted as a tutorial and the RPG elements are
terrific. Once you complete it, you can return to Kiel and begin the dynamic
campaign in earnest. The
preview build did not have the full campaign in place, but my first two
patrols were similar to SH3. You start off with mission orders from an
officer in the U-boat pen, which brought up a map and voiceover showing the
state of the war, and the patrol zone and objectives. Time compression
includes a feature to let you ignore friendly vessel alerts, so in theory,
you won't drop out of TC unless an enemy shows up.
A nicely scripted intro to the
newest Silent Hunter game.
Mission orders for the first patrol as
captain of the U-boat
impressions of the AI are that it is comparable to previous Silent Hunter
sims. The big difference with SH5 is there is an option to provide a
graphic depiction of the enemy ships' sensor range on the chart.
Novice players can easily see how close they can get before they run the risk
of detection. If you are spotted, expect a vigorous and realistic reaction
by destroyers. Harbors are teeming with activity and well defended. I
counted over 12 ships when departing Kiel for a patrol. Any evaluation of
wolfpacks will have to wait for the review.
Now, here's something I have always been interested in:
crew AI. It seems in SH5 their ability to detect ships is slightly less than
yours. To test this out, I approached an enemy task force based on sound
bearings. I kept watch with the AI crew on the bridge, and I was able to
make out the ships on the horizon before the AI crew did. Big plus for that,
I like incentives to get more involved in the gameplay and this one is
A sharp crew is no substitute for...
...a sharp player
As with the last three Silent Hunter sims, the dev team
has raised the bar on the eye candy. With the graphics on high, the subs and
ships are impressive. The water is better than ever before--blue waves with
trickles of white foam that simply look great. Framerates varied with the
level of detail, textures, and shadows selected.
One area where Silent Hunter V has taken a big
step back is the interface. Gone are the small telegraph, compass, and depth
dials. In their place are Win7 style controls that look out of place in a
U-boat. The TDC has undergone a makeover as well. Although the basic elements
are there, you are not interacting with a scaled down version of a Torpedo Data Computer
as before, now it's less mechanical looking. You still have the stadimeter
and AOB tools, and they included an option to follow the scope for bearing,
or set a manual bearing, they just look less realistic and more like stuff
in a computer game. There are some fields that I trust
will be added to the final version such as asking for the depth under keel,
fuel levels, battery charge, and weather reports.
Working depth gauge
Compressed air gauges
The options menu offers the familiar range of realism
selections we are used to. I am told the finished game will have additional
realism options to remove the ship health bars and enemy ship detection
range illustrations. One clever realism option I explored is the map
contacts update and the way it relates to sound bearings. Now you can listen
for enemy ships with the hydrophones, and when you hear a contact, click the
notepad arrow and the sonar bearing line will be added. Neat! So, instead of
getting all the sonar bearing lines automatically, in real time, you can
plot them yourself. If you prefer to let the sonarman do this job (you're
the Captain, there's a snack to be eaten somewhere), then that option is
available to you.
By now everyone knows that you will need a constant
online connection to play Silent Hunter V, it's part of the anti-piracy copy
protection Ubisoft has adopted. Just exactly how the game will react if you
get a momentary blip in your connection is not firmly established.
a test, I tried unplugging my cable modem and the game continued. Other
tests showed the game paused after several minutes of no connection. In
theory, the game should save and allow you to resume where you left off, but
again, until empirical tests can be administered, we will have to wait and
see. Games are saved on the Ubi servers, so you can pick up a game where you
left off, on any computer you can get access to.
Silent Hunter 4 did not sell as well as expected, there was additional
emphasis on making the game appealing and approachable to the casual gamer.
For most of the customers who are not the core market segment, the game as
it is sold, is the game they will base their opinions on. For the dedicated
Subsim player, who sees any new game as just the starting point, he will
want to know how open SH5 is to modding. In our dev team interviews,
we were assured "the modders will be extremely happy with Silent Hunter 5.
It's quite a bit more open than the previous, and you surely will find some
nice surprises." So, things like glowing crewmembers, speech balloons, and
interface and TDC layout will likely get a makeover as soon as the game is
with a preview I do not mention bugs or glitches--one shouldn't expect a
preview build should to be polished or complete. But with Ubisoft waiting
until the eleventh-hour to send out preview copies, it's hard to ignore the
current state of the game. How much can the dev team improve the game in a
month or so? Based on the condition of the preview build, I don't think it's
a stretch to expect a Day 1 patch. There are some questions that cannot be
fully answered until the game is released: What state is the game in? How
immersive will the crew interactions be? How will the campaign play out? How
much will the DRM affect players? The really Big Questions are: will
the game sell better to the casual gamer than SH3/SH4? Will long-time Subsim
players buy another unfinished game? And, most importantly, will Ubisoft
support the game in the months ahead with patches that refine the game and
complete the gaps that should have been in place to start with? I say it
will take all three to save this franchise.