where it all began
Eleven years have passed since the original Silent
Hunter game was released. The two sequels that followed centered on
U-boats in the Atlantic. Silent Hunter 4 Wolves of the Pacific brings the player full circle, back to the Pacific, commanding the US
submarines which effectively crushed Japanese shipping and hastened the end
of the war. SH4 was originally conceived as an expansion to SH3 but
eventually Ubisoft decided to make it a full title, albeit with an
accelerated development period, building on the SH3 foundation.
a stated release date only a few months away, Elvin Gee, PR
coordinator for Ubisoft, invited Subsim to the San Francisco office for a
presentation by the Lead Designer Dan Dimitrescu and Lead Programmer
Ioan Manea, followed by a hands-on demo. Both men are veterans from
the critically acclaimed Silent Hunter III. Additionally, Dan is a hardcore
history buff. As I would learn later in the afternoon while touring the USS
Pampanito with them, his knowledge of the
Pacific war and US subs is impressive.
The demo mission Dan started was based in Midway. Right
away I could see a world of difference between SH4 and SH3. In SH3, you
would have a beautifully rendered port with sailors, machinists, guards, and
nurses, but other than a U-boat in drydock, very little harbor traffic.
Silent Hunter 4's Midway was teeming with
ships, planes, and traffic. Dan
pointed out the player sub was an S-class boat, "which was initially not meant to be in the game but the Silent Hunter community really wanted it."
of the questions that keeps popping up in the forums; yes, there is a world
map. It will be one world map, not "15 maps". The whole "15 maps" rumor was
just a mistake; the game has 15 single missions and somewhere the
translation for "missions" came out "maps". The SH4 map has labels that
appear when the view is zoomed in closer, and the water depths are marked by
different shades, similar to the SH1 map. The map is also marked with any
objectives the player is given. For example, if orders from ComSubPac
include a photo recon mission, the player's map is marked with an icon at the
Silent Hunter 4 makes a strong
The graphics, shading, and lifelike movement of the water, clouds, and ships
surpasses SH3. Ships have an incredible amount of detail. The dev team had two guys assigned to improving the water
definition and coloring, including translucent sun rays beneath the waves. The ships now have a "3D wake effect", and when you
dive, you can see the shape of the sub just beneath the waves.
Things are looking better at the bottom, too. The sea floor is included in the graphics upgrade, with rocks, vegetation,
and possibly wreckage scattered about.
Ubisoft says they want SH4 to appeal to the serious subsim skipper and
casual gamer and with "Hollywood Blockbuster" graphics, SH4 should get the
attention of the guy strolling through a Wal-Mart with some fishing lures
and a sixpack. "One of the aims of the game is to present it like a
movie," said Dan. "A historical movie where even the menus are inspired by films such as
"Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers. The game uses DX9 but probably will be upgraded to take
advantage of DX10 in a patch." Ioan pointed out that the graphic card
requirement is the same as SH3, calling for a 128MB card, and there are
settings that allow players with minimal specs to enjoy the game without
suffering framerate hits. The menu bars and other interface items can be
hidden to provide the player a full view of the action.
The catalogue of ships and vessels has grown considerably
since SH3. "We took a look at the ships we put into this game,"
Dan said. "I was
just reading on the Subsim forums, they said, 'You know, for Silent Hunter
III they only had the official commissioned type of ships.' So we took a
very good look at Japanese ship designs and we wanted to provide a broad
range of designs. Different company types, rakes, bows, superstructures, all
vary according to time of the period. It's a broader range than Silent
Hunter III." And the marus don't look all shiny and clean, rather like
vessels in rough commerce duty.
The only omission remains other submarines, SH4 won't
have either AI US subs or Japanese subs. US subs
did work in 3 and 4-sub wolfpacks in the last two years of the war, and
Japanese subs were a major source of worry for US sub skippers, as well as
prime targets of opportunity. I can imagine the thrill of receiving an Ultra
transmission directing my sub to intercept a transiting Japanese sub. Will I
get there first and be the hunter? Or will he detect me and lay in wait?
To sink the enemy ships, Silent Hunter 4 features a
photo-realistic Torpedo Data Computer. Dan explained the TDC to me as I set up an attack on a
convoy. Each aspect of gathering the ship ID, speed, bearing and course will
not be hard for an SH3 veteran to grasp. I found the look and feel of the
SH4 TDC greatly improved and more realistic than SH3. It's very important to
identify the target ship correctly to ensure the best shot at success. The game
includes a terrific recreation of the stadimeter, where the player uses the
periscope to bring a mirror image of the target down to the waterline to
obtain the best range. The player also has the option to ping with active
sonar for range.
After careful and deliberate calculations, I fired a
couple of torpedoes. We switched to the outside camera to watch them speed
to glory. I was all prepared to start bragging about my TDC skills when, as we watched them close on the target, Dan brought me up
short by casually pointing out, "I noticed these are the training warheads
on the torpedoes."
"It's a training warhead?" I sputtered, incredulous.
"Yah, see the yellow warhead--"
"--you sent me to sea with training warheads?"
Note to self: get to know the weapons supply officer better
before going on patrol.
It comes with the territory that at higher levels of
realism the player will have to contend with
dud torpedoes (as opposed to training torpedoes) at the outset of
the war until 1943.
The Hollywood graphics may be Ubisoft's favorite selling
point but for any subsim skipper who cut his teeth on Aces of the Deep,
the heart of any subsim is still the dynamic campaign. Ioan and Dan
said the dynamic campaign in Silent Hunter 4 will be better than ever--more
random ship and convoy encounters, intelligence and radio reports, enemy air
and surface patrols, and always that feeling of sailing your sub across
enemy waters, never knowing what might appear over the horizon. Enemy harbors will have dynamically generated
Sometimes a harbor will be empty, sometimes you may see a battleship.
"Every time the player starts a mission, it's a different world," explains
Dan. "It's based on realistic scenarios, but there's no telling what will
happen." Sounds good, but will enemy harbors, populated or not, have
defensive measures? Nets, mines, and air and DD patrols? If the player
surfaces in Tokyo Bay, will he always be detected and enemy patrol units
spawned to attack him? Dan assured me that is the intention.
The career campaign will take the player through the end of the
war, to August 1945. You won't be able to start
a career after
1944, but any career you start prior to '44 will continue through 1945. As
the player progresses in the campaign, major war events are supplied by
briefings so the skipper will know what's happening in the world. In
addition to the robust dynamic campaign there will be 10 Quick Missions with
names such as "Ambush in the Palawan Passage" and "Against All Odds" and 5
War Patrols, including the "Hunt for the Wounded Bear". And of course, a
completely new style of multiplayer (more later).
assignments you received in the dynamic campaign hinges on the player's
level of success. If you're good and you carry out orders successfully, you
will be assigned more dangerous and challenging missions, including
special missions. The "rescue downed airman" duty is more
the version we first saw in SH1. Instead of a tightly scripted single
mission where pretty much all you are expected to do is bring your sub up to
a pilot in a raft, in SH4, you can be patrolling a
strait on a regular patrol and see a dynamic US air strike occurring over the horizon.
some of the planes are hit, the AI pilots will bail out of the smoking plane
and parachute into the ocean. Voila! Instant "rescue downed pilot" objective.
"A lot of the action takes place close to islands and
enemy installations. For
example, you may get a mission to drop some
commandoes on an enemy island, or recover them, or provide lifeguard duty to
American pilots who are shot down. And (being close to the enemy), it's always
Speaking of risky business, I didn't get to play the game
enough to evaluate the weather but I'm told your deck watch may take
casualties in monsoons.
to the accelerated development cycle of this title, the damage control
screen and radio stations are simplified from previous versions.
The damage control center does not have a sub cutaway with little
compartments, fires, and flooding animations. However, the player is given
the ability to group several damage teams with experts and more efficiently
prioritize the tasks.
There is no dedicated station depicting a radio room, simply a clipboard
with the radio traffic.
Dan assured me that there will be a lot
more radio traffic than in SH3; Fox broadcasts, enemy transmissions, and
mission orders. One part I liked, you can pick up music radio broadcasts.
Dan says you can even pick up Radio Tokyo, Radio Hawaii, and news
broadcasts, but Tokyo Rose will need to be added as a mod. "Unfortunately,
we couldn't get them," he said.
lack of a radio room station is a casualty of an aggressive schedule, and can in no way be construed as
a showstopper. However, for a title that rightfully prides itself on bleeding
edge graphics and ambiance, realistic animated crews and 3D environments,
this is a small step back. If anything, I was hoping SH4 would include all
the stations present in SH3, and possibly expand into new compartments. The
radio room and captainís quarters in SH3 had no real gameplay function but
donít discount the value they have on creating the mood while playing the
Damage effects to torpedoed ships are improved. Instead of
a simple black smudge where a torpedo hits the ship, now the ship has an
actual hole, from which you can see the guts of the ship. Sinking ships will
have survivors and lifeboats, certain to spark some lively
discussions in the forums. Another new element: the enemy ships will
signal to each other with their searchlights.
The end game sequence will depict the sub meeting the ocean floor (not a 3D
rendering but an in-game camera). Expect a slightly more artistic approach
if SH3 veteran 3D artist Cristian Hriscu-Badea
has his way.
One of the novel aspects
introduced in SH3, crew management, returns in SH4, but with several key
improvements. According to Dan, "When cruising, the crew is running watches, four hours
on, four hours off. During their off watch time, they decide when to sleep,
as they need it, like a real human. It's like the Sims but they have little
needs, you don't have to feed them, they can take care of that and they do
their maintenance. When you find an enemy contact, you order battlestations
and activate the whole crew. There is opportunity for a little bit of crew
management here (in the crew screen) but the key thing to remember is you
don't have to come to this screen. It's a real submarine of the United
States Navy, it works for you."
The old officer avatars at the bottom of the screen are
gone, now the player interacts with the crew directly in the 3D conning
tower, control room, and bridge, or with keyboard shortcuts. On those long
patrols, an active player may choose to appoint "leaders" with expertise and
experience over some of the green crew members, to spur them on and increase
the battle-readiness of the sub. The leaders are designated by having a
slightly larger avatar. Off duty guys are grayed out and little Z's
appear when sleeping. Naturally, the more you interact with your crew, the
better they perform. I don't know how much of an impact this has on actual
gameplay, but it sounds like a good feature.
Dan explains the damage control screen
"Bernard? What are you
Multiplayer Adversarial mode
I thought they were going to throw me out on the street when I asked to see
the multiplayer section of the game. I didn't really ask, of course.
In true Subsim fashion, I simply ended the mission I was playing and went to
the game menu and hit "Multiplayer". Well, I saw it, I played it, and I'll
tell you all about it.
Two types of play: Cooperative and adversarial. Cooperative is sub
players vs. AI surface ships. Adversarial is up to three sub players vs. a
convoy command player who controls the merchants and escorts.
As a convoy commander player you would know going into the game how many
subs you are playing against, from the pre-game lobby. But you would not
know where they are located. Presumably, the game will arrange the
sub players randomly, but I was not able to test this.
You control the escorts and
the merchants. You can set escort waypoints, direct their course, and have
them take up station using the top-down map or from a bridge station on the
escort ships, reminiscent of Destroyer Command.
You can control fire from aft and side depth charge racks, individually.
Escort player gets sonar contacts in form of blue bearing lines.
Sometimes your contacts will be false contacts; dev team to balance.
DDs not assigned activity will process as AI (not as effective?) and
prosecute a contact automatically.
I noticed that if a DD gets a contact, you could direct another DD to the
area; if he gets the same contact, you have triangulated a good target area
(where the two DD contact lines intersect). However, this does tie up two
escorts, leaving fewer resources to search for the other two subs, and if
the contact is false, then the sub players have an advantage.
can change speed and zigzag pattern but you cannot change overall course
(would overwhelm sub players). It remains to be seen how much course control
you have. I would think a convoy commander could change the convoy course
some, say 15 degrees overall. The result could help or hurt him, and
likewise could help a sub player by coming right at him as likely as moving
away. The convoy cannot turn around go the opposite direction.
Overall, this looks like it could be a lot of fun for both the convoy
commander and sub players, if the MP is stable and not laggy, and if the
gameplay is well balanced. The game should look for anything that rewards
skill. I was told there would be settings that make the game realistic, no
magic weapons officer giving perfect range or external views. Of course,
there needs to be a good battle report, as well.
I can't vouch for the AI or deeper levels of gameplay
from an hour in the Ubisoft media center, but visually, Silent Hunter 4
is a knockout. The dev team has covered a lot of ground in just nine
months. They've refined and improved many facets of the game such as crew
management, multiplayer, harbor activity, crew models, and radio traffic,
and added new things like dynamic objectives, special missions, and most
importantly, simulated the US submarine war in the Pacific theater. After
eleven years, Silent Hunter is returning to do battle with the mighty Empire
of the Rising Sun.
This is one fight you do not want to miss.