Jane's 688(I) Hunter/Killer

Third Year on Top!
SUBSIM Review

 

Birth of a Champion

In the spring of 1997, subsim players were fizzing with anticipation over the imminent release of Jane's 688(I) Hunter/Killer. This sim had so many things going for it: the design work was being done by Sonalysts, a well-established Navy sim designer. With retired admirals and top Navy brass on its staff and a dedicated team of programmers, Sonalysts could bring a lot of experience to the table. Publishing company Electronic Arts had Paul Grace, one of the founding fathers of computer submarine simulations, producing the sim. In addition, Electronic Arts was releasing the new subsim under the Jane's label, which would enhance sales by powerful name recognition.  The stage was set for a heralded release. Could Jane's 688(I) match expectations?

The only notable nuke subsim in recent years had been Sierra's Fast Attack, designed by Software Sorcery. Fast Attack was a detailed nuke subsim steeped in realism. The sonar displays and TMA plotting table were the best and most intriguing of any subsim ever, far surpassing the simplistic Red Storm Rising and Seawolf SSN-21.  The playing atmosphere in Fast Attack was riveting--the sim literally hummed with tension as you hunted through the layers for the Evil Empire's forces. But Fast Attack, for all its groundbreaking features and rewarding gameplay, had a pair of fatal flaws. Designed as a DOS game and released during the initial Windows 95 era, Fast Attack had a habit of crashing with distressing frequency. The first ten games I played during the initial review crashed before completion. Players across the spectrum reported similar results. Fast Attack was a crasher! And the second part of this tragedy was Sierra was unwilling to provide a single patch or even discuss the problem. Fast Attack was cast adrift. Players' hopes capsized with it.

Jane's 688(I) would make everyone forget about Fast Attack. Upon its release in June 1998, 688(I) was proclaimed the best nuke subsim ever. Accolades included  "the ultimate nuclear sub simulation" by PC Gamer; "the most realistic submarine simulation you can play" by Computer Gaming World;  "a triumph, a legend in the making" by SimHQ; "a fantastic simulation" by Combatsim; and "a powerful blend of realism and gameplay with enough visual concessions to keep it stimulating" by SUBSIM Review. 

Players had a similar attitude. Jane's 688(I) was all that they had expected and more. The art was incredible, the sounds and stations were enthralling, and the gameplay rich and enjoyable. Sonalysts had struck a home run. 

A patch was released almost immediately when it was discovered that the torpedo reload times and sub turning rates were left in the beta mode--much too quick. Dubbed the realism patch, it dampened the turning rates (in degrees per second) by calculating the rudder angle times speed in knots times a constant (0.022).  With the show of support by the dev team, players grew confident that Jane's 688(I) was a keeper. Unlike Fast Attack, program stability was excellent. 

This confidence led to the creation of the first  virtual fleet, the Seawolves. On July 1, 1997, Jason "Merlin" Smith founded the new fleet and was joined by  Ian "Corsair" Beitenhaus and Dan "Beaver" Miner. Players began experiencing online sub vs sub action, a new phenomena. Jane's 688(I) grew in popularity. Seawolves soon boasted over 1000 members.  ICQ numbers were exchanged and torpedoes were launched in hundreds of international games nightly.

 

The Under the Ice Campaign

Within months rumors leaked out of Electronic Arts that a follow-up expansion disk was planned. Tentatively referred to as the "Under the Ice" campaign, the disk would add several play-enhancing components. First, a new environment factor would be added, the polar caps as suggested by the name. Icebergs, floes, glaciers, and polynyas would force players to invent new tactics. Online competition would take on new characteristics and differ from the typical shoot-and-scoot play of the current version. Now players could play hide and seek among the ice and valleys in littoral polar waters. 

Second, the proposed expansion disk would add more ship types to the sim, a new campaign, a new graphics renderer,  and 3D hardware support. But all that would just be mere crumbs compared to what Paul Grace and Sonalysts had in mind for the future of 688(I). The crown jewel of proposed features was a "second simulation in the series that would allow for joint surface/undersea missions with 688(I)". It would take the form of an AEGIS combat system enabled Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) sim. "A naval virtual battlefield!" as Combatsim's Len Hjalmarson termed it.  The AEGIS sim and the 688(I) would be interoperable, bringing the long-awaited online play between surface players and subsim players to reality. Now, instead of the enjoyable but highly unrealistic battles between eight players commanding 688(I) subs, the war would be between four or five players commanding the lethal AEGIS class destroyers guarding convoys and executing ASW operations and the two or three 688(I) captains bent on stealthy attacks from beneath the virtual depths.

 

Fix My 688(I) Campaign

The first year was smooth sailing for Jane's 688(I). With a planned expansion and online fleets like the Seawolves, Marauders, and Virtual Naval Command contributing to the longevity of the sim, it was apparent that Jane's 688(I) was not going to fade and be marked for shelf ballast anytime soon. Yet, a troubling aspect of the online play began to surface. Bugs and techniques were being discovered that allowed savvy players to cheat and usurp command the virtual battlefield. These included a bug with the high frequency sonar that marked players' positions on the map, a bug that allowed a player to access the torpedo and sonar stations after he had been killed through hot keys, and a torpedo reload bug that gave a player near-instant reloads. Additionally, it was becoming common practice to violate the gentlemen's agreement not to access the 3D viewer during multiplay battles. A player could launch a pair of torpedoes on the bearing of a suspected contact and simply "ride' the weapons using the 3D screen. If his target skillfully maneuvered away from the torpedoes, the cheater could follow his target visually and chase him down. Now in addition to the unrealistic battles between US subs (which was always considered "training exercises" since the enemy of a US sub is most certainly not another US sub), players had to contend with torpedoes that could "see" them.

For many, this became unbearable and threw cold water on the multiplayer games. To survive, you had to assume your opponent was cheating and you had to employ all the cheats you knew of. You dreaded the unconfirmed but prevalent theory that some clever players knew how to hex-edit their own ship profiles and make their subs show up as shrimp, cruise boats, or not at all on your waterfall display. Did Jane's 688(I) have a file checking procedure? Could this be why you were being sunk nine out of ten games? To top it off, if you complained about the magical powers some players seemed to have, you were branded as unskilled and a loser. It was time for a mutiny.

frank_fu2.gif (148590 bytes)In August of 1998, SUBSIM Review announced a campaign to grab Electronic Arts and Sonalysts' attention and get these holes patched. Termed the "Fix My 688(I) Campaign", it featured the first Internet game petition. Players began signing on and with in a few months over 500 people pledged they would buy the new expansion disk if Jane's would deliver it and patch the cheats. Kim Castro, Vice President of Sonalysts, and Paul Grace confirmed that the delayed Under the Ice disk was still planned and they were looking into the cheats. A new patch was released, the v1.05 which fixed some problems with graphics card compatibility and added a little more randomness to ship placement in the campaign missions. This showed the dev team was still alive but the cheats were not addressed.

The AEGIS sim was expanded into Fleet Command, a strategic theater wargame with a moderate amount of first person interaction. It was great looking and it was professionally designed. There were some complaints that the weapons systems were not employed with the exacting fidelity the grognards expected but it was a great introductory naval sim for the casual gamer and entertaining for the experienced subsimmer alike. It was not interoperable with Jane's 688(I), however. The virtual naval battlefield seemed to be slipping away.

 

Player Support

Despite the minor defects, Jane's 688(I) displayer tenacious staying power. Multiplayer battles continued to rage across the world as players accepted the faults and persevered. The level of support and enhancements offered by 688(I) players is unprecedented in naval/subsims. New Zealander Stuart Whelan developed SARDINE, a 688(I) custom mission utility that allowed the player much greater flexibility and objectives options when designing missions. Sonalysts were asked for some programming assistance and they signed a deal with Stuart and helped out. Doc Peters developed a utility that allows the player to change his captain name and player name without losing his mission status and upgrades. Mike Rosak introduced a guideline for hex-editing the custom missions in order to improve gameplay. Corsair and Glacier made a Multiplay guide that helps newbie sub skippers get their boats online and ready for battle. And players were never short of quality custom missions to play; Bill Nichols, Seawolves, SUBSIM Review, and Marauders offer extensive custom mission libraries. 

 

Current Mission

By 2000, much had changed in the world of Jane's 688(I). Paul Grace had quietly left EA for greener pastures. EA was discontinuing its association with the Jane's Information Group--Jane's 688(I) Under the Ice expansion disk died with a groan of regret. And Sonalysts were rumored (now confirmed) to be negotiating with EA to design a new project. Two things that had not changed were the loyalty of the online groups to 688(I) and the cheats that inhibited play fairness. 

While some virtual fleets came and went, Seawolves and Marauders were still going strong. Indeed, Seawolves were more active than ever before with a new cast of talented and dedicated players such as Blue, Homer, Mudflap, Bulldog, and Rooster. If anything kept 688(I) alive, it was the online fleets. And that loyalty was about to pay off in spades.

In response to the urgent reminders by J.D. "Rooster" Hannah and Andreas "Jones" Larsson and the swelling ranks on the Fix My 688(I) Petition, Sonalysts emerged from silent running to step in and administer a long-overdue tweaking to 688(I). Tod Swain, user-interface design/multiplayer engineer for Sonalysts, wrote a patch (v1.06) that would allow the host to disable the 3D viewer for himself and all players of an online battle. The response was incredible! Players who had been dormant and MIA were jolted into action. Sensing the time was ripe for exploiting, Hannah asked Swain to look into disabling the hot key cheat. Swain committed more time and a beta patch was submitted for evaluation to a select group of Seawolves. Hannah and the Seawolves wrung the patch through an exacting series of tests and pronounced it fit--it was now the v1.07 patch.

Gameplay with the v1.07 patch-induced 3D viewer disabled is instantly more realistic and demanding. Now there is no window to the world at all. The player must attack and survive by the same skills employed with the real 688 operators--prompt sonar evaluation and precise target-motion analysis. Online games take an immediate step up in realism. 

 

The Future's So Bright....

 Kim Castro of Sonalysts confirmed to SUBSIM Review recently that they are developing a new project for Electronic Arts. While details of the project are still under tight security ("if I tell you, I gotta kill you" level), it is supposed that the scope of the project will be naval and subsim. It is likely it will be released without the Jane's name but the core value would remain the Sonalysts inspired design and know-how. 

The most likely candidates for a new sim title would seem to be the Seawolf class submarine, the Virginia class submarine, or the Russian Akula class submarine. I am betting that the time is right for the first Russian subsim, Akula. While Sonalysts may have some concerns about vehicle fidelity, it should be obvious that a few logical guesses here and there in the game design would still put an Akula subsim miles ahead of the 688 vs 688 battles. The commercial possibilities for companion subsims based on the same design platform are tantalizing. Imagine a Sonalysts' Seawolf subsim on the shelf next to a Sonalysts' Akula and a Sonalysts' AEGIS. Who would argue that it makes perfect sense to create one subsim and then enable it with two or more different player vehicles and market it as different products. While some would cry foul (some always do, for something) and claim it is a transparent method for EA and Sonalysts to increase profitability, the hardcore subsimmer should realize that this is fair and smart. With increased profitability, the support  for the product is superior, the motivation by the company to create add-ons is greater. Making a world-class sim with true color 3D graphics and the level of attention to detail demanded by the customer is an extremely expensive and risky capital venture. The customer would not be obligated to buy both sims, if he is content to play as one sub or the other. But I contend that if done well, the Sonalysts subsims would be popular and having staying power equal to Jane's 688(I). Online play is the best advertising imaginable and would not cost EA a dime (unless they were smart enough to host a chat-server facility to assist players congregate for battles). The virtual naval battlefield would sustain interest for many years, until some programmer emerges who is bold enough to challenge Sonalysts.

 

Here's to the Best of the Best

So where does this leave Jane's 688(I)? Sure, it's a three-year-old sim in a niche market at a time when simulations are akin to leprosy to most big-name game producers. But an objective observer should draw the conclusion that as a nuke subsim, Jane's 688(I) is more viable today than when it was released.  Modern subs interact with the battlespace environment through acoustic sensors, not visually, so any modern subsim would mainly consist of the various stations and readouts. How much better than the screens and readouts in 688 does anyone expect a new nuke subsim to be? This is why SUBSIM Review strongly advocates continued support and commercial enhancements for Jane's 688(I). There is no better nuke subsim nor ever has been. Jane's 688(I) is still the undisputed heavyweight. We feel EA should continue to aggressively market Jane's 688(I) and reap their rewards accordingly.

Long live the King!


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