|Silent Hunter III |
Review by Neal Stevens
With assistance by Drebbel
SH Franchise Flash intro was crafted by Doc Snyder
March 13, 2005
When was the last time you played a subsim that included a fully interactive 3D crew--guys who would turn to you and answer your orders? In a detailed 3D control room, bridge, and sonar shack? What about a subsim that allowed you to manage your crew--to hand-pick the best men while ashore and award medals after a successful patrol? What was the last subsim you played that had graphics you didn't have to make excuses for? When was the last time you began a patrol in a U-boat pen, with nurses and other U-bootsmen cheering you on like a scene straight from Das Boot! As you started out on a dynamic campaign across the Atlantic that replicates the phases of hunting and being hunted throughout the war ? You know these are rhetorical questions--there has never been a subsim with these features right out of the box. There is now.
Silent Hunter III is a do-over of the Battle of the Atlantic attempted by Silent Hunter 2. Unlike its predecessor, SH3ís development has not been plagued by corporate disruptions. It has been lovingly crafted by a large, talented team, Ubisoft Romania. I recall in the very early stages some industry insiders expressed uncertainty about a Romanian dev team doing a full-blown sim. Well, they now have the opposite opinionóyou want a sim done right, start speaking Romanian.
Starting with the basics: Silent Hunter III includes five training missions, ten single historical missions, multiplayer, a sturdy mission editor, and a very dynamic career campaign. Big Hint #1: When you begin to play SH3, do it right, take the Naval Academy course. Those five missions are a great way to get the basics down, familiarize yourself with the SH3 interface, as well as packing a little renown in your pocket to begin your career with. Becoming more familiar with how SH3 works will make your subsequent missions much more enjoyable. This is a new subsim, youíve been itching to get in it and look aroundóthe Naval Academy is the place to start.
Some things are better for morale than others.
The ten Single Missions are recreations of significant historical battles, such as the cornering of the Bismarck, Operation WeserŁbung, Scapa Flow, the capture of the U-505, and a session with the Type XXI. They are scripted--orchestrated for maximum playability. I found them enjoyable and they serve as good practice missions. The mission editor is the same tool that the devs used to create these missions. It provides random inclusion, waypoint setting, minefields, ASW nets, aircraft, shore defenses, script validation, and it all works. The Bill Nichols of the SH3 world should have a library of custom missions filling the Subsim.com server over the next few years.
The Dynamic Campaign
Now the good stuff, the dynamic career campaign (I love saying that!). As most of you know, SH3 was set for an October 2004 release with a branching, semi-dynamic campaign but the subsim community convinced Ubisoft to go for it all. Ubi postponed the release and the result is the first true dynamic campaign since Silent Hunter 1.
I spent a considerable amount of time playing the career mode: starting a career, playing a mission, replaying it, observing the shipping patterns, types of ships, encounters, playing a new mission, starting a new career with a different name, repeating the process, etc. I came to the conclusion that even under focused scrutiny you will be playing new missions, getting assorted patrol zones, coming across an endless variety of targets and foes. You can play through the entire war, start over in 1939 again, and the campaign is a whole new game.
The number of encounters you experience in a campaign mission depend heavily on which realism options you select (more on realism options later). On Easy mode you may run across five solo ships and a couple convoys and use up all your torpedoes before you reach your patrol zone. At the Realistic level, your number of encounters will vary but you will usually get to your assigned grid and need to hunt out the enemy. There are ships out there but with the "Realistic sensors" and "No map contact update" realism options selected you will not encounter a steady, predictable stream of targets thrown in your path. As the screenshot shows, the dynamic campaign layer has a large number of ships and convoys throughout the world but if they do not come within 20 km of your position, you may miss them. You want instant action? No problem, back off the realism or play a Single Mission.
You may be sent to the same patrol grid occasionally but thereís a reason for that: thatís where Doenitz sent his boatsóthatís where the shipping traffic is the highest. In 60+ hours of playing I was assigned patrol zones in the North Sea, off the coast of Venezuela, the middle of the Atlantic, within sight of the tip of South AfricaóCapetown, here we come! A trek across the Atlantic will take somewhere around 25 minutes in real time so be sure to have a book handy. Just as in Aces, you set your course, ramp up the time compression, and plow the waves, taking the occasional trim dive to listen for convoys. You can save the game anywhere and as often as you choose. Overall, SH3ís campaign is a clone to the campaign from Aces of the Deep. Except itís better.
Getting to know the enemy.
The dynamic campaign is wonderfully augmented by the gameís period awareness. In 1939 Ė 1941, the escort AI is present but not as dogged and mean as the period after 1942. Air attacks increase in number and severity throughout the war until by 1944, you canít surface to have a smoke without the Yanks and Tommy picking you up on their radar and hurling their planes down on you. Once off the coast of Ireland I was attacked five times in two days by aircraft and on two occasions, while submerged and making internal repairs, my sonarman detected warships looking for me.
You may begin a career anytime from 1939 until 1943. The flotillas, U-boats, and equipment available are very faithfully accurate to the time periodsóthereís even a flow chart that highlights what was available and when. U-boats came equipped with a remarkable variety of gearódifferent radar sets, radar detectors, diesels, conning tower configs, AA ordnance. It appears Florin and Co. tried to cover it all.
Your Crew is Ready, Captain. As soon as the game starts every old Ace of the Deep vet will notice one huge enhancement right away: Silent Hunter III has a 3D control room you can move about in, a bridge you can man, and a fully interactive 3D crew. The 3D crew is greatóno more "ghost subs", no more 2D pictures of a control room that require imagination to create the experience you are aboard a sub. This is better on a bicycle-to-space shuttle improvement scale. I have a feeling many of the Subsim Radio Room forum guys will disappear, choosing to form bonds of friendship with their crew and officers.
The animated crew members replicate logical poses and motions, they effectively articulate when they speak, they even scratch their chins, wipe the lens on their binoculars, and blink. The bridge watch changes into rough weather gear during storms. Itís been a long time coming and the 3D crew makes the sale on this game.
Crew management is another one of the big leaps forward by SH3. Not only do you have an interactive 3D crew to look at and admire, you are responsible for their safety and overall assignments. Morale is crucial. Play the game stupidly and your crewís morale plummets, resulting in poor performance. SH3 is built around the concept that you want to simulate life in a U-boat, not a Hollywood equivalent of a U-boat. Play like you mean it and the game returns the favor.
As Captain, you have to deal with the crew, rest them, assign the best guys where they are needed, etc. Itís a lot of fun and gives you something to do during an approach. The dev team included a useful shortcut menu of standard crew configurations. Just one click and you have guys where you need them. You may not have that really good machinist Karl in the engine room so it's your prerogative to tweak the crew assignments. But if you're too lazy for that, remember the crew management shortcut menu.
Anther novel element SH3 brings to the table is player renown. Renown is like rep, street cred to my skater friends. If you build a successful career, sink ships, and bring your crew and boat home in one piece, you will become known as a top aceóyou will gain more renown. Being known as a good commander will allow you to go to the barracks between patrols and say, "Hey! You lazy bastages, who wants to sail with U-702?" If you have enough renown, the skillful guys who also have renown will want to join you. This rewards the smart player who plays SH3 like he was really putting his balls on the line as opposed to the player who goes through missions like Quake on water. Renown also permits the captain to persuade the dockworkers to help him get the best gear on his boat. I really like this renown system, itís well-implemented and adds yet another cool aspect to this sim.
How Much Realism Can You Take? All subsims include options to make the game easier or more difficult. Generally, items such as unlimited fuel and battery capacity, realistic sub vulnerability, fast reloads and repairs are the norm. SH3 brings a full slate of realism options; all the standard stuff plus two delightful additions: "no map contact updates" and "manual targeting system" (TDC). Big Hint #2: Donít overestimate your abilities. You would be wise to start off your first mission with these two options disabled.
I playtested the game extensively in two modes: with all realism including these two options enabled and with all realism except these two options (disabled).
If you enable all the realism options except "no map contact updates" and "manual targeting system" the gameplay is very similar to Aces of the Deep and SH1. Itís challenging and itís fun. The ship contacts show up on your chart; when submerged, you get the familiar bearing lines that track the targets. You lock in a target and the TDC automatically figures the solution for good (but not infallible) torpedo shots. You may decide this is how a subsim should be played. No one here will judge you. It is fun to play this way and the dev team deserves a resounding huzzah! for making the game flexible.
However, kick in these two innovations--"No map contact updates" and "manual targeting system"óand itís Welcome to Real Life, Captain!
: this option removes the real-time, godís-eye updates from your map (thank you, Ubi!). In Aces, SH1 & SH2 when you checked the chart you would be presented with small ship icons, moving around in real time, always accurately placed. In SH3, if you choose full realism, the map only lists the charted landmasses and your U-boat, sort of a dead-reckoning system. Thatís it. The first ever user-only updated game map. If your watch officer shouts out he has sighted a ship, it does not appear on the map. Airplanes do not show up as little icons buzzing around your sub. Nothing shows up on the map until you mark it down. SH3ís map has a good set of drawing tools so itís simply a matter of determining the relative bearing and estimated range of the contact and marking it down. You may wish to add a course line and then occasionally update the map. In this manner you simulate the same actions Schepke, Oesten, and Prien and their crews took to track contacts.
No Map Contact Update
When submerged you will want to man the hydrophone to determine the bearing of the closest contacts and then hop over to the map and mark them down. Range can be estimated by the level of sound. Course can be estimated by the marked increase or decrease in volume. This should keep you plenty busy during those long depth charge sessions. I cannot express enough my appreciation for this option and the excellent drawing tools. Many dedicated subsimmers have been waiting a long time for this.
Manual Targeting System: this option goes hand in glove with the preceding one. Simply put, enabling this option means you are going to use your wits and world-class trig skills when determining a torpedo solution to attack an enemy ship. Well, itís not as daunting as it sounds, the devs included some tools to assist you (for more details, see the SH3 TDC Primer). The main thing that gives this option its appeal is that you cannot cheat and quickly lock onto a target and bang away at the shiny, red firing button. You have to get in close, take a few moments with your scope exposed, and collect the data for a decent firing solution. Once you send it to the TDC, you lower the scope and move to the TDC chart for any last refinements. Here you can determine the spread of a salvo, make adjustments to the estimated speed and range, and let Tommy have it.
Playing with the manual TDC is great, very challenging, and just as rewarding. No red triangles, no 80,000-ton patrols. Until you get good, expect to miss and have to resume chase. Manual TDC really puts the "Hot damn! Torpedo hit!" feeling back into subsimming. Yes, it is hard. At 100% realism itís supposed to be hard! Remember Big Hint #2.
Game AI One of the sore spots in SH2 was the game AI. Ships hurling themselves onto the beach, frequently ramming each other. Escorts that would not notice their merchants being attacked or uber-escorts that would detect your sub at maximum range, run over and drop one series of charges that would kill you every time. Nothing is worse for player morale than a game with bad AI.
Fortunately, Silent Hunter III is loaded with very respectable AI. I did not see any ships ram each other or the shore. Ships zigzag and try to evade when under attack. Escorts appear to execute sensible search patterns. I ran the AI through several tests. First, I made my presence known by surfacing in the middle of a convoy (kids, donít try this at home) and emptying a clip of AA in a neighborly fashion into a petrol tanker. Immediately, starshells went up, the lighting revealed my presence. Merchants peeled off and a flower-class destroyer came charging down the columns intent on greeting me. I pulled the plug and by using the External view I could see where the DD went, where he dropped his charges, and how close he came. The first time he was darned close. Glass was breaking, sausages were swinging like crazy, that pesky valve that always leaks was spraying Klaus down the back with cold seawater, and little red exclamation points began to sprout up on my crew roster. Obviously, they were somewhat short of inspired by my actions and their morale was dropping (translation: they were freaking!).
To continue the test, I altered course, changed depth to the deepest I felt I could go (oh, the creaking sounds in SH3 are quite impressive, let me tell you) and went to silent running. Lots of whispering takes place when running silent, a cool feature first seen in Pacific Aces. Using the external view again, I followed the escort as he circled and began pinging me. He was close but his charges were not as close as before. I remained at silent as he searched for me, coming close enough to damage the boat a little more a few times, missing other times. Finally, I motored up to periscope depth at flank and he came right down on me. Letís just say Iím glad itís just a game.
Aircraft attacks bear the badge of realistic behavior, too. They will attack, drops bombs and depth charges, and circle, often shooting, diving, and attacking several times. Sometimes they miss. Sometimes your flak guns get creamed, you got dead men on the deck and a sinking boat. Sometimes I shot them down with the flak gun. In the latter stages of the war you have to be really careful about cruising around on the surface at high time compression! Sudden air attacks can knock you out before you can get into action.
In your patrols you will encounter solo ships, warship flotillas, planes, patrol boats, fishing boats, and convoys. I didnít see any enemy subs. Convoys come with large numbers of varied ships.
Graphics and Game Sounds I can probably skip describing the graphics, the screenshots tell it all. Let me summarize with "out-standing in every regard". The ocean is just incredible, the way it moves, the colors, the sharp edges and whitecaps on the waves. The subs and ships look like a 3D Studio Max wet dream. Starshells at night cast an uncertain, shuttering glow down on your sub, very nice. Smoke and explosions are cinematic. Lord, this game puts everything else to shame. Where did the Romanians hide before SH3?
I especially liked the extra effort the dev team put into the rig for red lighting effects. When I play at night, I turn the lights in the room off. Not only is the control room shaded in red, but the stations also have muted red lighting (and shadows), totally completing the sensation and sparing your eyes when you go from the map to the periscope or bridge to peer through the darkness for ships. Well done!
All of the game sounds are outstanding. The diesels and electric motors change pitch with speed. I was impressed with the way the diesels drop off and after a suitable pause, the hum of the motors very naturally fills the room. A command to dive is accompanied by a few thumps and bangs of the hatches being shut. A crash dive includes the alarm bell and the roar of the electric motors at flank speed. At the hydrophone station you can you can identify the class of ship from the pitch of its screws.
Other notable sounds include ship explosions (loud), periscope motors (hummy), shells flying overhead (scary), deep dive hull creakiness (really scary), and music (rousing, very well-done). The phonograph was onboard but the dev team must have forgotten the records. We'll have to wait for the phonograph record patch.
The crew voices are natural and appropriate. In English, the crew speaks good old American English without pseudo-German accents. The sim sounds even better in German.
Itís about here that game reviewers and similar hacks usually plop in the blemishes. I donít have any strong criticisms for SH3. The positives outweigh any negatives 20-to-1. There are a few things that could use some tweaking, mainly the collision results between a U-boat and a surface ship. Being rammed by a ship will result in the ship sinking 4 out of 5 times while you suffer only moderate damage. That should be reversed. Another, less important complaint is the variety of BdU radio messages. HQ was either telling me "Good job!" or "Be more aggressive" (mostly the latter, which didn't help my morale). I didnít get any radio intercepts from other U-boats, which was always fun in Aces. Yeah and I shouldnít be getting radio message at periscope depth, but there are so few of them, whoís complaining?
Also, Iím one of those guys who likes to play a subsim with my feet propped up, reading a good book at the same timeóthis isnít Battlefield 1942, you know. Iím purely content to travel at 128x and wait for the crew to call me to the bridge. SH3 needs more audible warnings to let the Captain know things like low battery, tube 3 is reloaded, low O2, the crapper has overflowed, etc. You know, wake me up when the shooting starts.
I'm told all your wolfpack action will take place in multiplayer. No AI wolfpacks in the career....yet.
One last thing; I didnít visit every Allied port but I did make the trip to Portsmouth in Ď44. I was harassed by aircraft and fast patrol boats in the English Channel, which I thought was appropriate. My flak crews fought them off but I lost two good men. Klemens Falke and Herbert Anderson were killed so I guess that means SH3 notches another subsim firstówriting letters of condolence to the widows. I digress. Upon entering Portsmouth proper (where were the mines and anti-submarine nets?) there was no naval or patrol activity. No ships at the piers. Lots of buildings, lighthouses, and docks and they looked good so I am not sure why the dev team decided not to add a few cargo ships sitting at the quay for visual effect. Just asking. If I was one of those guys who is never, ever satisfied, I might suggest that Allied ports should have a hard coded zone around themóany time the player enters, patrol craft should seek him out and ruin his day. That is, if he can get past the mines and anti-sub nets. Come to think of it, I never saw any U-boats in the pens when I left port, either. Maybe thereís a mod in this somewhereÖ.
But these things do not have a major impact on the gameplay. I didnít experience any serious bugs or program crashes. There is an issue with the advanced particle effects and some graphics cards but the dev team is taking care of that with the patch. The game's copy protection did not give me any problem running the game on a new Sony DVD RW burner equipped with Nero Smart Start.
Interface Hot keys, a sliding station menu, and intelligently designed controls along the bottom make commanding an SH3 U-boat a breeze. Each type of U-boat has unique interiors. The Type IX, for example, has both scopes in the coming tower whereas the Type VII has one in the control room and one in the conning tower. And yes, this sim has two distinct scopes modeledóobservation and attackójust the thing when a frigate clips you and wrecks the one you were using.
SH3 load times are long, usually taking a full 90 seconds to go from clicking Start to being in the game. I donít mind long load times for a high-quality game, gives me some time to dust my keyboard, clean my desk, etc. You should see how clean my desk is.
Time compression works as expected. Any TC higher than 32X keeps you in the map station. When you encounter an enemy the TC drops to 1X and alerts you. Max TC in port or within range of an enemy is 32X. As previously stated, running at high TC levels can be inherently dangerous. You get no guarantees the TC drop will occur in time to do anything other than abandon ship when the area is full of aircraft. Big Hint #3: stay at or below 128X and you will get adequate warning even against those sneaky RAF guys. Finally, the game includes a "Return to Port" feature so you can end a patrol far from home if you choose.
SH3 has a waypoint system that works flawlessly. You can set and remove waypoints and the sub follows them. If you alter course, merely order the Navigator to return to the set course.
Silent Hunter III follows an SH2 strength with a good hydrophone station. When using the Realistic level of play you use this station when submerged to track the enemy ships. It works 100% of the time. You can also choose to let your sonarman do this chore, ordering him to track the nearest ship and he calls out the bearing and approximate range so you can mark it on the map.
I wonít say I put a stopwatch to many of the performance measurables but on the whole the fuel usage, battery capacity, CO2 levels, dive times (varies with crew abilities), and other factors felt good. Realistic fuel consumption rates + dynamic campaign mean you donít go jetting across the Atlantic at flank speed. Your Navigator can tell you the range at a given speed plus lots of other useful info. Resupply is not present in the initial release of SH3, the dev team says that is on their short list for the first patch or add-on.
That Intangible "Does It Feel Real" Thing Saturday morning, March 12. This is to be the last playtest of SH3 for the Subsim.com review. Iíve been playing the sim for nearly ten days, time for one last patrol. To give you a taste of how immersive SH3 is Iíll briefly relate the events of this patrol.
I make a cup of hot coffee and grab J.T. McDanielís U-boat novel With Honor In Battle. I start SH3 and do a little light desk cleaning. The patrol begins. I order the Chief Engineer to set the bridge watch and we fire up the diesels. Ahead one-third. We exit the shadowy concrete bunker. Crowds of nurses and soldiers cheer and applaud. I tip my hat to the good-looking redhead (she's one helluva morale-booster) and set a course with the Navigator.
After a couple of merchant sinkings and a brief dive to avoid a hunter-killer group off the coast of Spain we reach our patrol zone. Two boring days pass then the soundman detects a convoy. I order flank speed into a growing storm. Visibility is getting bad. We take care to feel our way to intercept the convoy. At last, the bridge shouts out a warning. Warship, approaching fast! Alaaarm! We dive and the escort misses us. The chief brings the boat back to periscope depth. The scope motor hums as I raise and lower it, trying to get a clear look through the waves and the murky night at a 6000-ton freighter loaded with vital war supplies for the enemy. Confound this weather! I take the range, speed, and angle on the bow. A quick look around for any lurking destroyers. All clear, I send two eels tearing out for the freighter, then set up on a medium cargo ship. As I fire the last two torpedoes, sound reports a torpedo strike. I look and the first target is burning. The crew is jubilant. Then sound reports an escort approaching.
We dive deep and suffer through a tremendous beating. Some valves leaked, the radio was knocked out, and all the phonograph records were broken. Morale is down, my men do not like it when the CO2 levels get in the red. We used all of our BOLDs and at last the escort leaves us to catch back up to the convoy. We surface. The weather is even worse, waves crash over the conning tower. The 1WO calls out, "Ship sighted". Target #1 is still smoking but afloat. I order the gun crew to station but the weather is so fierce they cannot comply. The Weapons Officer tells me that the only torpedoes left are under the casing and the weather makes reloading impossible. So we track the limping freighter through the storm, waiting for the weather to clear.
After two full days of losing and finding him the weather clears. Just as the deck gun fires its fifth round, a Sunderland dives out of the clouds. Too late to dive, flak guns are manned. A bomb close aboardórudder is jammed. Driving in wild circles we shoot it out and a cheer goes up when the plane takes a sick turn and crashes into the sea. The repairs to the rudder take several hours and by the time we are able to sail a straight line, the cursed freighter has made good his escape. I order the Chief to take the boat down to 50 meters so the men can rest. Itís good for morale.
Before I close, I have to confess that after seeing SH3 a year ago at E3, and again during the October 2004 Sub Club meeting, itís been truly hard to suppress the excitement and anticipation Iíve felt. The specter of SH2 hung over my expectations. With each new SH3 build I was thinking, "Please Lord, donít let this game let us down". It didnít. SH3 really impressed me at every phase of its developmentóitís been all I could do not to rave. No more. This subsim has everything plus everything else. The final score? What else can you say about a hands-down, across the board superb game? Silent Hunter III is the King of Subsims!
| Realism || Historical Accuracy || Graphics || Sound/ |
| Game play || Repeat Play || Stability |
| Multi- play || Mission Editor |
| 20/20 || 10/10 || 10/10 || 10/10 || 20/20 || 10/10 || 8/10 || 4/5 || 5/5 |
|BONUS: +1 Naval Academy +2 Advanced Realism Options |
Tested on: Pentium4 2.4 GHz, 512 MB RAM, NVIDIA Geforce4 Ti4200 128MB RAM, Sony DVD+RW DL DRU-710A
Disclaimers: Screenshots here are compressed for the web, actual game graphics are far superior. Multiplayer to be evaluated shortly, looking for other journalists to engage. Can't play multiplayer by myself, can I? Reviewer was not a beta tester for Silent Hunter III. No animals were killed or harmed during the making of this review. That includes seagulls.
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