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Silent Hunter 5
Das Sims
Feb. 21, 2
010 by Neal Stevens

This is a preview, read SUBSIM's SH5 Review here

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 our phone interview in Jan, followed by the revelation of a DRM scheme that many 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 5 was announced, 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 the conversation.

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.

Get ready for a whole new level of realism!

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

My 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 appreciated.

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. As 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.

Since 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 out.

Normally, 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.



Banner art by The_Belgian
Test machine: Intel Core2 E8400 (6MB,3.0 GHz, 1333FSB)
4GB Dual Channel DDR2 SDRAM at 800MHz
Video Card SLi, Dual nVidia GeForce 9800GT 512MB
Hard Drive: 500GB - 7200RPM, SATA 3.0Gb/s, 16MB Cache
MultiDrive: 16X CD/DVD burner,  WinXP

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See also:

This was the game preview, read SUBSIM's SH5 Review here

SH5 Dev Team Interview
Subsim Videos: Silent Hunter 5
What kind of subsim skipper are you? Sub skipper Quiz


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