Silent Hunter V
Start rearranging the deck chairs
Mar 17, 2010
by Neal Stevens
Last year I had the chance to spend four hours aboard the
only museum quality Type VII U-boat in the world, U-995 in Laboe, Germany.
It was the realization of a dream I had held since I was a boy, to actually
walk through a U-boat that had been the home to a German
U-boat crew. Life inside a U-boat was a claustrophobic and arduous
existence. You're at sea in a steel pressure hull packed with machinery and
weapons and 50 other men but only one toilet, and no shower. There's little
comfort to be had and less privacy. Yet thousands of naval enthusiasts want
to recreate that experience and a computer subsim presents one of the best
ways to approach it. Many early sub games were rich with tactical gameplay
but presented the interior of the sub to the player as 2D "station screens".
Silent Hunter III took a huge step forward with a 3D control room and
interactive crew members, though the player was rooted to one spot and
limited to a few other compartments--the bridge, the radio room, and the
conning tower. And moving from one part of the boat to another was
instantaneous--a hot key and zip--you were there. It was better than
anything that had come before it yet still could not capture the full
essence of life in a submarine.
This was Ubisoft's goal for Silent Hunter 5: "Battle of
the Atlantic", to raise the bar again by giving the player a full 3D Type
VII U-boat to live and fight in. No more hot keys; now as the captain you
can move realistically from the bow torpedo room to the stern e-motor room
and all compartments in-between (except the head, and trust me, you don't
want to look in there). The sub interior is nicely detailed, and as I said
previously, a real treat:
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
Even though having full boat access adds little to the
actual gameplay, there's always been more to a subsim than just
gameplay. A truly great subsim transcends computer game mechanics to
stimulate the imagination the way books like Iron Coffins and
U977, and films like Das Boot did. Writing about Silent Hunter
5 is a challenge. There's no way to sugarcoat it, the game has lots of
issues and shortcomings, but it does some things well and it's a lot more
fun to play it than write about it. One thing it does magnificently is give
the player a very realistic sense of being on a U-boat. Just the simple act
of opening the bridge hatch, climbing down the ladder into the conning
tower, ordering dive, and watching the attack scope rotate into position is
one of the quiet strengths of Silent Hunter 5 that should not be overlooked.
In addition to the full boat access, the other main
thrust of SH5 is the interactive crew and roleplay elements Ubisoft created
to further establish the U-boat life. Your crew are stationed throughout the
boat, engaged in their tasks or trying to get some rest while off watch.
Your interaction with them is very limited: you can give one or two orders
to each key crewman, such as "Man the deckgun" or ordering battlestations.
You can also exchange small talk or show interest in some of the crew's
lives, but again, this is so restricted and the characters' emotional
palettes are so narrow, that it's the least interesting part
of the game. You may ask the Watch Officer, Dieter, what he thinks of the
new XO and he will reply with a wisecrack. And that's it. For the rest of
the patrol (and several after), you will see a cartoon speech balloon appear
over Dieter's head, suggesting he has something to say, but he's just going
to repeat the same joke. I can see where, with a database of several hundred
lines of dialogue, this could have been a fantastic
addition to the game but as it stands, it's like having a radio that only
plays one short song. There's some kind of story as you progress, but I did
not find it interesting.
It's even more annoying when you order the torpedo petty
officer to pre-heat the electric torpedoes before an attack, to have him
say, "Cannot comply". Wait, this is a naval vessel, come again? You see, in
order to get more performance from your men, you have to earn skill points
by sinking ships and completing objectives (more on objectives later). In
addition to skill points, there is morale to manage. From the manual:
When out at sea for long
periods, sailors become increasingly tired. As a result, their morale
will gradually decline. Officers and petty officers will use their
"morale pool" as the main resource for activating their special
abilities. Morale is regained each time an enemy ship is sunk, or an
Your success allows you to dole out a few
promotion points to your crew each patrol, raising their abilities to
pre-heat torpedoes, unveil hidden enemies on sonar, make tasty soup, and other
quasi-realistic talents. This clumsy attempt to inject some character
leveling into the game was better served by SH3's system of awarding
promotions and medals, and providing the crew with better capabilities in a
broader, less specific sense.
The crew renderings are good quality but
their actions are poorly executed.
trailer that introduced the game was startling--music
playing on the gramophone, men moving through the boat, speaking to the
captain, depth charges rocking the sub, throwing men to the deck. If this
was the next Silent Hunter, we thought, sign us up and issue our oilskins.
Alas, in the actual game, the crew ambience is a big departure from the
initial game trailer. They lay around lethargically rubbing their heads,
looking sick and sullen, mute and oppressed, or standing like statues in the
forward torpedo room. The crew don't go
up or down the ladders and they don't rush forward during crash dives.
When they speak with the captain, they often look in the
wrong direction, or spin around. And there is no music. No wonder morale is so important in the
It's apparent that Ubisoft meant to
broaden the appeal and accessibility of SH5 to capture new market segments,
which I applaud as long as the game remains scalable for hardcore realism
simulation players, but I have to question how they went about it. The intro
to the campaign serves as a tutorial, and begins with a compelling
storyline. As a tutorial it is inadequate; the player gets a few tips on
using the mouse and time compression, and is tasked with raising the scope
and sinking a couple of target ships. Then he returns to Kiel and the
guessing game begins. How do you get new mission orders? How do you refit
your sub? How does the TDC work? This is a step back from the four
mini-missions in SH4, and that's really saying something.
The game manual is no longer printed (US versions) but
still quite awful and sparse. It
spends a mere 1/2-page about torpedoes and targeting, nothing about the TDC,
but six pages of cheesy crew profiles. It's galling that a simulation cannot
come with better information about the game and how to play it, let alone
tactics and historical background, when the manual is not even printed.
Why can't the developers assign someone to write out simply how the game works?
What are the yellow and red disks around ship icons in the tactical map?
What are those lines coming from you sub when you are submerged? Why are
some black and some blue? How do you steer the boat? An experienced player who cut his teeth on Aces of
the Deep in the '90's can figure it out, but what about some high school kid
who bought SH5 as his first subsim? Here's what the manual says about the
(Click to enlarge)
Printing "How to read the information" is
not the same as explaining what these illustrations mean, and how to
interpret them in the game. I zoomed in to 400% on the pdf page and was
unable to make out the blurry Navigation map legend--obviously these symbols
and captions mean something but what, I have no idea if I cannot read them.
If they expect new market segments to get into the game, a good manual and a
good set of tutorial missions are essential, and in this department, Silent Hunter 5 dives
with all hatches open. The pdf manual is a mere 31 pages, and if you kick
out the fluff and padding, you have approximately 20 pages of information about the game,
most of it very general. Remove the images and you're left with six pages
of text, about the same length as this review. There's just no excuse for
New players will grapple with the game using an
interface that is modernized and no
longer mimics the gritty 1940's-era look and feel that players have come to
expect. There is no direct helm command other than changing the waypoints in
the chart (the waypoint system is pretty good, though).
This has been improved through mods but again, what were they thinking?
In a real U-boat, a captain just said, "Make course 255", and it was done.
How is not having a compass dial more realistic?
One area where SH5 stays true
to its roots is the simulation aspect. The game strives to be as realistic
and historically accurate as its predecessors and generally achieves this
goal. You have the usual options from SH3/SH4 including the important "no
map contact updates" which allows you to plot tacticals on the chart without
unrealistic, real-time ship icons. Making an encore appearance from SH3/SH4 is "Realistic sensors" and "Manual
targeting system". SH5 also adds a couple options--"ship health
meters" and "deck gun projectile path", intended for new and casual players
who prefer more information than a real U-boat skipper could have dreamed
The level of detail Ubisoft built into the simulation can
be seen when playing with map contacts "on", and you notice that the circle
of visibility around each AI ship changes depending on the position of your
sub to the ship. If you are beam on, if you are presenting the fill length
of your U-boat to the enemy, he can see you at a greater distance. If you
are bow or stern on, your much smaller profile makes you harder to see.
the new and "improved" manual TDC, you perform the same essential steps of
identifying the target,
bearing, speed, and angle on the bow to work up a manual solution. The TDC
operation is less elegant than before, the prompts you need to click are
they require precision to "click" them. Also, the ship ID book is a feckless
ghost of past ID books--it's tiny, has only broadside profiles, and no info
about mast heights or draft. I did find that the TDC allows memory settings
of previously marked ships, so you can mark targets, come back to them and
the system remembers what you designated. This nice feature allows you to
mark several ships, switch targets much more easily and realistically than
some reason, the depth beneath the keel function exists in the game but
there is no hot key for it. To enable your echolot, you need to check
CCIP's Command Keys mod. It's pretty important, since the charts do not
provide detailed seabed information. The boat's consumables are represented;
battery life and fuel range feel right but the CO2 reaches toxic levels too
quickly, it's difficult to stay submerged more than 14 hours. Changing depth
uses compressed air now, and a blast to blow all ballast can use 15-25%.
While on the topic of mods, one must
tip their hat to the dev team for continuing the tradition of leaving the
game structure open, and indeed, receptive, to third party mods. Even if
Silent Hunter 5 had been delivered relatively bug free and polished, avid
subsim skippers love to tinker under the hood. Mods and modmakers play a
substantial role in the longevity of the game and Ubisoft has supported this
Mods for SH5 are off to a great start.
The SH5 damage modeling is not
finished. When you encounter a severe attack, you will get damage reports of
"hull damaged", quickly followed by "hull repaired!", often many times in
succession. Items are usually repaired in a few minutes and other than hull
damage, do not seem to make an appreciable impact on your sub's performance.
Your periscope can be damaged to 90%, whatever that means, and you can still
use it. Whereas SH4 had localized hull damage modeling, SH5 is back to the
one-hull-fits-all style. The flooding animations are over the top. Instead
of a valve or a pipe leaking, every fitting in the boat seems to be spraying
water. On the positive side, if you take hull damage you might find it
difficult to maintain depth. Your boat
will get heavier as it takes on water and you will see the U-boat slowly
dropping below your ordered depth. If you sustain hull damage, be careful how far down you dive.
A boat with 50% hull integrity at 100
meters can suffer sudden catastrophic flooding and that's not good.
The game comes with seven historically based single
missions, which include screening the Bismarck and making a run through
Gibraltar. For the first time, the campaign is truly "dynamic". Each
patrol offers nearly unlimited opportunities for chance encounters of
aircraft, single ships, convoys with escorts (and occasionally, without),
warship task forces, and enemy submarines. A word of information here, this is a review, not a
campaign walkthrough, and since the way I play the game takes a lot of time
(I can spend 3 hours of real time stalking a convoy and getting into
position for an attack), I am writing this article with much of the campaign
ahead of me. The war's timeline is broken into
segments that have strategic objectives such as sinking a carrier, or
sinking 100,000 tons of merchant shipping, which seems a bit too scripted,
since sinking any and every ship you
come across was pretty much the baseline objective for every U-boat captain.
Thankfully these game objectives are treated like bonuses; you can continue
playing even if you do not complete each one. As you progress through
the war, you can choose which type of branching campaign you want.
You will find as you play, the actions of the AI is
linked to your activity and presence. If you are spotted by aircraft off the
coast of England, you should not be surprised if a patrol shows up soon
after. In one situation I attacked a convoy, torpedoed two ships, and
escaped in the opposite direction the convoy was headed. I waited until they
were out of visual range and after a quick periscope sweep, I surfaced and
started recharging my batteries. It was about 45 minutes later that two
destroyers had ranged out and found me and started shelling me. I reloaded
from my last save point and replayed the mission to see if their behavior
would be the same if I remained submerged. I saw the two destroyers racing
west again, bypassing my submerged position. It was about an hour later a
new convoy appeared from the direction the destroyers were last seen; the
game gives the impression the destroyers were going out to meet an inbound
Each patrol begins right in the U-boat pen with a
wonderful scene of work going on all around you. The harbor is bustling with
activity--ships and even a few U-boats going in and out, moored to the
piers. This enormously satisfying setting is frequently disrupted by broken
ship collision routines. In every harbor, friendly and enemy, there's
usually one or two ships stuck in a ramming mode against a pier or on fire
and burning. That really throws a wet rag on the whole atmosphere. With map contacts set to realistic, you have to be your own
harbor pilot and manually navigate your boat out of port, which is good
addition to the gameplay. There are special missions inside the campaign
that include dropping off agents and a recreation of Gunter Prien's attack
on Scapa Flow (which I am happy to report can be accomplished through the
narrow eastern inlet, unlike SH3). Enemy harbors are usually well defended and the
Channel and Gibraltar are tough nuts to crack.
The RPG elements at the end of patrol one, which feature
replacing Captain Rahn commander of U-69, are nice, as is the
history lesson in the briefings (which gets repeated until you move to
another segment of the war). The mission orders are too simplistic and not very
authentic, just go to this spot on the map as opposed to being ordered to
patrol grid AM43, for example. The map is laid out in longitude and latitude
instead of the traditional Kriegsmarine grid system.
Playing with map contacts
"on", all enemy
ships are depicted on the map in real time and a player can click on them
and get their speed, use the ruler to get their range, and the protractor to
get their angle of the bow. The enemy ships show their detection range for ASDIC, hydrophones, and
visual depicted on the chart, similar to Aces of the Deep. These are very
handy tools for a lot of players. When your U-boat is submerged, traditional
sound bearing lines show you the direction of enemy ships. With map
contacts "off", the only thing the map shows is the player's sub and land.
You have the same map tools as before to work up manual solutions.
While on the subject of the map, the map contacts have
lost functionality from SH3 and you no longer get a contact age or time
recorded. With the Map Contacts option "on", the game automatically ID's all
ship icons as enemy, friend, or neutral. And while no crew member shouts
out, "Target destroyed!", when you torpedo a ship and the game decides it's
fatal, the map instantly displays a sunk ship icon and you can no longer
lock the ship, effectively telling you that your job is done. I'm in the
group who prefers to wait until the ship sinks beneath the waves to have it
classified as "sunk", so this has not improved over previous games.
Hunter 5 comes with Ubisoft's new copy protection scheme which requires the
game to be played with an online connection all the time. It's a big problem
for people who travel or do not have reliable internet. People can debate
whether this is effective or not, whether 200,000 illegal downloads equates
to 200,000 lost sales, or merely 10,000 lost sales. I am not going to grab a
torch and pitchfork over this, I understand the reason behind a game company
protecting their assets. I will say it would make good business sense and
customer relations for Ubisoft to come forward with a pledge and a plan to
scale back or disable the copy protection at some point in the future. They
did this for StarForce in SH3, and with the v1.5 patch in SH4. They probably
have a plan for this in SH5, but are reluctant to reveal it at this point.
Radio message traffic is still very
generic. BdU does occasionally send reposition orders and contact reports,
but I got no traffic from other U-boats. Speaking of other U-boats,
mentioned in the January interview, I have been told that wolfpacks can
spawn if you send reports and trail a convoy, but so far I have not seen
this. Of all the features players have been hoping for since Silent Hunter
III, I cannot think of anything more desired than wolfpacks.
Traversing long stretches of ocean on
route to your assigned area can be shorted by using time compression, which
goes up to 8192x. There is a travel mode which ignores friendlies and
shallow water. One note of concern, with the option Realistic Sensors "on",
I've found in almost every patrol where I would be transiting the ocean at
512x, without any warning the submarine would be attacked by an enemy,
mortally damaged and sinking, men screaming and crashing, game over--all in
about .03 seconds. This meant I had to reload the game from the last save
and try again. This is a crippling bug that really hurts the gameplay at
100% realism. And for Pete's sake, how long have we been asking that any
time the time compression is dropped, it be accompanied by some kind of
sound effect or crew report?
With the inadequacy of enemy detection at time
compression, the save game function is very important. It works for the most
part, but there are several bugs. For one, if you save a game while an
enemy ship is burning or sinking, when you reload the game, you may see it
undamaged while you're' still out the torpedoes you expended before
the save. And some players are reporting issues with the crew
morale not being saved correctly.
One thing is for certain and that is
the quality of graphics in SH5 are amazing. The subs and ships look
fantastic, with shades and tones that vary with the light, and dynamic
shadows that mimic reality. The ocean waves and the foamy edges where the
water splashes on the side of your U-boat are gorgeous. This is a treat for
the eyes and adds a great deal of pleasure to playing the game. In less than
ten years we've gone from this:
The game features a lot of spectacular
graphics, like watching the bow break through the waves,
which sparkle with realistic foam and motion; a gossamer moon with the stars
sinking to the horizon; nearly invisible pinpricks on the horizon that will
soon fill your periscope with Royal Navy dread. The concussion effects when
you are hit by enemy shells that we saw in SH4 are back. The SH series has
always been noted for life-like explosions but I think they overdid it with the pyro
in SH5. Ships can be burning from stem to stern with a cascade of explosions
that seems a bit too much. There is a variety of weather in the game, from
balmy sunshine, fog, rain, and stormy seas.
Hunter 5 sounds are basically the same as SH3/SH4, in fact, many of the
sound files are the exact same. That's not a knock against SH5, use what
works. When you change engine speeds, the pitch and volume change. You track
convoys by sound and the hydrophones work pretty well for this. The
hydrophone sounds are what you would expect, except your own-sub sounds
coming from 180 degrees are either muted or missing. The crew voice acting
is sufficient, and in places, very good. The crew will shout and whisper in
different situations. I did not hear "depth charges in the water!" but there
is "smoke on the horizon". One thing I expected with the full boat access
and crew was much more incidental chatter or sounds. The original orchestra
score by Jason Graves is
somber and majestic, with a touch of stoic heroism that sounds appropriate
for a military subject.
superb graphics never wear off, but once you put some hours into the game, a
subsim requires solid gameplay and realistic AI to sustain your interest. I
spent a considerable amount of time saving and reloading games to examine
how the AI reacts in certain circumstances. SH5 AI is an evolution of
SH3/SH4. There are some situations reported where, for some reason only the
programmer could explain, a ship will not react realistically to your
presence or the odd occurrence like the "stalking AI", but in most cases,
it's pretty consistent and realistic. As mentioned previously, I have seen
some issues with ships acting goofy in harbors, but I would say in the 140
or so hours I have been playing the beta and review builds, the AI of both
escorts and merchants is 90% good. Testing with map contacts "on", I can
tell when an escort is in range to detect me, and gauge how they prosecute
their attack. I have seen escorts that seem only slightly interested or
capable of seeking me out and attacking, and I have seen some pretty
aggressive escorts. I think it depends on the period in the war--early on
aircraft and escorts don't threaten me as much as they do later in the war.
Oh, and while I'm on the subject of aircraft, Ubisoft Romania is still using
generic stand-ins for the US planes, such as a Sunderland for the Liberator.
I'm not sure why, they were able to use authentic US planes in RUSE, another
Ubi title. This is supposed to be a historically accurate simulation, right?
Sometimes the AI is a mystery but that's good: a
German U-boat commander could never predict what Tommy would do or where he
would be. On dark nights, once they do see you they will rush over but
you will find it fairly easy to dive and evade them. That will change as the
war progresses. At long range, enemy escort gunnery is not accurate but if you
stay on the surface more than a minute or two they will zero in on you. At
close range they can hit you with lethal precision. Merchant ships will
zigzag and a convoy will scatter chaotically when they detect you.
In one attack on a convoy I spent a fair amount of time
with the scope up, targeting a ship passing before me while another ship passed fairly close
behind me (too close to fire). Soon after the ship passed behind me, two DDs charged over
from outside the convoy and I had to dive deep. I reloaded the mission to
test their behavior and played with very little
periscope exposure. As I sat at 40 meters, the merchants passed over me and
the escorts did not react until I brought the boat to periscope depth and
fired a quick salvo. When the target ship was torpedoed, the destroyers
reacted but then they were unable to find me. In some situations I saw one DD sit motionless as the
convoy swept by, appearing to be "listening". After 15 minutes he zoomed off to
catch up with the convoy. The AI is not as formidable as far as harbor patrols are concerned.
As I approached a enemy harbor I found the escorts
will fire on you if they catch you on the surface but once you
submerge, they are very likely to resume their patrol when they should be
dropping depth charges on your last position.
Once I made contact with a convoy and was fired on and driven off at least 13
times before finally, by luck and desperation, I managed to get in front of the
herd of lumbering merchants and sank two cargo ships with a salvo. It's not
unusual for me to leave cripples behind as I chase the convoy. I will mark
their position and course with the map tools, chase the convoy to use my
remaining torpedoes, then backtrack 200 km to hunt them down and finish them
off with the deck gun.
area where Silent Hunter 5 shines is the night attack. We've all read
Werner's accounts of sneaking into convoys at night with no moon and wreaking havoc. I engaged several convoys under these settings, and
with the auto map contacts "off", the only way I know what's out there is to
look myself. Is that a destroyer closing in among the shadows? I think I
see a freighter ahead 15 degrees off starboard bow...but what is his
heading? As I close in, always
watching around me, my crew calls out sightings. It can get really
intense--some merchants have deck guns and know how to use them.
If you are detected, ships can pick you out with spotlights. The night vision of escorts varies and
with map contacts "off", it's
hard to really tell when you're too close or when
you're safe, so you always have to be guessing. When you're approaching a
destroyer in the darkness you can see him but you think he can't see you
because you're low in the water. But if he gets close enough and detects
he will attack you with devastating results, and that kind of uncertainty adds
tremendous value to the game dynamics making this is the best part of the game;
tracking convoys and remaining out of sight and undetected.
SH5 also has a multiplayer client to
allow you to form wolfpacks with your friends and attack AI convoys. I
tested it and it works very well--no lag or drops. Imagine how sweet it
would be if SH5 sold well enough for Ubisoft to add a playable destroyer
expansion. There is also an improved mission editor; it is not in the main
game menu but you can access it from the main directory.
This is a review, and it's arguably too
long, but it's not a bug list or a walkthrough of every phase of the war. There
is a lot of content in the
Silent Hunter 5 campaign that will take weeks and months to play especially at high realism
levels. I like the full boat access. I've played for hours and hours and
I'm not at all tired of it. In fact, when I'm in my U-boat, many years of
memories of submarine books and movies slowly surface. I'm happy in my
little iron tube with my crew. I'll circulate aft and check with Willi,
watch the restless diesels, then
order a dive and head back to sonar to listen to the convoy approaching. I just wish the crew
had more to say (without speech balloons); I would love to hear them
talking, doing their jobs, providing me with reports.
SH5 has broken new ground with the full
boat access and amazing graphics, but it's not the best U-boat sim ever
made. That title still belongs to Silent Hunter III. A couple years back I
was asked what I thought was the next step for subsims, I said, "compelling
radio traffic, complex objectives like shadowing convoys, genuine wolfpack
activity, more role-playing with the crew, and full boat access". SH5 does
not deliver on any of these metrics, with the exception of opening up the
whole U-boat to the player. It does not allow the player to complete the
entire war, nor follow the Type II - Type VII - Type IX - Type XXI career
progression that players have come to expect.
I would be remiss if I did not stress
that even with the bugs and glitches, even with the unpopular DRM, Silent
Hunter 5 is an enjoyable simulation to spend time with. I like the game. If
it gets additional support from the developers, this could be a subsimmer's
dream come true. Would I recommend buying SH5? No, you should wait at least
6 to 9 weeks to see if Ubisoft supports the game with
patches. I think it is a fair statement to make that Silent Hunter 5 comes
up very short in quality and the onus is on Ubisoft to deliver more quality.
They are probably waiting to see if you buy it before they patch it; it's
time they patch it before you buy it. If they do, if we see a second patch
and a third in the next two or three months, then you should join the war.
A ship is built on land and is launched
to sea when complete. Anyone knows that a ship that is launched before it is
finished will sink. While finishing
this review, I was asked, "What exactly is an unfinished game?" Good
question. Maybe that's one of those things where you know it when you see, like
art, and true love. A better question is: What exactly is a finished game? One
thing I know, Silent Hunter 5 isn't one.
|BONUS: - 5 Released too soon, unfinished, poor tutorial,
Additional images by ReFaN
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