You thought the day would never come. Silent Hunter II, a new WWII subsim, has arrived. The last WWII subsim was Silent Hunter I in 1996, a DOS game with the player fighting the Japanese as an American sub commander. Graphics were restricted to 256 colors and the sounds were fairly limited to the essentials. With a dynamic campaign, decent AI, and good follow-up support, SH1 was a success, reportedly selling over 200,000 copies. By 1997 I was hearing the dev team (Aeon) were underway with a sequel, Silent Hunter II, to be set in the Atlantic with U-boats. What could be better?
Skip forward three years: the original dev team is unable to meet their benchmarks and is released. A new dev team (Ultimation) is signed and has to rebuild the code base virtually from scratch. Then the parent company (Mattel Interactive) sold the producing company (SSI/TLC), and within a year they were transferred again to French industry leader Ubi-Soft. To top it off, the dot-com bubble burst, simulations dried up, and Silent Hunter II seemed trapped in a frustrating cycle of delays that extended an additional eight months. A pretty bleak situation.
Despite the turmoil and chaos, Silent Hunter II has made it out to sea. I was part of the beta team and have been watching the progress since Oct. 2000. Over the length of the protracted development period a lot of hopes have been pinned on this subsim. How well SHII succeeds depends in part on how much youíve longed for a replacement for Aces of the Deep and Silent Hunter I. The first sign that Ubi-Soft is committed to this subsim appears right after you open the box--an elegant 196-page printed manual.
Install it and fire it up. Youíre greeted by the now familiar SHII splash screen and a stirring musical composition that strikes me as an inspired cross between the Aces of the Deep and Das Boot themes. There are subtle variations in different menus. Right away most cyber-captains will want to set the realism options and navigate through to a single mission and test the waters. When the game begins you'll realize you aren't in 1996 anymore. The graphics are 3D and quite good for a subsim. No longer are you restricted to a slice of the sea and sky when on the bridgeónow you can look around as you would in real life. The 3D view of your U-boat diving beneath the waves is splendid. And what waves they are! Rolling, undulating swells pitch your boat on all three axes. By this time youíll have a grin as you order full speed and begin a hunt. Depending on your graphics card, you may see some slight jaggedness on the horizon and mild clipping but overall, the graphics get an A. 3D and good graphics should not be written off as mere eye candy. When youíre running on the surface at night, intercepting an oil tanker, having an unrestricted view of the sky, bridge, and sea give you a better sense of "being there".
The same horizontal toolbar at the bottom of the screen you are used to in Aces and SH1 allows you quick access to the other stations of your U-boat, in addition to F hotkeys. There is no control room screen in Silent Hunter II, which takes some getting used to. The default interior station is the periscope screen. While some may argue that a control room screen is merely gratuitous, I contend that having full view of the interior of the U-boat lends measurably to the ambiance of the sim. One thing the technically inept Grey Wolf had going for it was it allowed the player the ability to traverse the U-boat from stem to stern. Give the player art that looks like he is in a U-boat and he will feel he is in a U-boat. The captainís cabin is the only station in SHII that reveals an interior look of your U-boat. It would have been nice if Ultimation could have applied this treatment to the control room, engine room, and torpedo rooms. Other ships stations include the gauges panel, Torpedo Computer, navigational map, damage reports, sound room (a first!), radar (if equipped), and radio shack. The captainís quarters gives you access to the calendar with moon phases and the logbook. The SHII logbook has several aspects worth noting. You can save it as a text file and you may enter personal observations. A nice little innovation.
Silent Hunter II features some nifty pull-out panels that will make your life a lot easier. You can access the main helm, torpedo, command, and ship ID Book functions from any station by moving your mouse to the right side of the screen (or pin them into place with the Q-W-E-R keys). Using these panels during attacks greatly enhances your command and control quotient.
The next thing youíll notice are the sounds. SHII sounds are overwhelmingly impressive, in fact, the crowning glory of the sim. The enemy destroyer screws are loud and menacing; the periscope raises with a raspy electric hum; the depth charges make you jump if you arenít expecting them to be so close; and the crew voices are rendered by German speakers with authentic passion. In reality, submarines are very dependent on what they can hear and SHII exhibits the listening facet of the sim better than any before it. Order crash dive and not only are you treated to a galvanizing "Alaaaaarm!" but also flooding and frantic valve twisting sounds. If your boat takes major damage, you can hear the water streaming in. Engine and electric motor sounds vary in intensity according to the compartment you are in. On the bridge the air is filled with the roar of the diesels and the lapping sound of the ocean waves. The background sounds inside the sub vary from compartment to compartment and I donít see how they could have gotten the external underwater sounds any more right. They combine to form a hull-creaking good time.
SHII sounds also add function to the gameplay. Go to the sound room and "put on" the headphones and all interior U-boat sounds are mutedóyou are now listening to the underwater world around you. When an enemy freighter comes into range, a robust thump-thump-thump fills the air. Destroyers produce an intimidating churning sound. The sound room is the place to play SHII at the highest levels of realism because there you can determine the position of surrounding ships with a higher degree of accuracy than using the map view. You can also determine the general range and closing rate by the rate at which the volume is decreasing or increasing. Tracking ships will update a notepad on the bulkhead. If youíre a "hardcore" subsimmer, stay out of the map when you are beneath the surface and depend on your skill in the sound roomóit adds a level of tension and excitement that Aces and SH1 could never approach.
In addition to the sound station, SHII gives you some other things SH1 and Aces of the Deep didnít. When aircraft attack (sounds like the title of a new TV show), you may elect to take control of the AA gun and duke it out on the surface. The number and type of guns available rightly depends on the model of U-boat and time period the scenario occurs. Ultimation took great pains to get this as accurate as possible. You can command a full slate of U-boats, including the various Type IIs, VIIs and IXs, and XXI. If the mission is scripted accordingly, you can meet milch cow U-boats for resupply. Time compression allows you to speed things up to 2048x if the scenario will allow it. Too many vessels will bog the TC down but after playing every mission I can testify that you can almost always count on getting 512x, unless ships are in your area, then it rightfully drops to 64x.
The map view is reminiscent of map views in past WWII subsims. Top down, zoomable, and usually too real-time for my tastes but very friendly to newbies and more casual players. If you play with the Limited Visibility option you will not see ships that are outside of your visual range or while submerged. Convoy reports will indicate the last known position with a red square. Sound contacts while submerged are rendered as opaque bearing lines, or "uncertainty zones", which are a good representation of your sense of sound. You will be shown live action torpedo tracks even with limited visibility on, so I guess if you donít like it, donít look. For those who crave a map view that only marks down stationary symbols of ships as they are spotted by the player in the scope, on the bridge, or in the sounds room, and updated by the player manually, we will continue to wait.
Another option that impacts the map view is the Limited Target Data. With this selected, you do not get range and speed in the periscope, your crew does not announce "Target destroyed" like magic the second the torpedo hits, and you donít get automated data in the map view. Unfortunately, most of the benefits this option provides are offset by other design elements. Whereas you would really not want to know instantly when a target is doomed to sink hours later, you will find that you can no longer lock the small red target triangle on a ship that has fatal damage, nullifying the LTD option. And while there are neutrals and friendly ships in the game, they are identified as such immediately when in contact. Ironically, some of the mission briefings caution you not to attack neutrals. With all ships immediately IDed, you could only do so intentionally. SHII lacks the utility for requiring the player to make an approach and assess the contact.
Damage control has been depicted very well. Using the blueprint of your sub as a guide, the different compartments and pieces of equipment can be assessed and individually prioritized. Additionally, damage can take the form of fires, flooding, crew losses, and hull integrity. Ultimation included mechanical failures unrelated to attack damage as well. Run too long at flank speed and the Chief will warn you that the bearings are overheating. Ignore his advice and you can suffer engine damage. You have control of loading torpedoes and determining which engine or both drives the boat or charges the batteries.
Gameplay takes the form of single missions (eight missions plus three training missions), randomly generated convoy encounters, and a historical campaign (21 missions). The single missions are well designed but there arenít enough of them. If you play one a day, you get a week of action. The campaign is even better designed, spanning the war and indulging the player in many of the historical high points of the U-boat war, such as the Scapa Flow attack, Dunkirk evacuation, Operation Drumbeat, severing the British lifeline to Malta, and more. The overall feel while playing the campaign is notable. Radio messages come in remarking on the progress of the war and your sub is upgraded as a result of your success. You get medals, too! Every campaign mission has a specific primary objective that must be accomplished or you are expected to replay the mission (there is a way around this, see Tactics & Tips). Campaign missions are autosaved when exiting the game, single missions are manually saved. And your career is tracked in a summary file and a map that displays a red X in the location of every kill.
A total of less than 30 missions for a subsim with no dynamically generated campaign begs for a scenario editor. Silent Hunter II is shipping without one. The developers have declared that the existing editor has too many rough spots for official release. There is a good chance that it may leak out when Destroyer Command is released (target date: mid December 2001). In the meantime, scenarios can be hand edited and there are players who will pick up the knack quickly. Subsim Review will host additional scenarios and the "Second Kampaign" for download.
What SHII does not furnish is the standard "dynamic campaign" where you are tasked from port with basic sailing orders and you venture off in the virtual ocean to sink what you find. Silent Hunter II is purely scripted, meaning if the mission designer did not plant a ship or convoy in a certain region, there will never be one there. So any sailing off to parts unknown is destined to be a feckless enterprise. For this reason, the player should follow the mission briefing studiously. Say you start a mission and the briefing instructs you to interdict Allied landings off North Africa. Most likely the scenario has included ships and convoys in the North African theater and along the route to and from. Some scenarios start the player out near the objective. Scenarios can be written to start right next to a great looking dock and set of U-boat pens. Most importantly, the structure of the mission script does allow for a great deal of probability of inclusion and spawnable aircraft. Depending on the extent to which the mission designer uses these dynamic features, you will not necessarily see the same ships in the same places.
When I spoke with the producer and developers about the scripted campaign they readily admitted that it was not the kind of campaign they wanted. However, when the original development team (Aeon) were let go, the choice was either to make do with a less elaborate campaign structure for Silent Hunter II or let the project go. Personally, after seeing NovaLogic's Wolfpack II and Sierra's Aces of the Deep II shot down in the pro forma stage, I am glad to see a new U-boat subsim, even if the campaign is less than optimal. Silent Hunter II missions are gratifying and suspenseful the first time they are played. There just needs to be hundreds more.
Boats crash dive and turn realistically. There is some question as to the rate of climb/descend. Torpedoes have the right amount of lethality. Most ships under 7000 tons will go down with one torp, ships in excess of 7000 tons frequently require two. Warships, especially battleships with armor belts, will require three to five torpedoes to sink. The sim automatically sets you up with a good solution when you mark a target or you can flip the torpedo computer in manual and control everything, including the depth and speed of the torpedoes. Manual operation of the torpedo computer is a bit tricky but manageable. The manual includes detailed instructions on using the tick marks in the periscope and UZO to determine range. Bearing is easy, just look the the mark on the scope. Course is determine by the angle on the bow and speed, well, just use 85% of what the ID books say is max for the target. At close range (~700 meters) you can be devastating.
Sea states vary from flat calm to swells to sizeable waves. The waves do not have that sharp, white crest seen in photos of stormy Atlantic seas but they produce more actual motion than Aces of the Deepís famous wave action. Several grades of sky and weather are included, ranging from clear, overcast, foggy, and stormy. Understand that stormy does not include visible rain or any additional wind effects or sounds.
To successfully engage your imagination to the fullest while playing SHII, you will need to overlook a few persistent design flaws. In several of the missions I played, I pursued a convoy through coastal waters. Suddenly I began to gain rapidly. As I warily approached I discovered that the ships were running aground. It totally kills the mood and reminds you that you are playing a game. Until Ultimation can remedy this annoying defect, you'll have to ignore it. As mentioned previously the nationality of vessels is displayed by default rendering the need to ID targets unnecessary and making friendly fire and fog of war less likely and less interesting. If you are determined you can play around this to some degree by staying away from the map view and not looking at the message display when the AI crew calls out "Ship sighted". One would think that the limited target data option would block this info and allow the player the choice to identify the contacts.
A few more nitpicks: I found the new moon nights not dark enough for my tastes. For missions which begin in mid-ocean the diesel tanks show full, reducing the strategic value of limited range. Finally, when you suffer lethal damage, the game ends too abruptly. Missing features: No BOLDs, Q-ships, or planes with Klieg lights.
The program seemed very stable and trouble free. I must have logged 300 hours playing various builds of SHII and as they approached gold, the number of game crashing bugs diminished to nothing. The gold copy I built this review around has not given me any trouble. You better have the very latest drivers before you cry foul on this subsim, it's solid.
Frank Kulick, a Chief in the U.S. Navy and one of the members of the Subsim staff who served on the beta team put it like this: "Silent Hunter II gave me as much immersion as I gave it. It placed me on the bridge of a rolling, pitching U-Boat getting swamped with seawater while in heavy seas. The depth charge attacks were quite tense, and much more involved then anything I had experienced. I needed to stay at normal time compression to survive this gauntlet of ash cans! I had to know my boat, and how to handle her to stay alive, no simple go deep and get away tactic. The "sound" station is a real treat over past sims, and is a real asset to survive the DD's attacks which can last any where from one to five hours. The AI is not completely predictable as in past sims and sent me to a watery grave more then once but there is balance as well in this area. Just when I thought I had their DC runs figured out, they seemed to change their method. The ocean environment is fantastic and seemed to have an effect on the accuracy of my shots as well. It definitely has an effect on the helmsman, as I watched him swing the rudder occasionally to keep course. While past sims had a control room screen, the 3D bridge more than makes up for it and greatly enhances the experience. So, aside from a few "tweaks" I personally recommend, (from a submariner perspective) it gave me hours of tension, heartburn, aggravation, boredom, and pleasure! I am having a great time with it, better then I had expected."
The AI varies and depends on the way the scenario is written. Merchant ships come in several categories: freighters, liners, troop ships, tankers. They appear solo or in convoys with as many as 30 ships. An attack will usually cause them to scatter and regroup later. Quite often they are armed. Even more often they are well-guarded by aggressive escorts. Some DDs will be mild and suffer the delusion they are merchants. Others can be uber-escorts. If they spot you on the surface, they will speed over to your location and prosecute a lethal depth charge pattern. You stand a chance if you are in deep water but if they catch you in less than 50 meters you can expect to be killed on the first pass. Surface near a DD and it takes you on. It will find your range with guns pretty quickly. A couple hits and you can kiss your hull integrity good-bye.
Planes are frequent visitors on SHII patrols. Some are older Swordfish bi-planes that come in low on the horizon. Dive-bombers will attack from high altitudes at steep angles, not giving you much time to evade or defend. Planes rarely make more than one pass and never circle as they did in previous smokeboat subsims. If you choose to fight it out on the surface, youíll find the early-year U-boats with one AA gun are severely overmatched. You go through a magazine and then must wait 5 seconds to reload. Itís safer to crash dive if you detect the threat in time. Later in the war, U-boats with the flak attack platforms with multiple AA guns allows you to fire, switch to another gun and continue without the reload interruption. Planes can take some hits, as you would expect, and they spark and smoke but will press on the attack. Overall, the aircraft aspect of Silent Hunter II has about the right balance.
SHII does not initially come equipped for multiplayer games. The prize feature--multiplay with Destroyer Command--will be added via a patch when the destroyer sim is released, tentatively set for mid-December. Ubi-Soft decided to focus all their energy on getting SHII done right and released and it was deemed that the MP component would need additional refinement as Destroyer Command reached gold. If that comes off as planned, players will be able to hunt virtual convoys in real time, which will be guarded by other players in destroyers as well as hunt AI convoys cooperatively with other SHII players.
I can't count how many times I would lose myself in the game. Even for an old vet of subsims, Silent Hunter II is compelling and captivating. When pursuing a wounded merchant, with the deck gun autofiring, I tracked the ship from the bridge with the binoculars. Every time the gun fired, a thin puff of smoke would waft by, slightly obscuring the view momentarily. Standing on the bridge of a virtual U-boat, looking up at the noon sun or down at the deck hatch, the 3D bridge view and rolling waves is a joy. When submerged and being hunted, taking refuge in the realistic and claustrophobic sound room, the simulation atmosphere often approaches brilliance. Eight exclusive video interviews with Eric Topp, one of the greatest U-boat aces, is icing on the cake.
Itís been a long haul but Silent Hunter II has eclipsed the original in most categories. Not all the parts we expected are there but it's sure to improve with some additional refinements by the dev team*, the multiplayer code*, scenario editor*, and more missions. You've waited long enough, don't deny yourself the fun and discovery that this subsim holds. Silent Hunter II will be replacing Aces and SH1 as the new WWII subsim benchmark.
*UPDATE: 6/01/2002 - My review was written with much enthusiasm and optimism. Being somewhat on the inside of the SH2 project, I was under the impression that Ubisoft would continue to upgrade SH2, fix the AI, release the mission editor, and overhaul the MP. Unfortunately, this never came about. Instead, due to the difficulties of reworking the existing SH2 code, Ubisoft has decided to cut SH2 loose and undertake a new project to replace it: Silent Hunter III. It will once again encompass the North Atlantic theater with U-boats. A new dev team will be chosen to write a new sim from the ground up. Meanwhile, Carl Norman and Ubisoft have agreed to let Subsim.com have the source code and undertake a conversion of the multiplayer engine from rTime to Microsoft's DirectPlay. See Projekt Messerwetzer.
UPDATE: 1/12/2003 - Projekt Messerwetzer is available for free download. Converted from RTime to Microsoft DirectPlay. Overall multiplayer stability has increased.
UPDATE: 4/16/2004 -ďPACIFIC ACESĒ An unofficial Subsim Review add-on for Ubisoftís SH2, expanding the game to the Pacific theater of operations with all you could imagine and more!! it features new submarines, substations, sounds, maps, menus and the beautiful Random campaign generator ( PACG ), which will ensure thousands of hours of gameplay. There are brand new submarine models for the P,T, and Sargo class boats....and yes, also for the Gato and Balao! The campaign is built in the style of the Aces of the Deep campaigns. You select a starting year, a home base and a submarine type, and PA will generate a random campaign for you with random length and random patrol zones.....where random weather effects will take place! You will not play two campaigns identical to each other! By Hitman, Horsa, Seeadler, Adam, McBeck, and the PA Team
UPDATE: 10/29/2004 - Silent Hunter III Exclusive World Premiere hands-on preview only at Subsim Review
Go to the
PATCHES & MISSIONS section to DOWNLOAD the latest patches for this sim.
©2001 SUBSIM Review