November 22, 2000
SUBSIM Review Exclusive
Silent Hunter II:
Returning from Crush Depth
by Neal Stevens
Note: The screenshots lose some color blending when captured from the
in-game graphics. The colors in the game are noticeably better than these shots.
Silent Hunter II got off to a good start two years ago. Then it lost trim and sank from sight. Release dates got pushed back and then back some more. After a period of uncertainty, a second development team was signed to restore positive buoyancy. After six fast and furious months, Ultimation and former-Mattel Interactive rebuilt the U-boat subsim from the keel up. And now SUBSIM Review is here to report: Silent Hunter II has reached beta. Let that sink in for a second. It’s not a rumor or wishful thinking, Silent Hunter II is a fully playable subsim. All that is required before release are additional hours of testing, AI enhancements, and gameplay refinements. When you first fire it up you immediately sense the amount of time and thought that was put into it. This preview, or beta update, does not intend to cover every facet of the sim because some features will invariably change and some new ones may be added. But you are about to learn more about Silent Hunter II than was previously available from a third party.
It’s important to note before delving into the various features and capabilities of SH2 that from the outset the scope and vision of this sequel to the 1996 subsim was to be evolutionary, not revolutionary. Silent Hunter II starts where the original left off, moves to the Atlantic, and adds 3D graphics. If you were expecting to see virtual crewmen in your U-boat’s control room or Q-ships that actually have men scurrying about the decks, throwing off crates and canvas, then you are going to have to keep waiting. This is no copout, Silent Hunter II offers a lot more than the original—in some very important areas (no more DOS!)--but it doesn’t place you in an inhabited sim world. In my conversations with Mattel Interactive Producer Shawn Storc and Ultimation Associate Producer Mark Kundinger, I have come away with the impression they are committed to packing Silent Hunter II with enough detail, features, and gameplay to make it the best subsim ever.
Art: I know what I like
Join the Kriegsmarine,
see the world
Right off the bat I was favorably impressed with the artwork that comprised the ship’s screens. The gauges and fittings look really good and gritty. The periscope castings have a slight green tint from the inevitable corrosion that results in the humid interior of the U-boat. The sonar room and the sonar head dial give off a ghostly glow as you twirl the wheel in search of faint propeller sounds. The captain’s quarters, the radio room, and the torpedo computer are all rendered in wonderfully meshed colors and hues that will leave the original Silent Hunter and Aces of the Deep looking cartoony. Kiss 256 color bye-bye.
But you can tell all that from the countless screenshots that fill the web. What you can’t readily discern from still pictures is the motion of the ocean (that rhyme is darn near unavoidable when discussing subsims). Different sea states are modeled, from slow swells to the kind of seas made famous in the Das Boot rendezvous scene where your U-boat wildly pitches its bow and stern clear of the waves. From the bridge station the pitching fore and aft is accompanied by the rolling side to side. The result is an effect that blows SH and AOD out of the water. You will spend a lot of time on the bridge just enjoying the simulated effect of being out in the vast ocean in a tiny 700-ton submarine.
A burning hell
The wave action is just as dramatic when surveyed in the external view, or the "x-y-z" station. Merchant ships lumber along rocking on their keels. The color of the water is usually deep blue mottled with dark shadows and crests, although the graphics stop short of reproducing sharp-edged waves and whitecaps. Let me describe a neat characteristic of SH2’s waves; I was at periscope depth and had just torpedoed a liner. It was smoking and starting to list. A quick sweep revealed that the escorts were over the horizon—safe to surface. At 15 meters, the view from the scope is steady—you can see the waves but they don’t affect the stability of the view. I gave the order to surface. As my Type IX began rising to the surface, the view through the scope began rocking and swaying, gently at first, and then forcibly as the U-boat began encountering the waves. A great transition effect that goes a long way to anchor your sense of being there.
Silent Hunter II is like no subsim you’ve seen before. When on the bridge you can pan 360 degrees, just as with SH and AOD, but you can also pan up and down to your heart’s content. No longer are you relegated to a small slice of sky with a big swath of conning tower blocking your view. In Silent Hunter II you are free to look around at the ocean, sky, deck, hatches, and conning tower interior. This gives you the ability to really search the sky for enemy aircraft, not just the horizon. In addition, the external view lets you watch your sleek U-boat crash through the waves and dive to the depths.
Masts on the horizon!
The enemy ships appear at a distance as the smallest of bumps on the horizon, something you would have rarely noticed in Aces or SH1 and dismissed as a pixel glitch. In SH2 that teeny little nub out there is the lead ship of a 20-ship convoy. As it draws nearer you can see it creep into sight, trailing smoke. The beta copy I played allowed you to visually detect a ship before the crew AI notified you, so the payoff for the hardcore player means if you do your part and man the watch you can see the enemy in advance. This gives the player extra time to maneuver into attack position. I appreciate the design decision that empowers the player with the incentive to play proactively and be rewarded accordingly.
Smoke on the horizon!
Ships and subs are represented in good detail. The U-boats have faint streaks of rust along the limber holes and the deck gratings. Surface ships have a well-traveled appearance. Rigging is visible on deck, along with lifeboats, crates, and smoke pouring from the stacks. As you watch the ships plow the seas the smoke trails behind them. Warships have gun turrets that rotate and track you should you be foolish enough to surface within range. As in all the U-boat books you ever read, Silent Hunter II allows you to locate a convoy by distant smoke trails. The 3D effect is evident in all objects small and large. Whereas in Aces and SH1 opposing ships could only present a limited number of angles to you and would often "twitch" as they turned, the ships and planes in SH2 turn with smooth precision.
Returning to the
pens at Lorient
The weather effects were still being developed when I played the beta. Choices are clear, overcast, rainsqualls, fog, and stormy. Seas range from nearly flat to rough. Fog is a powerful factor. In one mission I was tasked with meeting and shepherding the wounded battleship Bismarck. A heavy fog rolled in and while Bismarck was only 3000 meter abeam I soon lost sight of her. I could still pick her up on my hydrophones, which meant I could place and track her on the chart (done automatically). When visibility is down to 3000 meters you spend a lot of time in the sound room listening. Suddenly I detected the screws of an enemy (I think) cruiser! I switched to the bridge and scanned the dense fog for signs of a sharp bow heading my way. Nothing. I moved back to the sound room. The cruiser was rapidly growing louder and bearing down on me. Again, back to the bridge. Still nothing! Once again to the sound room, trembling with anxiety. He was shifting bearing, which indicated he would miss me but it was going to be close. He was there but I couldn’t see him. Finally I lost my nerve and order 100 meters, hard astern. Poor Bismarck would have to fend for herself!
Night action is much like what you remember from SH1—dark! Vision is quite restricted and in the early to middle part of the war, without radar, you rely heavily on your sonar capabilities.
The distant waves, ship rigging, and other diagonal surfaces sometime display tiny jags. It could be my nVidia TNT2 3d card or just the need for additional graphics refinements. Nothing too objectionable, just a nit-pick item. The overall graphics are quite good though not as good as the current crop of flight simulators. No surprise there, subsims have always lagged a year or two behind flight sims which command a bigger market share and consequently a bigger development budget. But if you’ve been raised on the best subsims to date, SH1 or Jane’s 688(I), you are in for a heck of a pleasant surprise. SH2 3D raises the bar significantly and the enhanced graphics contribute mightily to the atmosphere and gameplay.
Now hear this
Bring it on
While the graphics are good, the sounds are even better--much better than the original. And in any subsim, sounds are important. If you’ve played Aces of the Deep, you know the annoying feeling when certain commands would cut the engine and motor sounds out and you would play in total silence. Silent Hunter 1 was an improvement. Well, get ready for the next plateau in subsim sounds. Silent Hunter II comes with a rich sound suite that adds a bountiful ambiance to the underwater environment. Individually, the various sounds are well suited for the task but when combined and blended during gameplay they elevate Silent Hunter II to the level of a Hollywood production. The crew’s voices are German-accented English and German. The crew reports display a variety of inflections and urgency. The sonar station gives you a window to the underwater orchestra that is generated by a convoy.
A lot of effort went into making the sounds dynamic. The background sounds vary from station to station. The gauges panel will reverberate with the roar of restless diesels. Move to the sonar room and the sound diminishes. Activate the hydrophones (which simulates putting on the headphones) and the diesels are greatly muted while the ocean acoustics are clearly drawn in. Spin the dial to the rear of the sub and your U-boat's muffled diesels (if surfaced, quieter motors if dived) are transmitted through your headphones. Wonderful audio fidelity! Wait till you hear the sound setting in the external view. Really neat, like playing a subsim and watching a movie at the same time.
Listening to surface ships from the sonar station is delightful! Merchant ships chug-chug-chug; escorts have that faster, more dangerous sound. And when they're close by, you can hear them through the hull--and they're loud! Deck gun sounds are robust and when shells impact a target you are rewarded with a thunderous "ka-bloom!". Depth charge blasts are still being worked up; distant explosions sound good but the close-up teeth-rattlers are absent. As you take your boat to deeper depths the hull creaks and groans with authority--you don't need any other reminder that you're down deep. It's also worth noting that the sound volume of individual effects varies depending on your proximity. Distant explosions really sound far away. Venture closer to the source and the sound grows progressively louder. You may not notice this at all times but it contributes mightily to the illusion of battling at sea.
The fine score is plainly influenced by Das Boot. It has the same foreboding, ominous urgency. There are several short compositions to go with the exciting opening sequence, successful missions, and closing credits. All fit the bill. So far no in game music (Tipperary) is present. Someone send Ultimation a DVD of Das Boot, please.
Uncle Karl has a mission for you
Upon starting the sim you are offered two play choices—Single Missions and Campaign. The single missions offer a wide variety of objectives from convoy attacks to dropping off Nazi agents to refuel rendezvous. Fans of dynamic missions will be glad to learn that Ultimation included a random scenario generator so you can fashion a mission from scratch, much like what was offered in the original SH convoy and warship encounters. The theaters you can patrol include the North Sea, Caribbean, Eastern US, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean. You begin the mission at the point of initial contact. The random encounters I played did not threaten to cut the mission short if I broke contact. In fact, a couple times after expending my first load of fish I tried sailing directly away from the convoy position and completely broke contact without the mission ending, then after reloading the tubes I plotted a new course to intercept. It took some time to find the convoy again but it was still zigging along.
Periscope at water's edge; note the proper perspective of the ship towering over the U-boat.
The Campaign mission provides a scripted career that is varied and historically grounded . The downside is the missions play out roughly the same every time. The upside is you only intend to play each mission once unless you are destroyed, then you can repeat it and hopefully perform a little better. You start the war chasing a flotilla of Polish destroyers and by the time you finish the war struggling to snorkel across the Bay of Biscay you will have played through over twenty missions. The beta copy I received included a total of 60 single and campaign missions that, when combined with the random mission generator, will keep you busy for some time.
But what about a dynamic campaign, you ask? You won’t like the answer—most likely won’t be one. Ah yes, we all would like to assume command of a Type IIC at the start of the war and then sail forth from port with no idea what we will encounter. Executive Producer Carl C. Norman says it was never planned. I know of only one instance where it was mentioned and that was in the very early stages when Scott Udell of Computer Games Online wrote, "SSI says they are planning a ‘new dynamic campaign’ that they claim is going to have ‘the most detailed and realistic environment yet seen in a naval simulation.’" That was almost two years ago and with the new adoptive dev team stretched thin over SH2, Destroyer Command, and Harpoon4, the dynamic campaign idea was likely left behind in a cloud of brainstorming dust. In actuality, a dynamic campaign is essentially a set of randomly generated battles-environments in chronological order so SH2 offers a little of each, a campaign and random generated battles. All that’s missing is a shell to combine them. To offset the lack of a purely dynamic career, players can edit the mission files to design an unlimited number of scenarios.
I accept that challenge!
Cast off the bow and stern lines, ahead slow
One area where Silent Hunter II may exceed all expectations is the planned multiplay between U-boats and destroyers with its companion sim Destroyer Command. When I first heard about this goal, I was ecstatic. The virtual naval battlefield. A realm where you could pit your skills as a U-boat captain against an equally brash and able destroyer player. He guards his flock of lumbering merchants. You probe and watch, waiting for darkness to settle down on the ocean. With three or four buddies in your wolfpack and five or six players opposing you as escort commanders, the action would dwarf anything an AI opponent could dish out. You would be playing against ambitious, thinking beings, not a set of algorithms.
A friend in the PC game business was dubious that two separate development teams working on two individual sims could "link" them up and make it work. "Pipedream", he scoffed. Then came the departure of Aeon and in six blitzkrieg months Silent Hunter II was reworked by Ultimation co-founder and Project Lead Troy Heere (the brains behind Destroyer Command) and the Ultimation programming engineers. Suddenly, the "planned" interoperability between SH2 and DC was looking a lot more like a sure thing. And that’s where Silent Hunter II will best all other subsims before it, including Jane’s 688(I) and its cancelled companion sim Aegis. While multiplay is no substitute for a detailed single player sim with good AI and gameplay, think of it as an added bonus.
Interface of the future
In keeping with the tradition of all fine subsims, Silent Hunter II boasts a horizontal tool bar that gives you one-click access to all the major stations. In addition, you can access the small sliding panel at the screen right which offers four important mini-screens; gauges, torpedo settings, major commands (blow ballast, rig for red, etc.), and the ship ID book. You can pull up the sliding panel by bumping the right side of the screen with the mouse and it retracts when you move the mouse away; or you can "stick it" in place using the Q-W-E-R hot keys. It is a good feature.
To shift your view while on the bridge, using the UZO, and periscope you use the same technique as in SH1, just move the mouse to the right or left and a direction arrow appears, then hold the mouse button down. SH2 also gives you the option of right-clicking and then the view is mouse controlled. You can spin around the conning tower in search of escorts or planes in a flash! The mouse also controls the deck machine guns and anti-aircraft guns. Simply go to the gun station, right click and the gun is at your disposal. It moves as adroitly as you can manage the mouse, making for some real fun shooting down planes (don’t tell Doentiz!). The main deck gun traverses more slowly and is still arrow controlled.
Type XXI hit while on the surface
The captain’s quarters contains the calendar by which you may determine the lunar phases, a critical item in a U-boat captain’s repertoire. The logbook is a much more robust version of the SH1/Aces chronicle. Every major command and occurrence is logged automatically and the player may choose to add personal notes as well. The whole record is saved as a text file in a folder so the player may pull it up and excerpt sections for online reports.
The map view is handled in similar fashion to the original Silent Hunter. Contacts appear as square icons until you zoom in close, then they are depicted as the familiar ship-shaped icons complete with wakes. When running submerged and scope down, the icons are more stationary, being updated infrequently by the sonar bearings. In place of the sharply defined blue and red bearing lines of old, SH2 uses lighter colored sonar cones on the map to relay the information to the skipper. From the map you may plot waypoints and click-drag the cursor to measure distances.
Bits and pieces
Better eat your carrots, night is dark in the North Atlantic
The subsim includes a wealth of small but important features which add to the gameplay and immersion factor: U-boat pens and docks, neutral and friendly vessels, radar station, trim gauge, snorkel, battery recharge switches, prioritizing damage control, comprehensive ship ID book, and much more. A multimedia package includes a 3D U-boat tour, several video interviews with consultant retired Admiral Erich Topp, one of the Reich’s most successful U-boat skippers, and the obligatory vehicle preview.
I put the watch to dive times. Under normal seas a Type VIIC will completely submerge in about 30~45 seconds. Rough seas inhibit the dive time slightly. A U-boat at a dead stop will increase speed gradually and answers the helm in a realistic fashion. Order a 30° course change at standard speed and the rudder responds by moving to 20° off center in 15 seconds, completing the turn in 55 seconds submerged, 45 seconds surfaced. You can order the rudder to the full turn port or starboard positions as in the original Silent Hunter for maximum course changes. I didn't do an exhaustive physics check on all aspects such as submerged range and crush depth, though I plan to. It's just too much fun playing to complete my analysis (and that's better suited for the final product review).
Other touches abound. In both SH1 and AOD while running at periscope depth, if you raised the scope, you would see the scope animation and then switch to the scope screen. In Silent Hunter II, you raise the periscope in increments. You click the up lever and the view raises from beneath the waves to the surface. A barber-striped depth gauge (the Papenberg Column) informs you of the scope’s approximate relationship to the surface. In heavy seas the scope actually goes under a lot. You can choose to just poke it out of the water or raise the scope up to full extension for a more commanding view. Of course, when the enemy AI is complete prolonged scope extension should result in unwanted attention from surrounding ships.
Silent Hunter II is a spirited step above the original in many key areas. It doesn’t have the coveted dynamic campaign but you can generate random encounters and the scripted missions and campaign are varied and engaging. SHII is a Windows stable product and that means no more boot disks or archaic DOS configurations. The static stations are superb and the 3D graphics are good. The waves are the best yet in a subsim and the sounds are first-rate. Above all, there is more for a player to do in SH2 than previous WWII subsims. With five more months (but no more than five, please!) to refine and improve the product, Ultimation and former-Mattel Interactive have a good shot at capturing much of what subsim players have been longing for. Silent Hunter II will be replacing Aces and SH1 as the new WWII subsim benchmark. If the interoperable play between SH2 and Destroyer Command is realized, we will be set for action that was previously available in only our dreams. Silent Hunter II shows a lot of promise. It could well be a dream come true.
Silent Hunter II is tentatively expected to release around April.
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