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Online since 1997

Silent Hunter III
World Exclusive Hands-on Preview
by Neal Stevens, original art by Torplexed
Oct 29, 2004

The Stage is Set  

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October 16, 2004: On the eve of the Sub Club’s Second Intercontinental Meeting, Subsim Review asked Ubisoft if we could demo a build of Silent Hunter III for the members. After all, when you have guys flying in from Europe and across the US you want to treat them to something special. Between group shooting practice and touring the Battleship Texas, they needed some entertainment. Ubisoft graciously sent Subsim Review the first external beta build of Silent Hunter III to be released to the media. As the packed Subsim media room darkened and the opening menu came up, the joking and noisy chatter ceased. All eyes were riveted on the splashscreen, a collage of U-boats, captains, menacing destroyers, and a subtle inscription in German, "Gott mit uns!" One of the Dutch members said it stood for, "God be with us." Another member said that was the Silent Hunter II creed. Nervous laughter followed, about what one might expect for a joke uttered during a depth charge attack.

Many of the Sub Club members in attendance were battle-weary veterans of the Silent Hunter II campaign. You remember that one; the rumors, the long, drawn-out wait, the endless release date pushbacks. The angst over features such as the dynamic campaign, multiplayer, and empty harbors. It didn’t end with the game’s release, either. These same players were called on to fund and test Subsim Review’s Projekt Messerwetzer multiplayer upgrade (programmed by Duane Doutel, he of the magazine fame). Testing, tweaking, and translating into seven languages, these guys had stood their ground, tested their mettle, and were back for more. Ubisoft’s Silent Hunter III is all-new from a crack team of Romanian artists, programmers, and naval enthusiasts. These diehard, loyal players had seen the trailers, the screenshots, the marketing. Now in sessions of eight or ten at a time they would see the simulation.

Silent Hunter III

Within moments of loading the first mission one aspect became clear—SH3 breaks new ground with utterly stunning graphics. While Silent Hunter 2 graphics were good at the time, in SH3 the overall appearance of each ship and sub is one big step closer to photorealism. Details abound. Railings, masts, cargo, port holes, anchors, and rust are smoothly rendered and lifelike. Whereas SH2 ships had details they appeared to be painted on the skin. SH3 ships and subs are so sharply rendered that they fully earn the term "3D". The edges and curves don’t draw attention to themselves, they merely are part of the ship. The water surface doesn’t just shine and shimmer—it holds the reflection of the vessels. These are graphics that make no excuses about being in a subsim.

Easily as impressive are the physics and object motion. The fluid motion of the ocean waves, the ships sailing and turning, and the subs diving and rolling under depth charge attack all possess that elusive true-to-nature quality. This sim has a lot of replay value in simply watching the vessels sail on the ocean. It’s a great joy just watching your sub slip beneath the waves bow-first. Equally impressive is seeing a destroyer tearing down on you with a "bone in the teeth", the tell-tale bow wave that signifies he is running at high speed.

But the crown jewel of SH3’s graphics set is the addition of a fully detailed 3D crew. This truly groundbreaking component sets Silent Hunter III apart from all subsims that came before it. In Wolfpack, Aces, Grey Wolf, SH1 and 2 you sailed alone. Silent Hunter III surpasses the traditional 2D stations and puts you in the U-boat with a 3D control room, bridge, conning tower, and radio shack. You serve in the company of a lifelike Navigator, Chief Engineer, helmsmen, and other personnel. You can interact with them and give them orders and they respond. They move and react well, gesture, even glance at you occasionally. On the bridge, your lookouts scan the horizon for enemy ships, wipe their binoculars, and point out targets. When in heavy weather or under attack they will crouch and brace themselves. Having these guys on board adds a lot to the immersive aspect of the sim.

In addition to the fleshed-out crew in the control room, on the bridge, and in the radio shack, SH3 adds an extensive level of crew management. Sharing space with the damage control screen, the crew management system allows you, the Captain, to assign individual crewmembers to the compartments where you feel they’re needed, including assembling a damage control team. For additional efficiency you may choose to include a petty officer or an officer. Each crewman has a name, rank, and status for health, fatigue, and morale. Take your boat through heavy seas or rough combat and some can be injured or killed, compelling you to keep your crew’s welfare in mind. You can assign them for rest, recommend them for medals; about the only option not included is delousing.

 

All this takes place, as previously mentioned, aboard a 3D U-boat. Not all of the sub’s compartments are modeled but the ones that are look great. The control room is fitted out with gauges, valves, and pipes, including the long-sought sausages swinging overhead. (I’m not sure why it took so long to get this feature in a subsim but now that it’s here, there are sure to be arguments in the forums--beef or pork). During a severe depth charge attack the lights flicker violently, you hear glass breaking, and water and high-pressure air lines are prone to breaking. For the first time you can enter the conning tower and man the attack scope (which in this build was the same as the navigational scope). On the bridge your U-boat throws up a marvelous bow wave with spray while the diesels bellow out their stately hymn.

Life aboard a U-boat was spartan and rigorous. The small 700-odd ton boats pitched and rolled with the waves. Silent Hunter III suitably recreates the sensation of standing on the bridge or in the control room of a moving U-boat. Using the binoculars (the UZO was not implemented in our build) requires constant compensation for the movement of the boat. One feature I found appealing at the May 2004 E3 showing was the way water would run off the periscope lens as it was raised, giving the view a blurry, out-of-focus appearance for a few seconds. The guys in the Subsim Media room agreed that was noteworthy.

The build we previewed had most menu items disabled so we could only sample a few general convoy missions. According to the Readme, the realism settings were on "Easy". The external camera view allowed us to examine the battle from both sides of the waves. This really helps when trying to evaluate the AI. And believe me, after the Jekyll and Hyde AI of SH2, AI in SH3 is a top concern so we ran a few tests. Running submerged with the phonograph tooting "J'attendrai", the boat running at full, and otherwise making noise, the nearest escort charged right at us and dropped a string of well-placed ash cans all around our hapless U-boat. Interestingly enough, by using the external cam to watch the pattern, we observed some of the bombs were shallow, some deeper than our U-boat, and a few right on target. So, even though we gave the DD a good target, his aim is not perfect (though two more passes did us in).

Then we replayed the mission and this time observed the highest order of stealth. We put the boat in front of the convoy, submerged, kept a zero bow angle on the nearest escort, ran at slow, and kept the periscope in the well. No music, not joking, just silent sweat and concentration. One escort passed by, not detecting us at 1800m range. After we torpedoed a merchant another escort spotted our periscope. How do I know this? Because it started shooting at the scope! In Silent Hunter III if you spend too much time focused on the target you’ll end up hearing high speed screws fast approaching and when you spin the scope 'round, you’ll be face-to-face with a hard-charging destroyer. We crash-dived to 120m and again employed the external cam to measure the escort’s accuracy. By maintaining silent running we soon managed to slip away with minor damage.

That’s a sample of the AI but bear in mind, SH3 is not finished and we were unable to ratchet up the realism settings. A thorough evaluation of a gold copy will determine the true nature of the game’s AI but at this point I feel a lot better about it than I did SH2.

 

Convoys are well-stocked with an ample variety of ships—tankers, generic merchants, troop ships, and Liberty ships were seen in our preview. SH3 does not appear to have issues with large convoys. We saw nine merchants and five escorts in one large mission and the game ran smoothly. Collision avoidance seemed to be working, too. I did not see any examples of ships crashing together and locking up like was the case in SH2. When torpedoed, ships sink in a range of ways. The Readme points out that the AI ships have working compartments and specific areas of the ship that can be damaged so the manner and rate of sinking depend on where they are struck. I saw some roll over and sink quickly, others broke in halves, and one sank evenly, very slowly, and I had to wait for the convoy to leave him and finish him with the deck gun.

The escorts appeared to vary their search techniques, stopping at times or sailing at slow, as if listening for U-boats. Other times it seemed that one DD would sit off while another made a depth charge run, mimicking the tactics that made Captain Johnny Walker, one of the great heroes of the Royal Navy, so successful. And as for "headhunting", well, good luck. These DDs aren’t as easy to hit as the ones in SH2. Launch a torpedo and the AI escort is likely to spot it or hear it and evade. Payback is hell. Again, these are just first impressions but they lend a great deal of confidence to the eventual gameplay.

There is an "action camera" that pops up when something significant is about to happen, such as a torpedo about to strike or an escort rolling depth charges off the stern. You can switch to it or disable it at anytime.

 

Silent Hunter III has a good sonar station but is not the same as the one we praised in SH2. Basically, you have the map with the ships laid out as hand-drawn icons (looked very good) and the U-boat sporting a blue "cone" that represents the direction the hydrophone is pointing. Using the < and > keys, you can rotate the cone and get a better fix on the target. The sound is quite good and it was easy to close my eyes and tell the type of ship and relative range from the pitch of its screws. The ship icons do not update in real time, they update in intervals ranging from 20 to 40 seconds. This is favorable and brings to mind an officer marking the bearings on the chart as called out by the sonar technician. (The dev team tells me this is still a work in progress).

We would really like to see an option at higher realism where no icons are drawn on the map—the player has to listen and judge the bearing, range, and heading by using the sonar and listening for screws grow louder or fainter and tracking them. That’s how the real U-boat men did it and it would cement Silent Hunter III’s reputation as the most realistic WWII subsim ever.

Speaking of maps, there are several handy tools available including a ruler to mark tangents and distance, a compass to draw range circles, and a waypoint marker. Simple things like this are handy and a lot of fun to play with when plotting an attack. These tools would be great at high realism settings to actually mark ship positions in place of AI drawn icons, as by using sonar when submerged as described above and using the TDC tools when surfaced.

 

Silent Hunter III has two modes of gathering target data, "Casual Targeting" and Expert Targeting". In Casual mode, the Torpedo Data Computer is managed by the weapons officer (it is so cool! You can actually look over and see the guy!). You, as the captain, simply lock the periscope onto the target and the solution is generated for you, ready to fire at will. That’s the easy method. SH3’s "Expert Targeting" is something like a dream come true to the crusty U-boat fanatics who patrol the Subsim forums.

 

With Expert Targeting you amass the data you need for a good firing solution one piece at a time. First, you have to know what you’re shooting at so you have a look in the Ship Recognition Manual. Once you have the ship ID’ed, you know the top speed and mastheight. Then you take the range by adjusting the stadimeter from the waterline to the top of the mast—a tricky thing to do when the boat is moving. The TDC will punch in the range for you, then you get the angle on the bow, enter that, and finally determine the speed by using the stopwatch. Finally, I suppose (and pray) in the final version of SH3 you will also have to make sure you are not shooting at a friendly or neutral, so you don’t shoot until you can see the fluttering flag or positively ID the ship’s nationality. It’s all very complex and satisfying and since the enemy AI is coded to detect a periscope that is continually raised, very exciting. So, after working up a four part solution in a U-boat that is affected the surface waves, water blurring the lens occasionally, raising and lowering the scope repeatedly to avoid detection, managing the crew, navigating to a favorable attack position, maintaining a watchful eye on the escorts, and getting positive ID, you launch your eels and mind your stopwatch. Whew! Life doesn’t get any better than this!

FOR MORE ON SILENT HUNTER III's TDC

The French Knight Saves the Day

We've been through a lot, you and I. Back when Subsim Review first appeared on the web, we had graduated from primary color subsims like Silent Service and Das Boot to Grey Wolf. Aces of the Deep was at its prime and an upstart named Silent Hunter was on the horizon. Jane's 688(I) swept past the multiplayer threshold. Expect-ations ran high. Who could deny being giddy with anticipation for great things ahead? Aces of the Pacific. Silent Hunter II. Wolfpack II. Ah yes, those were heady days for cyberskippers.

High hopes were brought low with the collapse of Sierra support for an Aces Pacific-theater game. The announce-ment of Wolfpack II was abruptly followed by its cancellation. Players  pinned their hopes on the darkhorse Silent Hunter II. It was a longshot as SH2 underwent producer shakeups, dev team changes, and a seemingly unending series of corporate transfers, ultimately ending up in French gaming giant Ubisoft’s lap.

When SH2 was finally released, while interesting, it failed to meet players' expectations and critics roasted it. Despite turning out some formidable sales numbers, anguish and disappointment gushed from the forums. Alas.

Well, throw down your crying towel and get out your North Atlantic charts, mate. Sales of the noble but flawed SH2 moved Ubisoft to undertake a do-over. I argued in 2001 that if enough people bought SH2 despite its lame AI and crippled multiplayer, there would be an SH3. Thankfully enough of you felt the same way—SH2 sold big. Now comes the payoff. Silent Hunter III appears to have every aspect of a U-boat sim that a subsim fanatic could hope for. The hunt matches the hype. And the best part—you earned it. Now, here’s to a successful SH3 that could lead Ubisoft to Destroyer Command II.

When you are counter-attacked you can assign a crew to repair the damage, provided it is accessible while submerged. It appeared to me that the crew repairs the damage by section, not by individual pieces of equipment. Your chief gives you an estimate in minutes and the hull integrity is estimated in percent. I found it interesting that while you may have a precise figure for the hull integrity, you could only guess at the effect on your diving depth. If the chief estimates the hull integrity at 73%, how deep can you safely dive? Thankfully, the dev team does not supply that estimate—you are on your own. I learned the hard way that having hull damage decreases your crush depth. There have been some in the forums who advocate replacing the percentage with a descriptive range, such as "No Damage", "Light Damage", "Moderate Damage", "Heavy Damage", and "Extreme Damage". Either way, SH3 provides a good damage control station.

One of the missions we played was titled "Stormy Convoy" complete with thunderclouds, driving rain, lightning, and very limited visibility. SH3 has made significant steps on delivering good weather effects. Your lookouts smartly gear up with wet-weather sealskins, another detail the dev team captured. The sea waves were not as towering as we expected but the settings for this mission may not have been tuned for Das Boot-style waves. I loved the way the haze obscured ships you could hear on sonar but not see until they were right on top of you.

I modded one mission to take place at midnight. It was a dark and stormy night (always wanted to write that) and there I was, at periscope depth, watching a herd of freighters steam past, setting up the TDC to attack a particularly large one. The sky was inky black and the ocean was just a shade lighter (thankfully, darker than SH2's nocturnal environment). The lumbering merchies were vague silhouettes in front of me. It was too dark for the destroyer lurking nearby to possibly see my scope, so as you can imagine, I felt relatively secure. Even haughty, you might say. Just then an unexpected graphics glitch caused the dark ocean to turn a much lighter shade. I made a note of the bug and continued my work on the TDC. Suddenly a crewman warned, "Warship approaching fast!". Wha--? How…. I switched to external view. That was no graphics glitch—the convoy had launched a starshell! (screenshot). I was detected! The destroyer was racing down on me, flashing his searchlights in recognition signal. I put away the firing solution and crash dived. A classic U-boat battle, the hunter became the hunted.

This is a preview of an early build and some of the features were incomplete and others, like the fabled dynamic campaign, were not included in this build. Many—most noticeably the important stuff like the battery, O2, BOLDs, snorkel, and fuel gauge—have placeholders indicating their eventual inclusion in the sim. There are also quite a few interesting orders you can give your crew but I’ll save that for the next preview. If Ubisoft follows through and delivers a truly dynamic campaign, Silent Hunter III will be a franchise in itself.


 

Summary

How did the Sub Club members react to Silent Hunter III ? They weren’t disappointed, to say the least—Silent Hunter III blew everyone out of the water. One proclaimed seeing Silent Hunter III first hand—even getting to play it for a spell—made it worth the 1200-mile trip. No one could resist cheering when a torpedo struck home. It was great fun watching the enthusiast back-seat commanders bombard the player at the keyboard with plenty of advice. After spending an additional 30 hours playing the supplied missions (sorry, guys, you didn’t think I was going to stop playing it when you left, did you?) I can say that Silent Hunter III is much improved over its predecessors. Its gameplay is reminiscent of Aces of the Deep but with much better graphics and many more features. Although SH2 was a decent simulation, the gameplay and AI spoiled the game. After all, any sim or game is just a bunch of lines of computer code with the goal to give the player a canvas on which he uses imagination to paint naval battles. Florin Boitor, Tiberius Lazar, and the Ubisoft dev team understand this and as a result, Silent Hunter III is looking good.

 

Developed and produced by
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Release date: Q1 2005
Ubisoft's Official Silent Hunter III Website
 

See also:

SUBSIM.COM'S Silent Hunter III forum
Subsim Review's 2004 E3 Report on SH3
Ubisoft's Official Silent Hunter III Website

SILENT HUNTER III ANNOUNCED FOR 2004
SILENT HUNTER III Hot Chunks of Ship!

SILENT HUNTER III LAND HO! FIRST SIGHTING!
What kind of subsim skipper are you? Sub skipper Quiz
The World of Torplexed
SUBSIM Article Library

    

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