Mar. 26 2020 by John Sealey, SUBSIM
Way back in 2005, Silent Hunter III came along and set a new standard for subsims, it shaped our expectations of what a subsim should be from the moment the disc hit shelves. 3D explorable interiors, a variable and vastly explorable environment, a whole host of enemy and allied ships alike, interactive crew. The various mods took SH3, a dynamite hit with our community, and turned it into one of the greatest submarine simulations of all time. And for that reason, it is the yard stick by which a great many subsequent sims are measured.
But Silent Hunter III did more than revolutionize the genre, it gave rise to the end all be all of player wish list items for later installments of the series. All one must do to put their finger on the pulse of the submarine simulation community is simply visit Subsim’s Radio Room forums. Once there, a treasure trove of player wish lists can be found. Just a few of the more popular examples:
Player and non-player characters that grow beards
customizable and nameable crew
fully explorable 3D interiors including all areas of the boat
food stocks that grow scarce as the patrol drags on
The list is practically infinite if we’re honest.
In the last 15 years, dev teams and modders alike attempted to match the energy and pace of previous subsims like Silent Hunter III, while allowing for the vast wish lists of its player base. Some products delivered – slightly – with modding. Other products fell flat in both feel and delivery of content. others stuck to the web-based genre with in game purchases and faded out with time.
A solid newcomer appropriately and rather simply named UBOAT, which has been in development over the past few years from Deep Water Studios, has exploded into the Atlantic Theater of Operations, once again putting players in command of the storied German sub fleet of World War II. Despite still being in the throws and growing pains of a continued development, support for the product is on point, and with Uboat, Deep Water studios has crafted the latest attempt to deliver players their coveted wish list items while attempting to stack up adequately against previous titles. For UBOAT…the name of the game is potential, potential, potential!
So let’s sound the alarm and dive right in!
At first glance, everything we came to love about the way we interacted with our boat and crew has radically changed. Upon initial setup, you select the look, the clothes, the style of your commander, you even give him a name. Carrying on, you can literally do this with every single member of the crew from commander down to the lowliest of new recruits.
You want a relaxed crew that almost perfectly resembles the actors from the famous film Das Boot? Well, that’s certainly possible. You want a more formal, military look of Kriegsmarine officers and crew? Also that’s your call for every man on the boat.
As for interaction with your crew, the familiar row of officer icons along the bottom of the screen represents each officer aboard the boat. Captain, chief engineer, mechanics, radio operator, sonar operator and so on. You play as a commander, vicariously through each of your officers. Holding the ALT key provides you with a more detailed list of the tasks each can perform. This playstyle catches some off guard, because you are simultaneously ALL of these officers in a way. Yes, you still play as the commander, but you can give each officer individual tasks to perform, going so far as to “possess” them in 3rd or 1st person view to perform the task yourself “through them”.
Each officer, depending on their experience level, can receive a specific set of skills which can become very useful during patrol. One officer may be particularly crafty during repairs, another may be a crack shot with the deck gun, AA guns, or perhaps is better at maintaining your torpedoes. Have an enemy merchant ship you plan to attack with the deck gun? You have a lot of options.
You can assign a specific officer to the task, and he will carry it out while you standby binoculars in hand and watch the ensuing carnage. Assign him a few sailors to assist in his task and he will perform it more efficiently; Aiming more accurately and loading the weapon faster.
If you desire to man the deck gun in this example, you can walk down to the deck gun and man it yourself, or to save time you can play as the officer already manning it. This has created a bit of an identity crisis in players who always want to play “as the commander” and have a fully autonomous crew carry out the players orders mechanically and dutifully with the click of a single button. In the way that UBOAT is played, you ARE always the commander, but you can play as any member of the boat at any time for the sake of efficiency. Or…not. Nothing says you have to take over another character, but sometimes, its just the best and most effective way to play the game.
The entire Type VII U-boat is modeled from the stern tubes to the bow tubes and all points in between, even the head. It is all explorable in great detail. While this is not anything extraordinarily new to the genre, UBOAT has an interior that is believable and fun to explore. One of the first things I did in port was send my crew on vacation and just wander through the boat as if it were a museum ship, clicking light switches, turning things on and off and looking for easter eggs. (I didn’t find any).
One place UBOAT really shines is in its damage repair model. In a recent run in with a destroyer a pattern of depth charges nearly got us. One explosion caused the escape hatch to take water. Fortunately (and autonomously) one of my officers immediately set out to repair the hatch. Unfortunately, we were at a depth of 150 meters and the bilge pump simply couldn’t pressurize enough to force the water out effectively at such a great depth. We had no choice but to bring the boat to a shallower depth in the middle of a pack of escorts hunting us down to pump the water out.
With a bit of more good news the acoustics of the surrounding ocean were – for a short time – affected by the recent depth charging. This meant the race was on to accomplish as much work as possible before the sea quieted enough for the sonar aboard the escorts to regain sufficient contact with us.
Leveling the boat at 80 meters, the pump could pump out water but it would most efficiently perform this task if the water was in the command room bilge. So…assigning a few sailors to assist an officer, a bucket brigade was ordered, and bucket after bucket water was carried to the command room where it was then pumped out into the sea returning the boat to its neutral buoyancy.
The tension was really palpable and like no other experience I ever had while playing a subsim before.
I can remember previous subsims where a specific compartment is clicked on in a 2D view of the sub and invisible crewmen arbitrarily repair the submarine out of sight/out of mind while a seemingly arbitrary timer counts down to the completion time. Those days are over. If you want to see repair progress in UBOAT, all you have to do is stand and watch your men work – it happens right before your eyes in real time. Their officer icon also has a small “loading bar” to show how far along they have progressed at performing a certain task like repairs.
With repairs to the boat there is much to consider. The bilge pump for example can pump water from all compartments at shallow depth but as atmospheres increase with depth, the pump loses efficiency and you have no choice but to seek a shallower depth should moderate to severe flooding occur. If repairs are commenced quickly and the flooding stopped, your boat’s buoyancy is not too negatively affected and you can creep along and hope to evade another beating without using the noisy pump aboard the boat.
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On the other hand, if you find yourself at great depth and the flooding is catastrophic, it is quite an experience to evacuate and seal off a compartment, throw the engines into full reverse and blow all the ballast only to realize none of your corrective actions are having any effect. The realization creeps over you that the forward hatch is only rated to so many atmospheres of pressure and there is an awful lot of water beneath your keel. Soon the hatch gives way…your boat is doomed. Such was the reality for many sailors in those dark days of World War II.
The damage model also creates the perfect storm for some serious action film quality repair scenes. During an air attack, my boat was again holed in relatively shallow waters and we took severe flooding. The sub came to rest on the sea floor around 120 meters. My officers stopped the flooding during our descent but water was waist deep in nearly every compartment. Now the race was on before we were all poisoned by carbon dioxide. I really had to think about how I was going to tackle this problem. The diesel engine compartment – which is also home to the potassium ventilation system – was a complete wreck. And the power distribution panel was badly damaged forcing us to resort to flashlights to illuminate the pitch black interior of the boat to initiate repairs. Given our depth the pump would function to remove the water but at only a tiny fraction of its normal capacity. Other less essential systems were damaged, but If we are to survive the situation, the diesel compartment had to be first so we could filter the air! I had to think logically and prioritize repairs if I was to resurface the sub and make it home to La Rochelle!
Which brings UBOAT to another one of its points of brilliance. The crew. In all previous subsims I had played to this point, the crew was little more than a set of mindless mannequins who would repeat my orders with some fairly robotic pointing around at random things in the command room while invisible out of sight/out of mind crewmen would carry out the order. With this game the interior of the boat is now fully alive with activity. Crewmen will go about their duties, eat, sleep, read books, play games, maintain the sub, cook meals, all without you having to necessarily order them to do these things. They will even prioritize the more severe and immediate threats to the boat and repair those first rather than changing out a busted bulb while water pours in around a nearby tube or hatch. So, unless you want to change their priorities, they generally will begin on the most severe repairs first. At last…we are no longer really “alone” on the boat.
Sometimes a sailor will require disciplinary action, such as cleaning the toilets, which, they will literally go do directly after you have finished admonishing them for their wrong. Other times during a particularly tense engagement a sailor will lose his cool and panic, crying and screaming during tense times that noise discipline is vital. And yes, escorts can hear that activity under the right conditions. You have a slew of options for dealing with such a crewmansuch as calming him down or knocking him out cold. Panic prone crew will be tagged on the roster with a panicky personality type so you can replace him with a potentially better crewman on your return to port. Conversely, stoic “grey wolves” will rise to the challenge during a time of crisis and likewise the roster will reflect their bravery. This allows you to separate the wolves from the sheep, ultimately leaving you with a highly capable and skilled crew. You hope.
One thing I noted during the aforementioned air attack that really gave me the “wow” factor was the injured crew. Other crewmen actually drag the wounded man through the boat hatch after hatch until reaching an open bunk where medical attention can be given, hopefully before the sailor expires from his injuries. All of the crew animations are very realistic and natural and none of them really have a clunky robotic feel. So, whether you witness such an interaction from 1st person or 3rd person, it is believable and interesting to watch and lends a lot to the immersion.
Unlike Wolfpack, UBOAT currently lacks a fully interactive TDC. As a result, in the current release attacks against an enemy convoy come across as somewhat of an “arcade” like experience. Attacks, particularly with torpedoes, are fun, but a fully functioning TDC reminiscent of SHIII would make the experience vastly better. You can assign your commander to plot the solution autonomously, which he will do with a high degree of accuracy, or you can perform the task yourself. I recall how natural plotting solutions felt in SHIII. I then recall having to become accustomed to the methods that Silent Hunter 5 used years later with a sort of “fill in the blank” style targeting interface. UBOAT falls somewhere in between the two.
Just like a commander in real life, the readiness and condition of your weapon must be taken into consideration prior to attacks. For example, your weapons officer will routinely unload a torpedo, maintain it and warm it up and reload the tube throughout the patrol. If it has been some time since he performed this task some of your weapons may be “cold” increasing the likelihood of a misfire. You can order him to warm up the torpedoes in preparation for an attack and as with other officers, assigning him a few assistants will increase the speed and efficiency with which he carries out his assignment.
Enemy ships do have “health” meters and “flooding meters” a la Silent Hunter 5, much to the dismay of more “elite” players. Fortunately, they are not displayed on screen floating above the target, rather they are in the lower corner of the screen out of the immediate view.
Though in the last few patch updates, manual and automatic targeting has had several improvements built into each release – and – if the game is as moddable as the dev team claims it to be, many of the shortcomings in the game can be improved. We have to remember even UBOAT’s far ancestors required a great deal of modding to make them into the classics they are. UBOAT will be no different but it’s bone stock release is light years ahead of what we experienced in vanilla versions of similar games in the past.
Graphically UBOAT is stunning. The weather is believable with brilliant flashes of lightning temporarily illuminating the entire stormy scene. The seascape is beautifully rendered and the environment is satisfying and natural. Sub pens are supposedly coming in a later build so be prepared to notice them missing at this time. The weather seems dynamic and unpredictable. Previous subsims struggled with weather engines. Many players will remember bugs where the weather rained for weeks without interruption. UBOAT’s weather engine is the envy of subsims across the board.
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Explosions and fires are well rendered though the torpedo impacts causing ships to leap slightly out of the water has been greatly scaled down since the initial version of the game – it still feels like it needs to be tweaked further to be more believable.
I would say the merchant fleet is beautifully rendered but we are still in a very early release of the game, so the fleet is not highly varied yet. Enemy ship classes are limited. Though an interesting attempt made by the dev team to paint a unique name on the side of each ship that is visible through the periscope is a novel idea, some rare instances the names can seem repetitive. Allegedly, a greater number of enemy units are in progress and should be released with time.
Enemy AI is about on par with what we would expect from any fresh submarine simulation. Its not exactly Einstein intelligent, but its intelligent enough to hunt and kill you. Further tweaks will be needed and are sure to be coming down the convoy route, but for now, the game doesn’t suffer from a lack of capable and competent AI appropriate to the year being played.
Aircraft, the bane of U-Boats across the entire span of World War II are a particular nuisance. While they do not spawn with annoying regularity, when one of your crew spots an airplane, you best take the report seriously.
As for the campaign, the missions are a novel concept we have not previously seen in a subsim of this type. Prior examples of WWII U-boat sims assigned us a grid to patrol for 24 hours and then head back to base. It was more or less up to the player to head out to sea and…well…”sink them all!” UBOAT approaches this differently by giving us intelligence about the area we will patrol, a rudimentary weather forecast, and a number of side missions to consider for completion.
While en route we may receive a radio message warning of a crucial technology aboard a specific ship in a convoy which must be sunk at all costs. Instead if providing us with the approximate last known position and course of the convoy we get a more or less continuously updated approximate position more like a spy satellite mod which badly detracts from realism. I have read work is being done on this to make it more difficult to find the enemy ship in question based on forum threads. But for the time being, simply intercept the convoy icon and let them have it.
Other missions include espionage related tasks which I think many of the more experienced and realism driven players like myself will agree – these need to be eliminated from the campaign completely. Historically, U-boats were just not often used for this purpose the way fleet boats of the USN were in the Pacific and again this detracts from the immersion.
Other times you may be tasked with helping a stricken U-boat cast adrift and damaged by providing any spare parts you have in your storage or you may be asked to divert from your current course and attempt to locate a non-responsive ally at its last known coordinates. Both of could possibly be leading you to an ambush.
Carrying the war correspondent along on a patrol – with his occasional interruptions to ask you a question about U-boats with your multiple choice response possibilities – is pretty entertaining. If you provide him with good information his side mission of “writing a story about our U-boat heroes” progresses nearer to completion giving you more points to use for other things while in port.
I think the campaign could use a little more work in the realism department by having fewer side missions and more of a patrol driven concept focusing more on random encounters. But the side missions do allow for more varied game play. Additionally, free roam mode is available meaning that you can leave port at any time without any specific orders. The upside is that you can go old school and head out to sea and wreak havoc your own special way. Downside, side missions will continue to become available mid mission and there can be a LOT of them.
You are in charge of outfitting and provisioning your boat. You have to take into consideration the limited room aboard the sub, and you have to load up an appropriate amount of food (which can eventually spoil) ammunition, torpedoes and fuel etc. As the war rages on into more advanced years of the conflict I have noticed that certain items start getting more difficult to come across while in port. This could be a coincidence or perhaps the dev team plans on working scarcity of supplies into the campaign engine.
In port, you have three officers to interact with: Quartermaster for provisioning the boat, recruiting officer for selecting and disbanding new recruits and officers, and your commanding officer for taking on new missions. While in port, you can even send your crew on shore leave. Various destinations are provided and each one comes with its own monetary expense to your “budget” yet each yields different rewards to your crew such as substantially increasing morale, resetting fatigue or doubling XP points, etc. so each vacation option has different rewards.
Additionally you can send one or more of your officers to BdU where they can cooperate in research meant to unlock technologies which will help your U-boat in its attempts to survive the war. This is a departure from what we are accustomed to with such technologies becoming available at the pre-determined historical dates. Yes, the historical dates are still taken into consideration from what I can tell, however, you can unlock specific tech early but at an enormous expense.
As for the map and navigation within the missions/campaign – many folks have desired more realistic navigation and the ability to become lost. UBOAT isn’t quite there yet. But you can become lost during patrol requiring you to assign an officer to fix the boat’s position. This can be a time-consuming process but as with any task it is expedited when you assign the officer several assistants. The gyrocompass in the command room is a noisy device that uses a gyroscope to align the navigating compasses into agreement. If you turn it off to avoid sonar detection during silent running, and forget to turn it back on after surfacing, you will eventually get lost. Traditional map views are more or less abandoned in UBOAT in favor of a more extreme zoom out / zoom in real time strategy game style “map”.
One of my own particular annoyances with UBOAT is the time scaling meant to help reduce the need for extreme time compressions which prior subsims in the genre have required. UBOAT has a unique method of handling time. In proximity to the enemy or port or land, it appears that time runs on a roughly 1:1 with real time. On the open seas when you get beyond visual range of land, the time passes at more of a 10:1 ratio automatically without you doing anything. This means that even on 1x compression the sun rapidly rises, and within a matter of several minutes its already noon in-game, and soon thereafter dusk again. One of the more enjoyable things in a subsim is the ability to go up on the bridge and join the watch crew and just have some quiet, reflective 1:1 real time. Other players, though more rare, are the sort who enjoy attempting the challenge of a “1x patrol”…not possible in the current version of UBOAT. For the sake of immersion, I would urge Deep Water Studios to come up with an alternative or perhaps a realism setting which allows for 1:1 time ratio throughout the entire game, with perhaps 2 or 3 time compression settings.
I can say this in conclusion. When it comes to subsims, I am one of those “Dead is Dead”, realism driven, calculate your own solution on paper if you have to types of players. I have had a lot of fun playing this title despite it being a bit more casual than I would prefer. In my many hours playing UBOAT, I can certainly say that the game is an absolute labor of love on the part of the Deep Water Studio team. They accept feedback and are open to constructive criticism. They are constantly supporting the product with improvements, tweaks and what seems like a continuous stream of patches and updates. For that I offer them a great deal of praise.
Submarine simulations are an incredibly niche market and as such, subsimmers are some of the most demanding of connoisseurs when it comes to things like authenticity, historical accuracy, and realism. Some players practically demand to be in actual command of a U-boat and will literally count the rivets. Yet among those of us who consider ourselves diehard captains we must also remember that there are more casual gamers among us who have no desire to formulate multiple firing solutions against a convoy and they certainly have no intent of going down with the ship DID style. A balance has to be struck if the subsim genre is to survive for generations to come. UBOAT successfully appeals to both audiences without catering completely or exclusively to either. And if the title is half as mod friendly as the dev team has claimed, UBOAT could very well go down as one of the greatest submarine simulation games ever conceived.
Potential, potential, potential.
Developer: Deep Water Studio
Producer: PlayWay S.A.
*Some reviews have been edited for length and clarity. Additional screenshot credits: Wespe, Kanonenfutter
Care to add something or discuss UBOAT? Fire one!
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