by David “Horsa” Millichope
Nov. 14, 2007
Shells of Fury (SOF) has to be one of the strangest subsims released in quite a while. It takes on a neglected era (WWI), looks very retro, and appears to have been almost dumped on the market with no real ambition or pretensions. Having said all of that I believe it’s a little gem that’ll pay back its rather modest price with a lot of replay value and in a very fresh setting. I actually find it quite easy to love this little title. Imagine a rather bedraggled, slightly lame puppy with big soulful eyes arriving on your doorstep, and you get the idea.
In gaming terms WWI is a bit of a black hole (with perhaps the exception of flight sims) It has very limited street cred, being overshadowed by its bigger more mainstream brother, World War 2. For most of today’s gaming generation, the WWI era has about as much relevance as the Crimean War and has the charisma of televised Chess — which is a shame because there is plenty of untapped interest value to be had. It’s something of an unwritten law that the gaming world goes for settings which have been well served by films (Hollywood in particular). What SOF lacks is a “Das Boot” to fire up the interest, or a “Private Ryan” to get the role playing blood boiling. I could write reams on that topic – but maybe somewhere else. What is wanted here is a review of Shells of Fury.
Background, Origins and Support.
Although there has never been any official word on this that I could find, I have a general feeling that the project started with a fairly ambitious brief, but for some reason was axed leaving a slightly untidy scramble to cobble together a marketable product. It succeeds in being that – marketable, but you can all too often see where its legs got cut off. You are left dreaming of what might have been. Its pedigree is a little unfamiliar. (no EA or Ubisoft here). It was produced in Germany by H2F Informationssystem GmbH and published by Rondomedia. For a while, aficionados of the era had to buy into this German only version by ordering from such places as Amazon. Oh what fun it was for us chronically monolingual English speakers having to play and mod in German. However, to its everlasting credit, Strategy First decided to publish an English version as boxed retail for North America, and also as an online download through Subsim: 1914 Shells of Fury [Download].
There have been early reports of some problems such as crashes, sticky FPS and an option set that doesn’t seem to respond to changes, but my downloaded version from Strategy First has run smoothly without any glitches. I’ve never experienced the problems others have reported. My feeling is there is nothing fundamentally unsound with the way the game runs but it might have a few gremlins on some specs. All machines are different and maybe I’ve been lucky.
[adnsense title=”SUBSIM adsense”]
There’s not a great deal of support on the net. The official (Rondomedia) website is quite well put together but there doesn’t seem to be anything in the way of a users forum or ongoing news. My impression is that this is it. No patch, no nothing. Take it or leave it. The good news is that it’s highly moddable, so for those who would have liked to see further development it’s a case of do it yourself. Now I know there will be bleats of “took my money, not really finished off etc” but personally I’ve never been very big on this type of entitlement culture. To me it’s a budget product that’s fairly sound in the way it plays. It just hasn’t been able to put in every feature a gamer would wish. However, it does leave the product very open to all sorts of possibilities that can be built on.. Some companies actually run officially on this type of philosophy and with the willing compliance of a fan base – the Third Wire flight sims spring to mind – although in the case of SOF nothing was ever officially said. On the other hand we have Strategy First who boast a support section but I don’t know how extensive this is as I’ve never needed to try it. All the logic suggests they will be a more fruitful source than Rhondomedia and of course, it will be in English.
Gamers scream for realism, but sales are driven by graphics. In that respect SOF will disappoint. It’s no SH3/4. In fact it’s so reminiscent of their predecessor SH2, that there were some (unfounded) suggestions that it had used the same game engine. On first sight the sea looks awful, but like a lot of these things you soon get used to its own peculiar atmosphere and I have to say I found myself feeling this really was the North Sea or the Atlantic. The dark dank misty atmosphere is well done, and there is a good representation of fog banks and bow spray (albeit done fairly crudely). Personally I don’t believe that raw graphic power always equates to better atmosphere. Sometimes graphic representation can be too literal and can simply serve to remind you that it is a computer simulation — something I feel with SH3/4 from time to time. With SOF you feel you are crashing about in a lot of unfriendly wetness even if it sometimes has a comic book feel to it.
The models are rather good, although perhaps a slightly below the poly count excellence of SH3/4. It’s so refreshing to see battleships that are not the Bismarck for a change. In this respect it’s a shame that the in-game external camera views are very restricted. There is only one of them. It’s a side on view and it doesn’t have a zoom. It doesn’t even start by looking in the right direction. I’ve never been able to find an underwater view. Anyway, for hard core gamers the external cameras are an irrelevance, but the option would have been nice. I suspect this was a feature that suffered when its development was abruptly shortened.
The textures are rather interesting. For the most part they are quite detailed and rather well done. However, for my personal taste they are too colourful giving a rather comic book effect which I find out of keeping with WWI. This also applies generally to the artwork of the whole game, but this may have been a design decision taken at an early stage when considering the “look” of the game. Either way they are moddable, and if we ever get to the happy stage of several modders working on them, we will soon have choice aplenty.
There are no ports to speak of, although there is the odd lighthouse and also a model of a castle buried in its files. Terra firma is very crudely done and I always feel the game is working better when you don’t have to look at it. Even dear old SH2 had some simple ports and the land looked quite acceptable when seen from a misty distance. I suspect this is a case of cut off legs again. Over to the modders again.
Some of the physics looks a bit rudimentary. There are nice bow waves and the surface ships look convincing (except when hit by shells and torpedoes when they seem to bobble strangely like corks ), but the U-boats don’t look very compelling when seen from the external camera. It looks as if the particle effects were some way down the list of priorities before the axe fell on the project. They don’t exude any real sense of attention.
One incredible feature which suggests this was meant to be a much more impressive product is the presence of genuine Morse code. Those that know about these things tell me that the flashing lamps are not just random for effect, but are genuinely belting out a message. Buried in one of the files are the codes ready to be used. I wonder if this was going to be one method of intelligent communication with other vessels?
By and large the sounds are very effectively done. The crack of the deck gun is particularly enjoyable. It’s such a shame that there is no voice set for the crew men. Modders can, and I’m sure will, add voices into the FX files but there are some limitations to this and it is never as flexible as a separate set.
If you’re expecting SH3 but with quaint old fashioned U-boats flying the Imperial German Flag then you’re missing the point with SOF. Your mindset has to be different. SOF is not just about tonnage counts and stealth attacks with torpedoes.
Initially in WWI, the U-boat was primarily a weapon of war against warships and in SOF you are just as likely to be harassing warships as trying to dispatch merchant ships. When they did take on the merchants they were, at the beginning of the war, attacked mainly from the surface using a naval deck gun, so SOF makes rather more of this type of attack. The principles employed by SOF of hitting your target with these guns would be familiar to any naval gunnery officer, except you don’t have the rather sophisticated mechanical aids to maximize your chances. Here you take ranging shots and they are plotted onto a simple chart. There’s a lot of trial and error and you have to allow for deflections and other ship movements. Not an easy task. You can ask the game to do this automatically for you, but you are warned that this will be wasteful of your limited ammunition.
This whole process becomes a lot harder when later the merchants start mounting their own guns. There are even warships disguised to look like merchants (the infamous Q-Ships), so you are left with decisions about mode of attack — approach and use deck gun , or go underwater and mount the familiar stealth attack with torpedo. Playing at higher realism you will, however, have very few torpedoes so all of these issues have to be balanced.
This brings us to one of the aspects of SOF gameplay that makes it very different from SH3/4. I’m not sure if this is an attempt at interesting game play or a design fault; the game has made it very easy for both warships and merchants to spot your periscope. Once spotted you will be mercilessly shelled into oblivion. Common sense dictates that the ship’s spotters should not have been as proficient as the game suggests, and I am sure gamers will endlessly debate this one. In fact, death by shell fire is your prime concern rather than the depth charge attack (which were later war events anyway and largely unsophisticated in their application). Add to that the absence of hydrophones (historically accurate) and your approach work in SOF is a new experience. So assuming this is a deliberate feature how do you approach things?
Well, this is where I feel the hardcore realists will not be too happy. Inside the control room with your periscope is a chart that plots the positions of your own boat and the enemy ships. It’s activated when you dare to pop up your periscope and persists for a while after you’ve hastily withdrawn it. You also have a “stealth meter” that tells you of your chances of being spotted, so the trick is to raise periscope (experience tells you how far to do this without too much chance of detection) , and then quickly withdraw it. Use the information to plot a course taking you to your preferred position and hope the enemy haven’t done anything unexpected. By the way, the AI is very good. If the enemy does spot you they’re off. They scatter, zig-zag, dodge and weave; anything to get away from you. There’s none of this lambs to the slaughter stuff. They want to live.
Another important feature is that the chart also shows you the path your torpedoes would take if fired at their current gyro angle. This angle is player controlled so you have (for a while) an aiming device. Well, not quite that simple because, as with the deck gun, you have to manually estimate deflection etc. I’m not a U-boat expert so I’m not sure how the hard core gamer takes all this. I do know that it’s fun. You can also set depth and speed on the torpedo, making for a few other decisions. If you prefer, you can also use a “locked target” option. I suppose this is the equivalent of auto targeting and for my money spoils the fun. However, it’s not the “cure all point and shoot option” it seems to be. You have to frame the target exactly in your scope (info on the target becomes visible on your screen) and in that respect it’s unforgiving. You also have to have your scope well up, so running the considerable risk of detection and the dreaded “you have been destroyed” when the shells come raining in.
There is no TDC as was the case in WWI. Because of this WWI U-boat commanders always attacked from a limited number of headings relative to the target. There’s some excellent stuff on the SOF forum on Subsim outlining how pre-calculated data can be used to set the gyro angles and allow for deflection. Clearly this is fertile ground for all those who love manual targeting.
Another important aspect of WWI submarine work was mine laying, and its good to see that the U-boats designed for this are included in SOF. Be warned. You can blow yourself up with your own mines.
Missions and Campaign
There are five training missions, five stand alone missions and an extensive campaign. There is also a mission generator, so you can try out the four different boats in a variety of theatres with a variety of different conditions. I have to put my hand up here and declare I have not personally had time to play through the campaign, so my comments here are based on an edited version of what players have said on the Subsim SOF forum. In that respect it seems that SOF has done this well. The campaign occupies 50 missions and is in effect a “whole war” experience. It is also that priceless item, a random campaign. In other words if you play through the campaign again, the missions will play out differently. It writes the missions by randomly extracting information out of several other files where data is predefined within limits. You can also choose to play at three different starting points making for a lot of variety. All the usual stats are there — tonnage, medals, rank, etc.
I did rummage through the campaign text file to see what it was offering and noticed that it used good background information on what was happening in the war generally and how it might relate to your mission. This is, of course, the all important feeling of belonging to a wider conflict. You are not operating in a vacuum simply to increase your tonnage. I have to say the mission introductions and the way the missions were laid out were an excellent potted history of WWI, and it has SOF up there as an educational tool as well as an interesting game with plenty of replay value. Missions are not just confined to the familiar Atlantic and North Sea. The Baltic, Mediterranean and even Gallipoli area all get a mention.
The openness of the campaign structure also seems to be very fertile ground for script writers to come up with entirely new material. One missing feature which some might regard as a must have is the save function. Why this is missing is a bit of a puzzle and again has to be put down to the chopped legs syndrome.
This is actually a very enjoyable and different subsim that should easily pay back its asking price. If you are of the mindset that games companies owe you a debt of perfection simply because you’ve parted with some money for one of their products, then you’ve plenty to grumble about here through the long winter nights. The price of Shells of Fury indicates it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a budget game. I’ve already had more than $20 worth of entertainment from it. In fact the absence of hype is kind of refreshing, so expectations are not going to be disappointed. Shells of Fury has dared to be different, plays quite soundly and has some features which would grace a more expensive title. Its random campaign guarantees plenty of replay value. Perhaps most importantly, it is so modder friendly (even models are relatively easy to introduce) the opportunity is there for all sorts of improvements and additions. Finally, if you are already interested in WWI this is one of your few opportunities to indulge that interest.
Discuss Shells of Fury in the Subsim Radio Room!
Thanks are also due to the many posters on the SOF sub-forum, in particular CB, Hitman, Chock and Montbrun to name but four.
Publisher: Strategy First
Developer: h2f Informationssysteme GmbH
|SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS:Minimum: Windows XP/Vista
Athlon XP 2000+ or Pentium 2GHz
512 MB RAM
128 MB 3D graphic card which supports PixelShader 2.0
Sound card, DirectX 9.0cRecommended: Windows XP/Vista
Athlon XP 2600+ or Pentium 2.4GHz
1024 MB RAM
256 MB 3D graphic card which supports PixelShader 2.0
Sound card, DirectX 9.0c