June 5, 2015 by Artur “Niedowidek” Lysik, SUBSIM
Not long ago, while reading about tonnage war waged by Donitz in vast expanses of Atlantic, I started searching for a game that focused on strategic aspect of this six-year long battle. Through the years plenty of games with U-boats as the main protagonist have been developed but the majority of them showed the struggles of submarine captains without the ability to make decisions concerning whole flotillas or task forces. I’m sure that painstaking research would reveal some titles of that type, yet there’s no abundance of them and none are of comparable popularity as the Silent Hunter series. Mobile devices have even fewer choices: a good mobile subsim is hard to find (with recent Crash Dive being very positive exception). Board games seem to offer more opportunities for engaging one’s talents in strategic decisions (like 2011’s U-boat Leader) but even there you will not find many titles limited to commanding single boats (starting with wartime title Mit Prien Gegen England, concluding with 2013’s The Hunters).
Somewhat discouraged with my research, I was very surprised that Atlantic Fleet features a dynamic campaign spanning from 1939 to the end of the war. This and several other improvements over its predecessor – Pacific Fleet – contributed to relaxing yet complex entertainment.
Visually Atlantic Fleet is very similar to its older brother but the game mechanics were significantly upgraded: binocular and periscope views have been added (which allows for more realistic observation of falling shells), subs can dive to various depths, torpedo salvos are possible and last but not least battles can include up to 20 vessels (10 on each side, while PF allowed only 3) which provides quite intense battles. One thing absent from Pacific Fleet are the attacks on shore installations but this is justified by different area of operations–no island hopping.
There are three modes of play available. Single battle offers random and historic engagements. With the former you may choose which ships take part in a battle (by type and name i.e. individual vessel), aircraft (number only, no choice of type), which side has initiative and also weather and time of day. One may play against AI or in hot-seat mode with a friend on the same device (some Bluetooth or similar connection mode, if technically possible, could be a significant improvement here).
Choice of historical engagements is varied: from submarine attack on HMS Courageous, through minor destroyer engagements to convoy battles and sinking of Bismarck. The last of above mentioned is divided into four events depicting all important moments of Kriegsmarine’s attempt to breakthrough into Atlantic, beginning with gun duel with HMS Hood, through Swordfish attack which crippled Bismarck’s rudder to final engagement with HMS King George V and HMS Rodney. One has to salute this level of detail on the mission design.
In campaign mode player may build up his taskforce paying for additional ships with renown. Renown is gained for sunk enemy ships so with every won engagement you have a chance to expand your fleet. If you are a successful commander, your nation will reward you with more resources. The goal is to successfully come through 50 missions with an increasing level of difficulty.
The Battle of Atlantic mode is a dynamic campaign that may be the most appealing feature for many users. Spanning from 1939 to 1945 it puts you in command of Kriegsmarine or Royal Navy (limited to 20 vessels each) tasked with protection or destruction of convoys vital to United Kingdom’s war effort and survival. Convoy routes and weather change in time and are depicted on Atlantic Ocean’s map divided into sectors. One turn corresponds to half a week of fighting. As the struggle is going to be long and arduous, the commander has to be careful with managing his resources, withdrawing ships to ports for repairs or rearming, building new vessels and distributing available taskforces to sectors where they are needed the most.
The German side has U-boats (type VII and IX), surface forces and even merchant-disguised auxiliary cruisers. Their vessels may be resupplied and rearmed at sea by supply ships. British forces are mostly equipped with surface vessels (but also two T-class submarines present at the start of campaign) and have the unique ability to build carriers (among them smaller and cheaper escort types). Later, the Brits may equip their escorts with more advanced anti-sub weaponry. The goal is to reach or prevent sinking of enough tonnage to starve Great Britain, which jumps from 300,000 to 700,000 tons a month when the US joins the war.
Another outstanding feature of this game: every engagement starts with different ship placement (even in historical singe battles initial positions are randomized), weather conditions and time of day. No two missions will be the same. Night combat that necessitates the use of star shells or long-range duel using only radar are possible. Carrier and land-based air strikes are also at your disposal. Yes, you can start your depth-charge laden aircraft from HMS Courageous when endangered by U-29.
Field of view is calculated for every ship separately. You can see all spotted enemies on the tactical chart but such fog of war complicates your planning and inclines you to choose your moves more carefully. Steering is semi-manual. Turning a ship is not so exact as in Pacific Fleet where one could set it with 0.1 degree precision. Now it’s rather a choice among more or less sharp turns specified in 5-degree intervals. Ship’s speed may be set from back to flank ahead. Maximum speed of particular types of ships seem to be historically accurate, e.g. British Triton class submarine speeds up to no more than 15.5 kts (which I can assure is too little to catch up with a German large freighter). When the order to change speed is given it does not occur instantly. The ship gains speed or slows down gradually and the process may take several turns.
Just as in their previous title, battles in Atlantic Fleet are played by turns. You get two turns per ship, the first of which you can use to change heading, select speed, and lay down smoke. The second turn can be used to dive/surface if you are a sub, dive bomb if you are a plane, fire torpedoes in single shots or salvos, guns, or depth charges. After you make your two moves it is the AI enemy’s turn.
Targeting is semi-manual too. It’s a bit of a reworked version of the Pacific Fleet interface. You choose your target and then set direction and elevation of your guns or gyroscope angle of your torpedo manually. Your crew will give you an estimate of what the elevation/angle should be and this estimate will become more and more precise with every turn when you are aiming at the same vessel. Aids to targeting also include showing where your last shells fell and with what elevation guns were set at when they were fired. Wind must be taken into account, if you haven’t turned off its influence in options. There’s a choice of armor piercing and heavy explosive ammo and also between main and secondary gun turrets.
From the Dev Team: Atlantic Fleet is a massive improvement over Pacific Fleet and has finally evolved into a fully featured naval game.Essentially the game is a rebuilt version of Pacific Fleet and required over ~18 months of development, ~5 years on the project so far. Design is modular allowing the addition of new ship classes (and their individual members) along with new aircraft post-release, unlike Pacific Fleet which was strictly limited to the 7 ships per side.
Subs may be tracked by sonar and depth charges attacks are possible. Thankfully for the sake of realism, torpedo attack is not allowed from greater than periscope depth. Incoming eels are clearly visible, even though such an attack may be surprising or hard to evade, especially at close range.
Improvements over Pacific Fleet include periscope and binocular view with choice of 2x, 4x or 8x magnification. Another one is the tactical map which shows the positions of own and enemy ships–depicted are both visual and radar contacts. The chart is clear and easy to understand. Icons of sinking ships refresh memories of illustrations placed in books.
The KillerFish game developers claim that the ships in Atlantic Fleet have realistic buoyancy physics and sinking is not achieved by reducing their hit points to zero. There’s no reason to not believe them as damaged vessels often list to side and slow down considerably. At one occasion I expended about 100 shells on a large German freighter before it sank. Most shots hit above the waterline and at the end its whole deck was in glorious flames.
Moreover sometimes it seems that your shells hit below the waterline because there’s only a splash of water but the enemy vessel will swing on the surface like it was affected by the impact. According to developers “both splinter damage and shell penetration underwater” are modeled. The other feature would be a calculation of “armor penetration based on range of the shot (penetration decreases with range)” as well as the angle with which shell strikes armor. The little bug present in recent version of the game is ability to sink a submarine at periscope depth with destroyer’s gunfire.The player may target specific ship subsystems like propulsion, steering, pumps, radar or particular gun emplacements. Often a fire starts on deck as a result of damage and after a while vessel looks like a burning torch travelling through sea. The fire may be extinguished after few turns. When situation is hopeless, you have an option to scuttle whole taskforce engaged in battle (at least enemy won’t put his dirty hands on our advanced technology).
The Atlantic Fleet Unity game engine is the same one used in Pacific Fleet. You may be familiarize with the Unity engine in another naval themed game–Crash Dive. Ship models are very detailed. One can even see crew manning the guns and lookouts on the bridge. Merchant and military units carry different flags (for British: Red Duster and White Ensign respectively). Vessels that have taken many hits will have burned remains in place of their superstructures. Ship sinking animations are shown in real time, regardless of turn phase. They disappear slowly underwater bow or stern up. Explosions are impressive and when joined with weather and lighting effects of glowing sun–the resulting picture is marvelous.
Sounds are also decent, especially thunder when a storm is approaching or the terrifying ping of searching ASDIC. The game state is saved automatically between battles in campaign mode and at the end of week during the Battle of Atlantic campaign. There are no tutorial missiosn but games controls are intuitive and campaign missions provide good training ground as first two targets are unarmed merchants. This is compensated by the in-game help system which consists of 11 chapters describing everything from movement and gunnery to dynamic campaign and shipyards. Player may customize his game experience deciding of such options as combat start and disengage range, visibility limitations, AI skill, wind influence on firing and dud torpedoes.
AI is fairly decent and to me seems quite demanding, sometimes even impressive. Enemy ships maneuver correctly and don’t go down easily. They are firing star shells in the night, trying to surprise my cruisers with a torpedo attack. It’s not easy to finish wounded AI warships. When boxed in they puke smoke and run under its cover which greatly diminishes chances to hit the target.
Occasional mistakes happen as when merchant which is outrunning my sub is taking a zigzag turn. Going straight seemed to be only viable solution in this case but at this point I was sufficiently impressed by AI to think: is he going to ram me? On the other hand the AI ship has been taking some pounding from my guns for a long while and maybe it was an attempt to disrupt my targeting by course changing….As a positive example I may say that I’ve got beaten by HMS Hood while having three cruisers at my disposal. The British battleship’s guns turned out to be too much for my units and Admiral Hipper rested at the bottom while another vessel run away burning.
There are very few flaws in the game. One of them is unrealistic distance at which subs engage targets. It seems that 4-5 thousand meters is a proper distance to fire salvo of torpedoes. In reality German kaleuns engaged targets at ranges closer than 1000 meters. But to be honest U-boats attacks can be devastating as they really were at the beginning of the war and providing such experience in game is more than enough. Let the example be the HMS Warspite battleship sent to bottom by my sub in January of 1940 with three well placed torpedoes which reflects historical daring attacks by U-boats on British ships (e.g. HMS Ark Royal or HMS Barham).
Also, I think that submarines should be deeper or more distant from enemy to be able to disengage from battle. One may tick an option that disengaging is possible only when range is more than 25,000 yards but it doesn’t seem to work for subs (tried it on mission with HMS Courageous). The escorts really should have their chance to locate and kill a sub after it has launched its attack.
A more irritating bug is that torpedoes sometimes are not launched (e.g. because target is outside firing arc) but they disappear from torpedo tube anyway and must be reloaded which takes a lot of time. There are some graphics issues on my device. When I close and start the app again ships on strategic map and also explosions and water splashes during combat phase are drawn in wrong locations. Luckily simple clearing of cache helps with this issue.
Those who have only short periods of time to play the game (e.g. travelling in public transportation or waiting in a queue in post office) may be challenged by the fact that battles can take up to even full hour to finish. Especially when many merchants are stubbornly running away and player has to finish them one by one. As there’s no way to save battle in progress any interruption like incoming call may result in losing your game progress.
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Atlantic Fleet deserves praise, provides excellent entertainment, and is well worth its price. I admire both the design of the strategy and tactical layer. There is good balance between realistic and arcade elements. It’s great that in dynamic campaign the convoy routes change over time and hedgehogs and squids come into play later in the war. And the game’s polished graphics makes playing a real pleasure. Atlantic Fleet distinguish itself with well-designed interface and game mechanics, historical accuracy (considering game engine limitations) and a smooth learning curve. Randomization of ships’ placement, weather and daytime assures good replayability. But the most appreciated by me is dynamic campaign which combines individual engagements–by themselves interesting and engaging–into greater effort. It seems to be a good choice for those interested in naval warfare history as it would not offend their intelligence and knowledge; and for those who just seek a nice game to sink ships. I recommend this game to all who are fascinated with Battle of Atlantic, especially those who would like a taste of a bit of strategy in their naval action.