It's the North Atlantic in 1942, and an escort line of British destroyers and corvettes circle with searchlights to find the submarine responsible for the sinking of the SS Orcades, one of the troop-transports and merchantman they were tasked with protecting. On the surface, the allied sailors are drenched and cold from the crashing waves.
Beneath them, life is very different for the sailors on the U-Boat responsible for the sinking. It's cramped and hot in their submarine. 52 men have lived in this small boat for weeks, with no showers, one toilet and the knowledge that after weeks of patrolling they'll spend hours underwater dodging explosives and praying that the metal hull of their submarine doesn't collapse and let them all drown in water just a degree or two above freezing.
Fighting in any battle is obviously not pleasant, but the tension, the fear, the melodrama and the intellectual challenge that it presents has fascinated us as as a culture in novels, films, TV series and video games for probably as long as we've been telling stories.
For years games that represent some version of the experience of fighting in a war have come in varying flavours. Some, like the Call of Duty series, are about the experience - the adrenaline rush. They forego the realism of a more tactical combat simulator in favour of giving you the sense of really being there wherever they're set: perhaps in a collapsing building in Stalingrad in World War 2, sniping between being shelled by hulking, self-propelled anti-infantry guns.
Others, often turn-based strategy games, focus on the tactics more than the tactile experience of being in a warzone - and as computer games have evolved, both options have remained open to people in most genres. There are flight sims that simulate every knob, dial and design flaw - and those whose goal is simply to make you feel like you're flying something very, very fast.
One genre that has never really had one foot in the 'experience' camp is submarine simulators. Whether they have focused on modern nuclear submarines or old WW2 diesel-electric fleet boats, they have tended to be hard-core tactical simulations, with varying degrees of authenticity.
That is, until the last few titles in the Silent Hunter series developed by Ubisoft Romania. Starting with Silent Hunter 3, they have done something unique in providing 3D modelled interiors of the U-boats, complete with their crew. The experience of being depth-charged takes on a whole new level of immersion when you can see lights flicker, water break out of pipes and crew members holding on for dear life as you're knocked about like terrified mice in a turned-on tumble-dryer. But even with these new details, Silent Hunter 3 and 4 were still, at their core, a hardcore simulation experience. At all but the easiest difficulty levels, you still needed a good understanding of submarine warfare to have any hope of surviving against enemy destroyers.
With the fifth game in the illustrious submarine simulation franchise, Ubisoft Romania have attempted to take us a step further into the "full experience". Not content to let us simply view a 3D control room, we are now allowed to walk through the entire submarine in first-person perspective, using a mouse and keyboard like a shooter.
From the grimy little room at the stern housing the electric engines to the poor, greased up monkeys and the off-duty deck crew desperately trying to load torpedos, the developers have done something unique in the world of submarine simulations - they've created a real submarine for you to command, complete with crew you can talk to watch going about their duties at their respective stations.
It's seamless, too - you can walk about the boat, climb the ladders to the conning tower to find yourself in the North Atlantic, cold waves crashing over your head as you clamber down the side and walk along the deck of your Type VII U-Boat.
Alongside a handful of single-player historical missions and the ability to engage the enemy in multi-player wolfpacks, it also features a full campaign that extends from the initial invasion of Poland in 1939 to the end of the "happy time" in 1943. In other submarine sims, the campaign is often a series of patrols that you're issued, with the time in port being spent staring at weapon load-out screens and (in the case of the last two Silent Hunter games) managing your crew - issuing promotions and awarding medals for bravery and the like.
With this game, however, the campaign has been made a bit more interactive again - you are able to select which sort of patrol you would like to attempt - be it a shallow-water coastal-shipping run off England or a hunt for capital ships in the stormy seas off Iceland. As you complete or fail these objectives, you get to see their effects on England - a star system shows you how the maritime blockade of the UK is going, and while you're in port you get to walk around a rather impressive, animated U-Boat pen, watching yard-birds welding deck guns and other submarine crews gossiping or moving their gear about.
Beyond these major addition to the game, Silent Hunter 5 also tries to make commanding a submarine more accessible to your average player. Not every gamer's idea of a good time includes manually dragging numbers across from your stadimeter to your torpedo data computer (TDC) in order to plot the right solution to sink a ship.
With this in mind, sinking British freighters, destroyers or capital ships is now done through a visual representation of this process - what effectively amounts to simply 'leading the target' with your periscope, but getting your bearing right using a sort of "join the dots" visual system that is always in your mini-map. Even commanding the submarine is now done from a HUD which is omnipresent, regardless of where in the boat you are.
All this put together, Silent Hunter 5 sounds like it should be a truly incredible gaming experience - and at times, it is. However, it suffers from a swathe of bugs and failings that can occasionally frustrate you. In terms of missions, the game lacks a comprehensive set of tutorials that most players will need - it simply gives you a quick "sink these three ships" mini-mission before throwing you head-first into the full campaign.
On a cosmetic level, the game seems partially incomplete at times. Crew animations skip and you often find your crew still visible on deck as you're submerging, not even bothering to don wet-weather gear. Even on enemy ships, the same sort of "incomplete" feeling abounds. You can torpedo a freighter so that it's on fire and sinking, only to watch the crew walk about on deck as if nothing had happened, oblivious to the fire or the fact that they're about to become permanent residents of the bottom of the Atlantic.
Beyond these cosmetic flaws, there are occasionally more serious problems - a number of times while playing I found bugs that stopped me playing entirely, forcing me to reload my game. Once, my mission objectives vanished, and my commanding officer back in the pen refused to issue me another, with no explanation. Another time, I returned home to Kiel only to discover that the entire city literally wasn't there, and I was unable to dock until I loaded the game it it magically re-appeared. There's even a fairly major omission - no feature to find out the depth of the water beneath your submarine - not without simple third-party patches, that is.
The developers have made their target audience fairly clear - Silent Hunter 5 is aimed at gamers more than just the hardcore submarine simulation community. This isn't to say that the game isn't authentic - it's the same underlying game engine as the previous two games, so at harder difficulty levels you can expect a close approximation of the hardcore sim experience the earlier games gave us.
But if you're more interested in simply experiencing the world of films like Das Boot, U-571 or Run Silent, Run Deep than actually learning to use these amazingly complicated machines, this game may be your thing - at its most simple difficulty level, it even helpfully presents you with 'health bars' for enemy ships.
In all, the game seems to alternate between a wonderful, engrossing experience and a frustrating, incomplete one - and while we can hope that upcoming patches fix many of these (often niggling, sometimes major) problems, for the moment, Silent Hunter 5 remains a interesting but partially-broken game.
@dryfist - thanks for letting us know! looks like they're having a sale at the moment, but we've matched their regular price of $29.95. We'll always try to match prices, so keep an eye out and let us know!
Kim - The BigPond Games Team