Sim developers have a tough job. They have to create a game that gives players control of a variety of complex systems that in the real world would actually require numerous trained specialists. These systems have to work realistically but still bend far away from complete authenticity to be not only comprehensible but also, one hopes, at least a little fun. Unfortunately, Silent Hunter 5 seems unable to deliver a consistently satisfying sim experience. The modeling is bizarre, the new approach to crew management is distracting and the entire effort is hampered by bugs. That said, when you find yourself sneaking past a line of destroyers to sink a battleship and then crash dive as depth charges explode all around you, you’re almost able to forget everything else that the game does wrong.
I love the series and have, in the past, been more forgiving of some of the technical troubles purely because the developer’s and mod community post-release support has eliminated the worst problems. While I’m sure Silent Hunter 5 will be a better game in six month’s time, some of the basic design problems aren’t things that can be easily patched.
I’m going to say a lot of negative things about this game, so let’s get the praise out up front. Silent Hunter 5 truly delivers those intense moments of stalking enemy ships and sending them to the bottom of the ocean with well-timed torpedo shots. Finding the enemy and setting up your attack is a long but amazingly satisfying affair and when it goes right and you see those explosions rock the side of an enemy capital ship, you get a sense of accomplishment that you just can’t get from any other type of game. Yes, it’s deliberately time-consuming and, yes, it lacks the flair of watching your tracer fire eat into the engines of a B-17, but there’s just no thrill like a sub kill and Silent Hunter 5 knows how to deliver it.
When the game works properly, the experience is amazing.Instead of the open-ended campaign in previous versions, Silent Hunter 5 makes use of a scripted campaign that focuses the player on specific objectives. It’s nice to have missions that lead you through the events of the War, but I wish more had been done to give the missions more context. As it is, it really feels a bit like an MMO where you have a few specific zones that each have certain kill requirements. And unfortunately, the objectives don’t necessarily follow your expectations. You might be asked to take out a certain number of warships along a patrol route. Some that you sink will count and others won’t with no clear reason why. There are one-off historical missions and an online component as well, but the multiplayer doesn’t seem populated enough to make it a compelling feature.
The conceit for most sims is that you sort of embody the vehicle. It’s particularly true of race cars, jet planes and battlemechs where the whole operation is usually handled by a single person. But a ship captain manipulates things by delegating orders to his crew. Ubisoft has attempted to model this with a new command interface that lets you run through the length of the ship and relay your orders face-to-face with your crew. While it’s a neat idea, the added layer of interaction means that it can take longer to get things done. It’s not as if the captain of a real U-boat had to run back to the engine or torpedo rooms every time he wants the officers there to know something. Even if you do manage to get orders off, there’s no guarantee they’ll be followed. I still can’t get my crew to run the deck guns by themselves. What’s even more awesome is that, depending on the boat you’re using and the conning tower you’ve got equipped, you may not even be able to see the deck gun to select it yourself.
I understand the point of having crew interactions, but this system in Silent Hunter feels clumsy and suffers from poor movement controls and distracting morale information. I’m sure real sub commanders were very concerned about whether or not their officers were playing pranks on each other, or writing novels, or needed a special meal to boost their spirits. But no one who buys a submarine game wants to chat with dull crewmembers about their family back in Germany. The RPG and morale systems are worth paying attention to if only because they impact your boat’s abilities, but the effects are inconsistent, which makes you wonder why you even bother. You can ask a guy about his kids and his morale will still be for crap.
The crew interface is cumbersome and unclear.Some of this may be due to the lack of documentation in the game. The tutorial teaches you how to shoot and how to move and leaves you to puzzle the rest of it out on your own. The PDF manual isn’t much help either, and even if it does contain useful information, it’s too low-res to be entirely clear. Even just trying to get the key binds is a pain.
The ship AI is really hit or miss, sometimes literally. Ships crash into each other for no clear reason and your own sub will occasionally explode because the AI doesn’t bother to turn off time compression when you’re about to collide with another vessel. Enemy ships will sometimes sit and wait to be torpedoed, and escorts have been known to flee a wounded cargo ship without even bothering to search for the attacking sub. The worst offender was when I managed to sneak through a destroyer screen and get four good hits on a battleship. Rather than stay in the safety of the screen, the battleship sped ahead and quickly outdistanced its escorts. Taking down a crippled battleship whose escorts are miles away might be fun at first, but it gets old fast.
There are other bugs to be found throughout the game. My rudder controls never seemed to work properly, which meant I had to issue movement orders on the anachronistic overhead map. You can click and drag waypoints to move them around but if you happen to move the waypoint over another object (like say, a ship) you’ll stop moving the waypoint and start scrolling the map instead. Toss that together with the need to keep the mouse tied to the periscope to line up your shots and you’ve got a system that’s more challenging than fun.
I could go on and talk about regenerating ships, or how weather randomly changes when you load up saved games, or how you can man the deck gun even when swells are washing up over the conning tower, or how sailors on enemy ships merely pace back and forth while their ship explodes under their very feet. It’s almost enough that you stop being disappointed when something else goes wrong because you’ve come to expect it from the game.
Performance also leaves a lot to be desired with frequent frame drops and mouse lag. To be fair, this is one of the most visually impressive games I’ve seen this year. The level of detail inside the submarine is amazing. Yes, you can clip through crewmembers and, yes, torpedoes are still sitting in your boat even after you’ve shot them all, but the actual atmosphere and authenticity is otherwise extremely high. And when the spray starts coming in through split seams, you really get the feeling of what it must have been like to wage war with these boats. Things are just as impressive outside with amazing water and lighting effects and first rate ship models that are capable of being destroyed in some amazing ways.
Ports can be especially tricky for the AI.Silent Hunter 5 also has the distinction of being part of Ubisoft’s new DRM plan. This new scheme requires that you maintain a constant connection to the internet in order to play the game. It’s a rather crude solution to the piracy problem but I won’t fault the developer for the philosophy behind it. On the other hand, it has a practical effect on the game, both in terms of the time it takes to sync up and load saves and the embarrassing downtime on Ubisoft’s end during which paying customers could not play the game that they had bought. My PC is always online, so I don’t object to this sort of authentication in principle, but when it begins to affect my ability to enjoy the game’s I’m playing, I have to cry foul.
Reviewing a poor submarine sim is tough because there are just too few opportunities for comparison. It’s like living in a town with only one pizza place. Even if it’s not very good, you’ll still go every once in a while if you happen to be in the mood for pizza. You have to accept that if you want a new submarine game, you’ll just have to make the best of it. In terms of positive features, this one looks stunning and really delivers those intense wolfpack hunt moments. Taking out a pair of destroyer escorts and then picking off the unprotected convoy is an amazing experience, but you’re constantly distracted by the bugs and poor design decisions. We hope that with another few months the community will iron out the worst of these.