With the endless moaning on the internet about 'PC gaming dying' and 'PC devs selling out' it's all too easy to forget that there are still many PC exclusives being released. One such game is the submarine simulator Silent Hunter 5, the latest instalment in Ubisoft's long running franchise that's origins can be traced all the way back to 1996.
When Silent Hunter 5 was first announced Ubisoft promised that for the first time you'd be able to control both German U-Boats and Allied submarines in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way the game was trimmed down. The finished version of the game, subtitled Battle of the Atlantic, can only be played from the perspective of a U-Boat captain, and is even more restrictive than the early games in the series, as it only simulates one submarine, the Type VII.
My heart will go on (but the ship won't)
Unlike the previous games in the series, Silent Hunter 5 is played out from two very different perspectives. In the earlier games you were effectively a bodyless entity that flicked instantly between different stations (sonar, periscope, damage control etc.) using keyboard shortcuts that made sure you always had a chance to be where the excitement was. Silent Hunter 5 changes this though, positioning the game in a first-person perspective and requiring you to physically walk through the various compartments of the submarine to get to the station you want.
Quite why Ubisoft thought this was a good idea is beyond me - a submarine is a cold, wet, badly lit, poorly ventilated metal tube full of men who haven't washed properly for months and that all share one toilet. Even without going into that detail it’s still just a bunch of narrow grey corridors punctuated by ladders. Plus, there’s seamen everywhere. Actually having to move between stations was never going to be fun.
The real problem with the new interface isn’t just the décor though, it’s that it slows down the gameplay far too much - and sub sims are already slower than a sea snail. While you might play a FPS or RPG for a few minutes or hours at a time, it's not uncommon to spend a whole evening stalking a single convoy in the Silent Hunter games - after all, when you're in a U-Boat only capable of cruising at seven knots (four knots when submerged) and have the whole Atlantic to traverse, it takes a long time to get anywhere. The sensation of going nowhere fast is only doubled when you have to keep shuffling down to the engine room.
What's more, the first-person mode is so badly coded it crawls along at an appallingly slow frame rate regardless of how much hardware you throw at it. Given that the inside of the submarine isn't particularly detailed, it's baffling how slowly the camera moves - it's almost as if it ignores DirectX in favour of antiquated software rendering. Ubisoft has also made the cardinal sin of not allowing you to remap any of the keyboard or mouse controls - the end result being that you spend more time bumping into walls or looking at the floor than anything else. The point of playing Silent Hunter is to feel like a veteran submarine commander, but in Silent Hunter 5 you just end up feeling like a drunk pirate without a peg leg.
Ubisoft probably introduced walking around the submarine because it wanted to you to feel more emotionally attached to your submarine by talking to members of your crew. However, there is so little dialogue, it quickly becomes repetitive and boring. What's more, because the developers spent too much time creating the interior of the Type VII submarine they haven’t had time to add any more submarine classes beyond that. This means that you can no longer hope to get promoted to a better class, as you could in the campaigns of the earlier games in the series. So, that's one of the main selling points of the campaign ruined just for the sake of some stoic sailors seamen.
Ubisoft also seems to have forgotten one of the ten commandments of FPS game design; don't put too many ladders in your levels. Ever since the first FPS games, no developer seems to have worked out a decent way of navigating on and off ladders - the end result being games full of lifts and stairs, with only the occasional ladder. But what is a submarine packed full of? Ladders. Lots of grimy, salt-encrusted ladders. The end result is that once you've finally made it to next to a ladder you'll spend an even more frustrating period of time stuck trying to move up/down. Nothing is more infuriating than being stuck in the conning tower and getting strafed by a passing RAF fighter all because the game has far too many steps between you and the steering wheel.