Browser games aren't meant to be hardcore. They're distractions from work, something to do while other games install, a way to keep family members quiet while we hog the TV. So why is Silent Hunter Online – a free-to-play browser game, currently in closed Beta – launching into the dangerous waters of obsessive simulation?
As the commander of a German U-boat in Silent Hunter Online, it's your job to hunt down Allied ships – be they commercial or battleships – and sink them for the Nazi war effort. Sounds easy. It really, really isn't.
The first thing you do is kit out your U-boat. Everything here is customisable, from engines to sonar to additional weaponry like anti-aircraft guns. Much like World of Tanks, you'll be able to (and will likely need to) spend real money to upgrade your parts quicker, although there's no actual obligation to buy anything. Once ready, fueled and armed with as many torpedoes as you can stuff in to the phallic, metallic hull, you set out to the open sea (via a map screen) to hunt your prey.
This is where the meat of the action lies, although 'action' might be a strong word for what actually happens. You're presented with a commander's view of the sub's controls, and can tinker with everything from throttle to steering to periscope control. I'll be honest, after an hour of play I still don't know what half of my subs buttons and levers actually do – and if you get hooked on Silent Hunter's stern simulation gameplay, you'll probably figure out how to use them all properly.
The developers at Ubisoft Bluebyte acknowledge that we're not all salty sailors, though, and offer advice via a series of crew members. These guys will plot courses for you, manage speed, and even calculate torpedo trajectory. I relied on them quite a bit to not only sink a hapless cargo ship during my demo, but also to find the bloody thing in the first place. It took a full hour to locate and stalk this one vessel, and I rushed it because I was pressed for time.
There's little doubt that Silent Hunter Online is for dedicated sim fans only. It's painfully niche, but it serves its core audience incredibly well by offering insane depth (ho ho) and clever details. There's even a co-opeartive campaign, where players can not only work together to bring down ships, but also to unlock new parts of the game. Even solo enthusiasts are well catered for. You can own up to six U-boats at once, and take different combinations out on missions. It's all there for anyone with the patience of a saint, the appetites of a German sailor, and the willingness to admit that a browser game can make large demands of their players.