Silent Hunter Online preview: there's more than friendly crustaceans under the free-to-play sea

Silent Hunter_Online_shurnk.png

It's a certain sort of vicious bastard that enjoys the tough submarine simulations of the Silent Hunter series. I'm one of them. You're not only fighting on the side of the baddies, you're a Bond villain; a sneaky baddy attacking civilians with underwater steampunk bombs. The more hardcore the mode, the crueller it is to the player. At the highest levels, you're setting up the clockwork in your torpedos and manually working out your position from the innumerable dials and charts. Silent Hunter Online is no different.

At first sight, Blue Byte have translated the series perfectly to online. In a presentation by Stefan Aluttis, Silent Hunter Online's Live Producer, he raved about how the new game would let players hunting their prey co-operatively in realtime 3D combat. The setting of Silent Hunter Online is 1939-45, the highs and lows of the Second World War. You play the captain of an unterseeboot – a U-boat – targetting Allied shipping in the Atlantic.

The first part of the demo was a CGI trailer that was about as relevant to games as lemons are to an aardvark. However, the next part was proper in-game play, running in Flash 11 – I could see Aluttis' wingman playing the game on the computer next to me. The interface for the U-boat's bridge will be familiar to– the usual periscope in the middle of the screen, showing a 3D view, and numerous dials to the bottom right controlling orientation, depth and speed.

At the top of the screen are the ship's officers, running the watch, engineering, weapons and so on. If you don't fancy programming the torpedo's clockwork curvature yourself, you can delegate to one of these chaps, similarly for plotting courses and manning the watch.

It differed in four ways from the usual Silent Hunter game. First, on the right of the screen was a list of your other submarines. You no longer control just one; you can have command of several and use them as a wolfpack, to lure destroyers away and close in on the vulnerable cargo ships. Elsewhere, there's a strategic map, based on the actual maps used by the Kriegsmarine, which you use to command your wolfpack. This wolfpack can also be social – there's a friends list and chat window for talking to the server, your team, or your wolfpack.

Second, there's a microtransaction shop on the right. It has two resources – iron crosses (from completing missions) and premium RMT credits. Alluitis was keen to point out that you can achieve everything without money, but that credits can be used to upgrade your ships, to remove cooldown timers on repairs, reloads, and resupplies, and to speed up travel. Though players start with Type II submarines, they quickly unlock more modifications and ships by playing the campaign. Losing a boat in combat isn't fatal either, as you'll be given a basic U-boat again.

Thirdly, it differs from Silent Hunter in the 3D engine. Though Flash 11 appears powerful relative to old Flash, it still can't cope with true 3D environments well. Sadly this means no torpedo-cam and no free-cam for players. Despite this, they've managed to cram Silent Hunter 5's assets into the game, as well as a complicated weather system.

Finally, it differs in that there doesn't seem to be any true open roaming; the game consists of scenarios set along strict paths, set in areas like the Irish Sea or the English channel. Your ships have a home base where they can recover, but otherwise they're focused on this task. The missions are affected by a server-wide dynamic campaign. If players are doing well against the AI enemies, the missions will get tougher, with ships in tighter convoys, with more destroyers, until the AI regains dominance. These campaigns are spread around the world with the longest travel time being a realtime day.

A quick mission I saw featured the commander's two available submarines doubling up on a convoy. Spotting the enemy from the deck in realtime, the lower submarine waited until the middle of the convoy was directly between the two subs and fired two torpedo tubes. The commander took a luxurious moment to watch the high explosives impact in the distance, then crash-dived to avoid the vengeful destroyer or passing aircraft, before fleeing using the maximum 16x time compression.

I once left Silent Hunter III running for three days in real time, just to experience the true tedium then sudden terror of the WWII era's convoy-hunting. Allutis assures me that the Silent Hunter Online's closed beta will be starting very soon, and I'm already preparing to be lost at sea.