Wargaming is no stranger to tweaking and adding content to its popular military titles. It even knows when something is a bit undercooked, and when to pull back on it or ditch it entirely, so it’s a company that’s proven itself to be pretty agile - but what’s coming to World of Warships is a whole new level of challenge, both to the developers rolling it out, and to its somewhat conservative player-base.
Submarines, a wholly new, fourth class of vessel, have just been announced at Gamescom, and the game will never be the same again.
Obligatory 'What lies beneath' heading
I got the scoop - and a fun hands-on session - at a press event at Wargaming’s Tokyo offices earlier this month, ahead of today’s Gamescom reveal. Wargaming’s already invested years into the new addition, with the first hint of this direction coming with last year’s Halloween event, where players took command of fantastic steampunk submersibles in a limited, strictly PvE event. The work that went into even that short test was immense, and the work’s not stopped since.
In fact, sub-surface operations have been a long term goal of the Warships team, but it was a matter of waiting for the right time.
“It took a while to work out, because the game was not mature enough,” Artur Plociennik, World of Warships executive producer, said during our pre-game briefing. “But now it’s ready for another shakeup.”
Plociennik is talking about last year's massive changes to the way aircraft carriers work. That change was based around a number of factors, especially how disproportionate carrier-class ships were, both in terms of popularity (that is, not very) and game effectiveness (one good carrier player could swing a whole match). The change seems to have worked, too; there are now more people playing carriers, while the ships themselves have become less of a game-changer than in previous iterations.
The carrier update itself was a long term project, and the addition of submarines is a similar task. The timeline looks a little like this:
- Halloween event, 2018
- Concept testing
- Short Super Test under NDA (super testers are a tier of dedicated World of Warships players, who often get to play with new mechanics and ships ahead of their release)
- Extended open test (sandboxed away from the main servers)
- A limited PVP event later this year
- Full integration in 2020
“This process is good for the product, and good for the players,” Artur says, “especially as it is very transparent.”
“But who knows? If the PvP event works well, it might keep going right up to the 2020 launch.”
All this is against the background of other ongoing tweaks and additions; carriers are still being balanced in terms of how anti-aircraft attacks work with the new system, and both new ships and entire new lines of ships are planned for before year’s end. The Italians are getting a nasty branch of heavy cruisers with impressive burst-damage capabilities, and a new European line of ships will bring together a lot of smaller navies under one banner.
No matter what nation you hail from, though, submarines are going to be a whole new threat.
The broad nuts and bolts of how they work have not changed greatly from what I saw in St. Petersburg last year, when I got to go hands on with both the Halloween event and an early iteration of the carrier update. Submarines operate at three preset depths - on the surface, at periscope depth, and fully submerged - and must balance an ever-dwindling oxygen resource that depletes ever faster the deeper they get. As always, getting the feel of the submarines right is a balancing act between accuracy, balance, and player expectation.
“Accuracy is important, but so is the ‘fantasy’ of what people expect,” Artur says. How ships feel in fiction is an important part of the game’s development, especially when that is what most people know of these vessels.
You have sunk my battleship
The deeper a submarine is, the harder it is to spot, and at depth only destroyers have a chance of even coming close to finding them - which is another whole new system being added to the game. Historically, destroyers were often tasked as sub-hunters, armed with groundbreaking sonar technologies and a brutal array of depth charge ordnance.
This is modeled in the game by what Artur calls a new ‘mini-game’. As destroyers are tooling around the map, large circles will appear on the water’s surface, denoting that there is a sub somewhere in that volume; the destroyer player will have a short amount of time to enter the circle, after which a second circle will appear not too far away, which the player must then get to again. This repeats three or four times, with each time the volume getting smaller and smaller, as the destroyer’s sonar effectively narrows down where the enemy sub is.
When the destroyer reaches the final circle, it automatically launches depth charges - which are pretty much just as damaging as you’d expect. If the first volley doesn’t kill you, you’re almost certainly going to be killed by the next attack that does hit.
Submarines are, of course, not without their own powerful attack, and that attack has changed considerably since the Halloween event last year. From periscope depth they can launch torpedoes much like any other ship - though only fore and sometimes aft - but once your fish are in the water sub drivers can launch a special, non-damaging attack that Wargaming is calling an ‘acoustic wave’. It’s a little hand-wavey at the moment, and not entirely historically accurate; each acoustic wave hit (and you can hit targets both fore and aft for added effect) makes your torpedo attack more likely to hit, as the torps home in on the target. Torpedoes in World War 2 were generally not guided (though Germany did have some success in this regard), but it does make a submarine’s attack run a little more interactive. But that added accuracy comes at a cost, as each acoustic wave lights you up for any nearby enemy to attack. It's a matter of constant risk/reward assessment.
And let’s just say subs are not the toughest boats. Even a destroyer’s guns are a direct threat; a battleship’s broadside, if it finds you before you can dive, is going to give you a very short, sharp illustration in explosive dynamics.
Cat and underwater mouse
I had a go at both driving a sub, and then hunting them down in a destroyer, and if I’ve one takeaway it’s that learning how to use a sub effectively is going to have one hell of a learning curve. In a match pitting three submarines - each controlled by a visiting journalist, including myself - the single developer-controlled destroyer kicked our collective butts. Attacking is hard enough as it is, but managing your oxygen level at the same time as manuevering for an attack is a challenge. While underwater you only have a vague idea of where the enemy is, so you need to be super cautious - going to periscope depth in the wrong position can waste your time at best, and be downright lethal if you end up under an enemy’s guns without being able to attack.
On the other hand, coordinating destroyers is a lot easier. When we switched to DDs, two more Wargaming staff came aboard to form a three submarine wolf-pack, but even so we handily sunk every boat for minimum damage in return. And it was a lot of fun, too - chasing down the last known position of an enemy sub is really quite thrilling, and so far Wargaming's nailed that hunter and hunted feel.
It’s worth pointing out a couple of caveats, however.
First, this whole new aspect of the game is still a work in progress - there’ll be new consumables to come, and even ASW (anti-submarine warfare) air units might be introduced for aircraft carriers, so we weren’t playing the units in their final form. Even the acoustic wave attack feels very much like it’s going to go through a few more refinements before we see it live in open play.
Also, my hands on time was strictly limited to a game with six players in PvP, and featuring only subs and destroyers, so we were able to focus on each aspect of the game exclusively. In a real game, destroyer captains will need to make a hard choice - focus on sub hunting, and hope you don’t get nailed by the main guns of a battleship while you weren’t looking, or simply look for good opportunities as they arise?
Similarly, sub captains will have an easier job stalking their foes, as they too will be focused on every threat on the surface, let alone that lurking below the waves.
The trick, then, is to integrate submarines into the game into way that doesn’t so much change the way World of Warships plays, but to add a new and entirely organic element - one that feels like it belongs there. And at this stage it's rather hard to judge if Wargaming is going to pull that off
I'm one of those players who tends to drift in and out of the game, but what I can tell you is that when submarines do launch, I am certainly looking forward to giving them a proper go.