The Silent Clunker

After the hours of enjoyment that I had out of Silent Hunter 4 I’m really quite disappointed in Silent Hunter 5: Battle of the Atlantic. The latest instalment of the long running franchise from Ubisoft might well be the best looking version, but it seems like a half baked apple pie. Once you cut through the fine looking pastry of the updated graphics engine you find that it’s got a terribly bitter and undercooked centre hidden underneath.

I’ve just had another go at trying to play and yet again the game froze after a short while forcing me to reboot the entire computer and if it doesn’t freeze the computer spontaneously reboots. I don’t know if it’s a fault with my machine specifically, but the game seems to be an exceptionally temperamental beast. This time I had some monitoring software running the background, and it looks like both the CPU and graphics cards have hit dangerous temperatures while running the game. I’m not entire sure why though. For all it’s flash graphics and water effects it still doesn’t seem like it should be as taxing as playing Crysis with the settings on high. It certainly shouldn’t be melting down the machine. Maybe my rig is starting to show it’s age, but it handles hundreds of units on screen at once in Supreme Commander 2, so why does it go crazy when it’s only rendering a distant tanker and the inside of a submarine?

The interface is a total departure from the four previous games, which makes it quite difficult to transition from say Silent Hunter 4 which I had grown quite good at, to the newer game. In Silent Hunter 5 you control the entire submarine as though you actually are the captain. You move through the boat in first person using the mouse and standard WASD keys to get about, but Annoyingly for weird folk like me who operate in an upside down world you can’t invert the mouse. The movement is glitchy though, and it’s fairly common to get stuck on a ladder trying to get from the command room to the conning tower, or vice versa. It’s also while moving about in first person inside the sub that I usually find the game freezes. In fact the last four times its frozen when I was moving forward through a bulkhead door from the command room towards the sonar and radar stations. I’m not sure if this is coincidence or not because it doesn’t happen every single time.

The overall interface seems very console like, with only lip service paid towards the concept of creating a simulation. The torpedo attack system, which is of course is the heart of the simulation,  has been reduced from a complex recreation of German submarine technology to a magic map where you have to line up numbered dots to plot a hit. It might as well have been made into a quick time event or a mini-game. To be fair Silent Hunter 4 also had an auto torpedo data calculator to make things easier for novices, but it simply gave an indicator either red, amber or green depending on how likely an hit would be based on current torpedo settings and other variables. The new system reduces this to such a patronising and counter intuitive level that it’s actually a pain to use.

There seems to be no simulation of damage either. Enemy ships and vehicles have two very prominent health bars that indicate how damaged they are. It doesn’t seem to matter how well you do when you attack as a hit on the waterline with a torpedo has exactly the same effect as one that detonates under the keel.  They might as well have gone the whole hog and put in some red numbers floating up as the target takes damage. Not that you would be able to see them though, as every single time you miraculously manage to hit anything whit the retarded aiming system the target hits the turbo boost button and takes off at 20+ knots, and that happens even if their maximum speed is 10 or even less.

One of the other  much requested features with fans of the earlier games was a better crew system, and there is now a far greater emphasis on crew management and interaction than previously. Before the crew were basically faceless extras, but now the main officers are individual characters with their own back stories, voices and so on. Truth be told however they’re still fairly one dimensional, and seem like mash-ups of various characters from the film Das Boot, but it’s better than nothing. Sadly the interface makes the crew interface a constant pain in the arse. You click through menus like you’re playing a console based RPG, asking some hardened torpedo officer about his sick wife, and at the end his moral goes up a bit.  Sure it works as a very basic simulation of you being a mentor to your officers, but the entire thing is scuppered by the fact that the conversation tree, and the officer’s moral, resets to the factory settings when you load a saved game.

Speaking of resetting the game: the world isn’t persistent. If you hammer a battleship and set her ablaze, but are then forced to save and reload. The ship is instantly repaired and takes off at UNSAFE SPEEDS away from you. It seems that every allied ship in the Silent Hunter world, from the smallest trawler to a huge heavily laden oil tanker, is capable of instantaneous acceleration from 3knots to over 20knots at the first sign of trouble. The enemy AI also appears to be fairly retarded. I’ve attacked several heavily defended convoys during my few games, and the allied destroyers have put in a lacklustre effort at best. When compared to the Japanese ships in Silent Hunter 4 they look positively lazy. This is ironic given that the allied destroyer crews were, in reality, much better equipped and far more effective than their Japanese equivalents.

On the positive side, as I said, the entire game looks amazing. The Type VII U-boat that you command is very detailed as are the various ships that you encounter during the course of the game. Sadly the good looks are really all that Silent Hunter 5 have going for it at the moment, and with suspicion growing that Ubisoft have all but washed their hands of the franchise, it seems likely that none of the problems I’ve described will ever be fixed. I’m sad that the series has been sunk like this. Silent Hunter 5 had a lot of promise, but Ubisoft have concentrated far too much on the fancy bells and whistles that people shouted about, and forgotten entirely about the core of the game. They’ve even managed to leave in bugs that have been known about and patched before in earlier iterations of the game engine. They unnecessarily revamped and outright butchered the interface, and even the fancy new crew interaction system doesn’t work properly.

In short, and with much sadness, I must say that you should avoid this game unless you’re willing to wrestle for long hours installing and trying fan made modifications that restore some of her potential glory. Given the overheating issue however I for one will have to return the game to the shelf for the foreseeable future.

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