There’s a dichotomy at the heart of all submarine drama. You’re utterly alone, trapped in a long metal tube with just your crewmates for company, and it’s like being in a sensory deprivation chamber, with almost every other sense cut off, especially when you want to go undetected; popping out a quick sonar ping can mean the death of you.
But at the same time, it’s about being in an ocean that’s teeming with enemy craft, just waiting to get a wiff of you so they can start lobbing depth charges off the side of the ship and watch the plumes of water gush up out of the surface. You’re a Silent Hunter for so long as you’re an invisible one. It’s a social sea, and one that, up until now, has only been inhabited by somewhat dim-witted computers.
Silent Hunter Online is Ubisoft Blue Byte’s attempt to both bring Silent Hunter to a more casual audience while simultaneously bringing in hundreds of other players, all taking on a ‘Wolfpack’ of submarines (up to four) to carry out missions to sink Allied ships while not getting too banged up in the process.
And it’s all running in Flash 11. With a few splashes of full 3D. Which is more than a little impressive.
The game is played from a periscope view once you’re in a mission, where everything above sea level is rendered properly, while everything outside the periscope is just buttons and background. But when the whole point of being on a submarine is claustrophobia, being trapped underwater, you don’t have to wander around some cramped insides to know they’re cramped. And so long as there’s the telltale creak of metal under pressure as you dive, I don’t think Blue Byte are going to have trouble selling the atmosphere.
There’s plenty of atmosphere elsewhere, too, with your control of the other submarines in your pack falling to an abstracted map interface, reinforcing the idea that you’ve got limited communications, especially when running a mission. You’re expected to create flanking manoeuvres, time your torpedo strikes and collate information between one another to identify targets and focus on objectives.
Which is all starting to sound a little overwhelming. And it’s here that your crew comes in, each of them able to handle a system like weapons, sonar, or communications, effectively automating them for you so that you can deal with the actual strategy of the thing. They level up as they’re used, and it’s one of those cases where it’s looking like new players will benefit from the stabilizers, but experienced Silent Hunter vets will immediately be able to do away with them and freewheel it all the way to the Pacific Theatre.
But it’s when you start seeing the game framed in the main campaign, where all the players will be cooperating directly or indirectly with one another to overcome the allied forces, that the game really starts to look interesting. Instead of capsule missions that are entertaining in their own right, they’re aiming at creating something persistent that will make you want to keep coming back to defend, attack or ambush in an ongoing conflict.
“The whole game is done in real time, and crossing the ocean will take, at the longest distance, probably a day, or a little more.” Stefan Alutti, the Live Producer on Silent Hunter Online, tells me. “Maybe you start in the morning and you know that by lunchtime you’ll have your boats in the right location, and you can play a mission.” Which is where the casual aspect to all this comes in. Instead of losing yourself in the simulation of being in that submarine, instead Blue Byte are going for losing yourself in the ongoing conflict of World War 2, positioning you in a role that’s much more broad than just the captain of a submersible.
You’re not alone, either. Well you are. You’re in a metal tube in the middle of the ocean, but the point is that there are lots of other metal tubes with lots of other players in that same ocean, and you can team up with up to three others to head into missions together. That, along with the way that the campaign dynamically shifts to the performance of players, so that the blockade of Britain, given as an example, shifts from isolated merchant craft to armoured convoys over the course of a campaign. It means that players feel like they have an impact, and also that they can band together to really change things in the game that they’re playing.
At which point it all starts feeling a bit like an MMO. If Blue Byte can keep up with the player demand for content by expanding on campaigns and coming up with new, exciting missions for players to join up together on, there’s no reason that Silent Hunter Online can’t be hugely successful. It’s really only limited by the appeal of that pressurised hunk of metal floating serenely through the depths.
With it being a browser-based Free to Play title, though, there are inevitable caveats that extend beyond a somewhat limited graphical palette. Microtransactions are in, and while they don’t give you an outright advantage, they are going to make your life as a player much easier. “There’s nothing in the game that you can achieve just with money. There’s one premium currency and one earned currency. You have the opportunity to buy certain items for your ship, and these items can be upgraded by the player. But you can also buy upgraded items.”
Things like reduced waits for repairs and travel, along with new hulls for your subs are all on the menu for paying players. As always with free to play, the balance is between the premium players feeling like they’re getting special treatment against free players feeling like they’re being intentionally inconvenienced. Without having played the game, it’s difficult to tell which way it’s going to lean, but it’s all feeling very much like World of Tanks in its business model, and to say Wargaming have done well out of that would be more than a little understated.
So far there’s no concrete release date, but the closed beta of the game is very much imminent. If you fancy a look for yourself, you can sign up here.