Silent Hunter Online Beta Review
I was always intrigued by the Silent Hunter series but had never actually played it before. There have been mixed fortunes across five separate games spanning fifteen years which have attempted to capture the tension and thrill of submarine warfare. Silent Hunter Online now applies the F2P model to this successful but niche franchise. Anyone with a browser and Flash can play for free, although a little cash will help grease the, err, torpedo chutes…
Accusations of dumbing down are probably inevitable but, for the layman, SHO settles you in with some very dense, text based tutorials. There’s a range of different knobs, buttons, dials and tools to get to grips with, taught in bite size chunks which just about keep coherency. It’s not a deal breaker, particularly for anyone with a passing familiarity with the genre, but it might make you a bit wary to begin with.
Your crew are integral to carrying out orders although it’s a pity they’re only encapsulated by static 2D images. Commands for attacking, navigation, communications and engineering are issued by clicking on portraits and selecting an order. Carrying these out successfully increases a crew member’s XP which in turn increases their level and ability to carry out orders more quickly. Generally the system is simple and works well. Weapons officers calculate enemy vessels’ “solutions” (trajectory, speed, draft and course) to target torpedoes with pinpoint accuracy. It’s a terrific feeling to successfully pull off an attack and sneak away undetected. Other features work less well. Silent running, an integral feature of the game’s stealth mechanic, can be quite fiddly and turns itself off when you carry out some order that contravenes it. This isn’t to say it’s illogical - speeding up during silent running will obviously not make you silent - but you’re not reminded of this when it happens which can be very frustrating. It’s possible and sometimes preferable to actually ignore silent running altogether: not because stealth is redundant but because it’s paradoxically easier to manage manually.
Missions are selected from a global map starting near the northern shore of Germany and expanding (as you choose) towards Norway, the British Isles and the Atlantic. Each of these areas forms a dynamic war zone with your own actions contributing towards the total war effort. The more convoys you sink, the greater the Axis’ control over the area. It’s a nice feature to scale up your small interventions into a global military effort.
There’s a fair bit of grinding to do before you can expand out - repetitive variations on reconnaissance or seek and destroy missions. There are little variations to each, like seeking out a specific ship within a flotilla, but it’s generally pretty samey. Combine samey missions with a slow development curve and you have a recipe for boredom. Some questionable navigation tools potentially make this much worse than it needs to be - you’re free to plot a course around the global map but this can leave you aimlessly wandering the seas. Although you can skip to a specific point, using time-compression points (TCPs) which are replenished over time, you’ll still need to do a bit of manual driving (sailing? submarining?) to actually reach your target and this can take forever. A small error in plotting your course can lead to acres of dead time pootling along and waiting for that initial encounter. I once did this for half an hour, reading a book to pass the time, before realising the game had glitched out and I had mysteriously sailed right through an armada which never materialised. In other cases I had judged my course correctly but approached the enemy fleet obliquely, meaning they were able to sail away before I had time to line up a decent shot. It’s fair to say precision is necessary to succeed and many will be put off by the steep learning curve.
It’s necessary to slow right down to SHO’s pace to not get too frustrated. Loading times can be immense, although these have improved (this is a beta after all). Action is sparse, at least if you play as the game intends. You’ll spend most of your time getting onto the enemy’s broadside, lining your shots up and calculating the solution. Early missions let you get away with charging in but, as the difficulty increases, enemies become better at detecting you so it’s important to sneak into their blind spots and surface only when you absolutely have to. It’s an effective way to build tension; choosing the right moment to emerge from safety beneath the waves means you can launch a devastating sneak attack but get it wrong and you’re dead in the water. It’s also possible to own and upgrade multiple submarines which you can take out and hunt with together, switching between them at will to line up simultaneous attacks from different angles. This is how the multiplayer functions; wolfpacks of submarines made up of player-controlled submarines coordinating their movements and attacks over in game chat.
Of course, there’s a reason for the glacial pace. Spending real-world cash replenishes your TCPs or fuel and munitions when you’re out at sea. You can avoid this if you’re patient (by docking at a seaport and requesting new items, which refill on a cool down basis) and I enjoyed much of the game without having to spend my own cash. If you do decide to spend, SHO purchases are split across two currencies - “prestige points” earned by completing missions and sinking ships or “credits” bought with hard currency. Although prestige points can buy most items (bar some upgrades which are locked until you reach a certain level) credits let you avoid some really tedious grinding. This is particularly important when you’re eventually sunk, as I discovered to my horror. After fully modifying a sub and going on a hunt, I misjudged my course horribly and surfaced slap bang in front of a Destroyer which pancaked me like a roadside hedgehog. My game was effectively ended by the equivalent of a learner-driver incident. With nothing to sail in, SHO gave me the equivalent of a rental sub - non-upgradeable, vastly limited fuel stock and a crew which couldn’t earn XP. And here’s the rub - unless you’re really canny or gifted, you’ll eventually sink your free subs and have to cough up. You’re effectively getting an extended demo for gratis, although this isn’t to say you won’t get a good few hours playing before you have to choose whether or not to spend your hard-earned.
If you do settle in, things improve. The many tools surrounding your screen start to fall into place - a manual rudder control to fine tune the route you’ve plotted with waypoints on the mini-map; protractors and rulers to mark out when enemy ships will be within targeting range. All these mini-screens can be rearranged as you please - I chose to fit them in a small area so I could browse the net in an adjacent window (make of that what you will). This risks ruining the tension but, in honesty, a decent-enough Flash engine is never going to draw you in like Amnesia or Bioshock Infinite. TCPs let you speed the action up so you can get stuck into things, although it’s still rarely possible to have a quick go in the same way you’d go on a quick rampage in Grand Theft Auto.
You might have noticed the “if” at the start of that previous paragraph. It’s a big if, truth be told. Many will find the pace too ponderous, the tinkering too pernickety. Others might take the opposite view and think everything’s been dumbed down. As a newcomer, I felt slightly overwhelmed and then very bored. Thankfully the beta community was accommodating and helpful in a refreshing change from the trolling we’ve all come to tolerate. One commentator lovingly described SHO as a “beer and chess game”. There’s certainly nothing to stop you trying it for free but, if you do, be prepared for a somewhat different experience.