Platform: PC (Browser, F2P)
Developer: Blue Byte
Depth is the key in Silent Hunter. As an unterseeboot (U-boat) captain patrolling the deadly oceans of World War II, you'll stalk allied targets beneath the waves, quietly slipping back into the deep leaving only burning hulks behind. Both predator and prey, omniscient and uniquely fragile, you'll play a deadly game of cat and mouse against ever-tightening odds as the Royal Navy deploys the best it has to offer in an effort to send your crew to the bottom of the Atlantic. Knowing when to surface and when to crash dive will save your life, not to mention the Kriegsmarine's war effort.
However, depth is also the watchword for one of the most hardcore simulation franchises on the market, which has arguably seen better days. After the shocking mess that was Silent Hunter IV and the DRM-stricken Silent Hunter V, Ubisoft made the decision to set course for Free To Play waters, with Blue Byte promising to deliver a new take on the classic series.
Silent Hunter Online is the result: an experience that tries to shoehorn "everything great from the series" into a browser window, along with brand new 'Wolfpack' multiplayer and compelling persistent elements designed to keep captains coming back on a daily basis. From what I was able to play over at Blue Byte's Dusseldorf headquarters, there's certainly no danger of it being shallow.
The claustrophobic bridge of a World War II U-Boat has been carefully crunched down into a single Flash pane, which will run smoothly in your full-screen browser without any extraneous client download. Everything is present and correct, from the prominent periscope display to a dizzying array of dials, gauges and levers that grant direct control over your submarine's movement, depth and speed. Though the two-dimensional interface doesn't let you stroll around the deck, it's richly detailed and animated, while the periscope viewport displays a real-time 3D view of the action outside your vessel using a bespoke 3D engine and assets from Silent Hunter V. Some convenient buttons put torpedo tube controls, as well as options to select magnetic fuses, depths and salvos, at your fingertips.
Seemingly little has been compromised, and manually steering an enormous slab of steel through tumultuous waters is just as hard to master as it ever was. Not to mention acquiring your target, choosing an attack course, calculating a torpedo firing solution and desperately hoping that you're running quietly enough to avoid incurring the thunderous wrath of Her Majesty's Navy (let alone the RAF's eagle-eyed submarine spotters). Luckily, Silent Hunter Online presents some interesting new additions to the formula that simultaneously provides more depth for franchise veterans and welcome respite for newcomers.
The left hand side of the screen is dedicated to the Tactical Action Interface (TAI, to its friends): a dynamic map that proves to be much more than a passive sonar or hydrophone. Using a range of navigational tools and markers, players can draw waypoints, measure angles, calculate bearings and assign vectors onto a two-dimensional grid, which can then be instantly translated into orders for your navigational officer or dialled into your torpedoes. Experienced Silent Hunter players will use the TAI to perform all manner of advanced geometrical calculations (indeed, there are enough options to embarrass even the most well-stocked geometry set), and carefully tweak their courses accordingly with the manual controls. Whereas you could equally just use it to order your crew to "sail over there, please."
In a first for the Silent Hunter series, you'll also be able to learn the art of delegation. Your officers are now discrete characters with names and faces, who can be ordered to take some of the work off of your hands. The navigational officer can be tasked with executing approach vectors, for example, while firing solutions can be automatically calculated by your gunnery officer in a pinch. However, their skills are determined by how experienced they are, meaning that green officers will often make mistakes that will need careful correction before giving the go order. Levelling up your crew over many battles will doubtlessly be an addictive new gameplay hook in and of itself, while losing them will be a terrifying blow to the war effort.
Even if you're running in a tricked-out Type VII U Boat with a veteran crew of hardened officers, some enemy task forces will still be too much to handle. Which is where, in another franchise first, you can rely on a little help from your friends. Fans have been demanding multiplayer since the original game released, and Silent Hunter Online promises to pull no punches despite being a free-to-play browser game rather than a boxed release. Teams of players can join forces to form Wolfpacks, using multiple U-Boats to harrass foes in synchronous multiplayer engagements. Your already-impressive array of tactical options are suddenly multiplied a hundred-fold, since multiple subs can coordinate to pull of diversionary raids, draw off defenders, isolate targets or instigate brutal blitzkrieg assaults before disappearing back into the depths. And, of course, each receive a fair share of the rewards.
Ah, yes. The rewards. Silent Hunter Online is very much as tense and hardcore a simultation as its predeccessors, though the real-time action is only half of the game. Much of your time will be spent back at base, where Blue Byte's MMO leanings start to make themselves very clear.
From this calm place of safety, you can outfit your fleet of submarines appropriately - yes, you can wield up to four U-Boats with different loadouts and crews (and unlock an extra two slots with premium currency) using in-game resources to acquire new upgrades and components. New modular upgrades such as faster engines or more accurate anti-air guns (I'd suggest crash diving rather than taking on anti-submarine aircraft, personally) will all cost you in-game currency, as will consumables such as torpedoes and diesel fuel. Expanding from a single sluggish Type II U-boat into a fearsome aquatic terror fleet will doubtlessly take a huge time investment, even if you log in on a daily basis. Time, of course, that can optionally be reduced by purchasing resources or specific upgrades with real money along the way.
Minutes and hours will also be a currency in their own right. The battle for the English Channel and Atlantic Ocean plays out over a large tactical map, which shows players hydrophone traces of enemy forces and the direction they're heading. However, once you've selected a target, your submarine will take a realistic amount of time to reach its destination... meaning hours or even days considering how big the Atlantic ocean actually is. Time compression allows you to drastically slash these wait times, but it's a limited resource that has to be purchased with in-game currency. Or, predictably, your hard-earned cash.
These potentially aggravating wait times notwithstanding, our major concern is that Silent Hunter Online's hardcore niche appeal could make it a daunting challenge for new players. Which, perhaps, is where Blue Byte's intriguing mission structure could shake things up. New campaigns are only unlocked when players on the same server complete a certain number of earlier missions, while the Royal Navy will step up their efforts to beat your forces back, potentially locking later theatres of war until you've managed to drive them from your home waters. Veteran commanders are therefore incentivised to help out new players, teach them the ropes and task them with helping out on the earlier campaigns, while making inexperienced captains feel like they're contributing to a greater goal. Rather being than a lonely affair, Silent Hunter Online's greatest triumph could well be making players feel like part of one big, happy Kriegsmarine family.
Or, conversely, it could just become a niche oddity that requires more waiting than hunting. Silent Hunter Online will definitely need more than a few 'whales' to keep itself afloat, but judging from the time I spent beneath the waves, going free-to-play could well be the shot in the arm the series needs.
Silent Hunter Online will release later this year, and you can currently sign up for the beta. Our hands-on preview of Blue Byte's Anno Online went live last week, and stay tuned for our impressions of Might & Magic Heroes Online next Wednesday.
Disclosure: Ubisoft paid for one night's accommodation and return flights to Dusseldorf, where Blue Byte are based.