Developer: Nintendo EAD
Shigeru Miyamoto has always wanted to make a game about submarines, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop him.
We love the idea -- after all, the mighty sub really doesn't get the attention it deserves, beyond Silent Hunter -- but Steel Diver didn't set the gaming world on fire back in 2011. We enjoyed its bonkers side-scrolling depth-charging gameplay as far as it went... which turned out to be about thirty minutes thanks to the ludicrously short campaign, so I must admit to loosing an exasperated growl when Miyamoto announced a sequel to his pet project.
However, Sub Wars is a very different beast from the niche original: a first-person free-to-play multiplayer arcade submarine simulator. As such, it's the best one of those on the (any?) platform by default, but is it actually worth your time and an optional £8.99 premium upgrade?
Sub Wars joins the tiny exclusive club of games that are actively improved by adding first-person shooting mechanics. Simultaneously controlling your weighty submarine's speed and depth is still appropriately cumbersome, but the new perspective makes navigation much more intuitive and exciting. It won't be long before you're pulling off some advanced manoeuvres beneath the waves, turning on a dime, dipping in and out of periscope range and pinging your sonar to locate enemy vessels.
Unlike the original Steel Diver, Sub Wars is much more focused on combat than navigational execution challenges. The perfunctory singleplayer campaign introduces you to the basics of hunting down enemy subs, dispatching them with precisely-aimed torpedoes, using a very limited number of homing missiles to advantage and abusing a temporary cloaking device to mask yourself in bubbles; breaking torpedo lock and line of sight in the process. Though the missions are somewhat lacking in terms of variety and verve, they're effectively just a tutorial for the main event.
Once online, Sub Wars becomes pleasingly tense and authentic as two four-player teams hunt each other down in a fight to the last sub standing. Swimming? Matches descend into teeth-grittingly nervy games of cat and mouse, since most stages provide obstacles and underwater architecture to hide behind, while sonar pulses broadcast your own position alongside nearby foes. If you're taken down, you're out for the rest of the round, making for a ruthlessly hardcore experience that belies the 3DS' fluffy, friendly image. Infrequent netcode issues aside (I experienced a few error screens and a little lag from time to time), I'm rather impressed.
This being a pet project that plays by Miyamoto's own inexplicable rules, you can only communicate in Morse Code, even in pre-game lobbies. No, really. It's clunky and inconvenient, yet quirky and charming enough to work.
Ranking up gradually unlocks new submarines that prioritise speed, power or manoeuvrability (none of which can actually be used unless you upgrade the free version to the premium package - more on that later) and new camouflage patterns. There's no customisation per se, but crew members can be found scattered around the multiplayer maps and singleplayer levels, who can ride along to provide persistent stat boosts.
Sub Wars is fun and refreshing for a couple of hours, but after a while, you'll have to come to terms with its lack of meaningful content. A tiny handful of stages, short singleplayer campaign and single 4v4 gametype aren't really enough to provide much in the way of long-term appeal. Critically, it desperately cries out for more modes, such as an objective gametype or respawn-enabled deathmatch at the very least. The all-or-nothing action may be brutally enjoyable, but tedium is bound to set in sooner or later.
Perhaps sooner than you'd think, because Sub Wars' biggest flaw is its lack of real personality. A far cry from the bright colours and delightful charms we usually expect from Nintendo games, this is a bland, businesslike and somewhat dull affair, not helped by the murky and fuzzy visuals. Life aboard a submarine is monotonous in real life, but as a videogame, Sub Wars ought to have provided more flair and wacky charisma to keep us interested, both on a visual and gameplay level. Indeed, the only real character is aptly provided by a cameo from Peppy (yes, "do a barrel roll" Peppy!) who delivers a humours impassioned plea to spend £8.99 on the premium upgrade.
Speaking of which...
Sub Wars is a free to play game, and surprisingly generous given that it's Nintendo's first real attempt at the freemium model on 3DS. The free download grants access to two singleplayer levels (technically six, since the three difficulty levels drastically change the enemy presence and level design), two submarines and the full multiplayer experience. You can unlock and equip crew members and camouflage patterns, while ranking up to the maximum level. However, unlocked submarines can't actually be used unless you open your wallet and give Peppy a backhander.
This might sound cruel and cynical, but in reality, the subs are well-balanced enough to make eternal free play viable, especially if you only plan to dip into it every now and again. Considering that you'll have to play for several hours to unlock a decent collection of premium submarines, Sub Wars will have technically earned your money by then. The choice is yours.
Miyamoto's pet project has improved in leaps and bounds, then, but the concept still doesn't have the charm and content to fully realise its potential as a free-to-play trend setter. We hope that he manages to inject a further sequel with more personality, verve and flair... and brings it to Wii U to boot. For now, Sub Wars may not hold your attention for long, but acts as a perfect free distraction that some might find more compelling than they bargained for.
- Surprisingly effective multiplayer action
- Robust controls and unlocks
- One-off premium upgrade F2P model feels fair and balanced
- Lacks personality and identity
- Murky sub-par visuals
- Desperately needs more maps and gametypes; questionable long-term appeal
The Short Version: Sub Wars improves on the original Steel Diver in practically every way; offering tense, nervy and authentic free-to-play submarine combat. Though its bland personality and paucity of gametypes will turn many players off, armchair admirals will enjoy this lethal game of catfish and mouse. If you like the idea, you won't have to pay a penny to find out where you stand.
Hopefully a future sequel will refine a promising start into a truly great franchise. Third time's the charm, after all...