By Quintin Smith on September 8th, 2010 at 3:00 pm.
I’d been interested in Ship Simulator Extremes since I heard about it at GamesCom. It’s a ship simulator, but with whole campaigns of relatively extreme missions that see you performing rescues, putting out fires, and even harassing other vessels as a pesky Greenpeace unit. Could I – a man – with no experience in ships – hope to succeed?
Since Ship Simulator Extremes came out a couple a weeks ago, I’ve found out the answer is a very firm “No.” The kind of no the bouncer of a fancy club tells you if you’re not wearing shoes at all. That said, my failure didn’t happen quite the way I was expecting. Put on the life jacket located under your seat and click through the jump for an account of my first few missions.
My career as a boat-man gets off to a surreal start as my first mission loads. I’m shown a huge indentation in some water, as if a strange, invisible force were pressing down on it. After a couple of seconds the concave hole is filled perfectly by my boat, which pops into view like some strange alien artifact. Earth-people of the seas! I have arrived.
Since this is the first mission of the Greenpeace campaign, my task is pretty simple. In the distance is a large container ship that’s been sighted dumping barrels into the sea. The poor, long-suffering sea. Why can’t we leave it alone? My orders are to catch up with the vessel and harass it like a total asshole, which will cause it the ship to stop dumping and “Greenpeace will get the whole thing on camera”.
The controls of my alien ship prove to be very simple indeed. I’ve got an accelerator and a steering wheel, and I can weigh anchor or hitch myself to things, and that’s it. Stop me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t a simulator be more involved than that? I’ve played platformers with more complicated controls.
After it dawns on me how ball-wrinklingly slow my Greenpeace ship actually is, I drop one of the two smaller boats it carries into the water and send that zipping off. Within a few minutes it arrives, whereupon it’s revealed that I’m not the only craft in the water using strange future technology. The entire 300 metre long container ship vanishes. Tilting the camera, I see it’s reappeared a few hundred feet away.
Devious! As I change course to catch up with it, the container ship blinks back to where it was originally, sending me crashing against its hull. At this point the container ship opens up with a water cannon, though I couldn’t have been less surprised if it’d shot me with a laser. The ship blinks away again, then blinks back, though by this point my boat was occupying the some of the space where it was originally, causing my tiny craft to disappear under its immense tonnage.
Mission failed, the game tells me. Thanks, I tell the game.
Right, sod that first mission. Let’s try mission 2 of the Greenpeace campaign, where you perform a raid on a ship that may or may not be carrying an illegal lumber shipment. Basically, it’s up to you to go over there and see if the other crew’s got wood.
By now I’ve learnt the nuances of the game’s manual controls, though this doesn’t save me from heading off in completely the wrong direction once I’ve left the dock, thus necessitating a laborious 45 second turn. The nuances of the game’s manual controls largely revolve around the steering wheel, which largely revolves as it sees fit. Before touching the steering wheel you say a prayer to its wrathful deity, sprinkle yourself with an offering of fragrant herbs, and then proceed to turn it very slowly and very carefully so as not to upset it. Or you can use the cursor keys, although you have to hold them down the whole time you’re turning.
Reaching the cargo vessel takes a staggering 15 minutes, but once I’m there it goes without a hitch. Except for the actual hitching, whereby I hitched one of my boats to the vessel so my inspection team could do their inspecting. And lo! The illegal shipment was found. The crew has wood! They have wood and they were trying to hide it. With the coast guard on their way, the final leg of my mission is simply to return to port.
I’ve only just turned around and whispered thanks to the steering wheel deity when the coast guard arrive. At top speed. Without changing course or bothering to steer around me in any way. The t-bone collision occurs with such force that I actually yelp.
See the smaller coastguard vessel on its SIDE on the right of my ship there? I took this shot after the crash had happened but before the coast guard manage to detach themselves from the collision detection of my ship. Eventually they flomp back into the water and we both continue on our way. Against the odds, my ship is okay.
For a while, anyway.
But maybe I can limp back to port in time!!
No, no I can’t. Incredibly, the game refuses to cough up a mission failed screen. After spending a minute listening to a strange, repeated rasping noise that was apparently my ship rubbing back and forth against the sea bed like an aroused dancer, I quit.
So, fuck Greenpeace. I swap to a different campaign that pits you as the captain of a cruise ship. And fuck starting at the beginning of a campaign, too. I drop straight into the middle, with an appealing-sounding mission called Bora Bora Fire.
As the mission starts I drop into Captain view on a whim, and I’m given a vision of exactly what I wanted from this game.
Calm waters, and a beautiful island seen at sunset from a powerful craft. My powerful craft. My responsibility. There’s a certain rawness and excitement that’s always found in seagoing videogames, which anyone who’s dabbled in the Silent Hunter series will be able to tell you about. I love that ominous majesty. I love waves, wetness, and guiding this huge, delicate man-made contraption through the dangers of it all. I love the idea of having a crew, and yet all of you being so alone out there.
That said, I suppose what I really want from a boat game is all the emotive elements of the ocean applied to something other than a straight simulation. A kind of post-apocalyptic Deadliest Catch sim would be perfect. You could take your rickety craft out on fishing trips, pulling up all kinds of mutated fish and crabs from the sea and occasionally having to defend yourself from sea-monsters. Then you get home, sell your loot, and upgrade your craft and crew. You could set the whole thing from the captain’s first person perspective. It’d be beautiful.
Back to reality. In Bora Bora Fire there’s a burning cruise ship and a few drowning crewmembers around it. I have to pluck the men from the water, and use my coast guard ship’s water cannon to put out the fire.
Both of these tasks prove to be pretty fiddly. Maneuvering an enormous vessel to a complete stop right next to a tiny man takes several goes, like squeezing into a tight parking space. I actually back my ship motor-first over one of the survivors at one point, but he is a trooper and pops out from underneath me again, uninjured. As for the water cannon, the various levels of detachment I have from it (using delicate mouse tugs to control a joystick with a limited, flat plane of movement to control a cannon that fires in three dimensions) makes hitting the fires a challenge, but I get there in the end.
And look! I can see the saved crewmembers repeating aimless laps of my ship. Reminds me of Pathologic. I wonder if I can swap him my razorblade for a few vegetables?
My relatively uneventful progression comes to a painful halt as I can’t figure out how to dock at the port the game wants me to dock at. After several minutes of confused, time-consuming maneuvering, I give up.
So there you have it! Ship Simulator Extremes, available now for the low-low price of €39.99. Probably don’t buy it. I’m off to go and write an incredibly detailed design document for that sci-fi Deadliest Catch game, then I’m going to shut it away in a cupboard where it will never see the light of day. Ta-ra!