That Sinking Feeling: At Sea With Silent Hunter Online

By Richard Cobbett on August 16th, 2012 at 5:15 pm.

I saw three ships come sailing by, come sailing by in the morning. So I sank the bastards. Mwah-ha-ha!

There’s no such thing as playing fair when you’re the captain of a submarine. It’s your job to hide, literally, under the radar; to hit your enemy when they’re least expecting it and be away before swift retaliation arrives to send you drowning to Davy Jones’ endless locker. Silent Hunter Online is a cut-down version of the experience, but looks to make up for it by letting you bring friends, and taking the F2P route to putting the You Bastard into U-Boat.

Like all of Ubisoft’s recent online announcements, Silent Hunter Online is a free to play game that runs directly in your browser and, like the Justice League Unlimited episode The Great Brain Robbery, is based on Flash. More than the other games, it showed the limits of the technology with a 3D view apparently restricted to a small periscope, though that doesn’t matter too much. If you’re going to be restricted by technology, at least this is realistic.

(More realistic than a German U-Boat commander with a British accent, anyway.)

The setting is the Atlantic, between 1939 and 1945 – a version based on actual Kriegsmarine maps. You of course are on the Axis side, as the captain of between one sub and a whole flotilla, with a team of NPC officers at your beck and call. Not comfortable with torpedo firing solutions? There’s a guy for that. You’re free to ignore them completely and do everything yourself, but they’re there if you need a helping hand with anything from fighting enemy destroyers to getting back home for repairs, upgrades, and a celebratory bratwurst. You’re also in charge of making sure you have enough fuel, torpedoes and other resources, and levelling up your crew to make your submarine more efficient. You can lose submarines during a mission, and if so, they’re apparently gone for good – though you’ll always have one to avoid a Game Over.

Also, Captain? Where did we find the space for a shop on this bucket? I have to sleep in the laundry basket, and now I find they've put a shop on board?!

The online side kicks in with the ability to team up with three other players to form a wolfpack, and really go to town on the strategic side. All combat is PvE based, with a certain amount of randomness added to the missions to keep them fresh even on a replay.

The most interesting part of the game is the dynamic campaign. While missions are preset, and you work through them individually, everybody’s successes and failures are tracked and affect the overall server campaign. At the start for example, you may see plenty of undefended freighters. As players blow them up though, missions will start generating more opposition like destroyer escorts. It’s not clear how great this will be for players who join the campaign during a victory streak, but early missions at least should still guide them into the action instead of throwing them into a tutorial where they’re expected to fight seven destroyers and Great Cthulhu. Every server (one per continent is planned, though that may change) will have its own version of the war running, with power constantly shifting back and forth between Axis and Allies.

Oh, look, a Depot button. That'll be handy.

While working through the campaign, you’ll also be upgrading your submarines. Microtransactions are likely to kick in hard here, for individual pieces and upgrades, as well as Time Compression points to get you between missions and back to base quicker than you can say “Ahem” while rubbing two fingers together in a pointed way. Every player will have a certain quota of time compression points, which refill every 24 hours, but they’re an obvious thing to sell. It doesn’t sound like you can simply head out to sea and look for a fight though – everything seems completely mission based, with those missions selected from a map.

(I know, I know. I hate to be so wooly with words like ‘sound’ and ‘seem’. Unfortunately, the demo I saw consisted entirely of watching someone else jump straight into battle, instead of personally being allowed to take command of a sub, and the focus was firmly on the fancy 3D side of commanding a sub rather than more mundane things like getting from A to B.)

That doesn't look like the most thrilling use of 5h 44m, I've got to say.

Somewhat oddly though, you don’t just jump into the missions outright. Ubisoft talks about having to do things like set course for a mission in the morning, then log in again later on to actually play it, with it taking over a day of real-time to cross the ocean without time compression.

In a word: Hmm.

To be clear, that’s not necessarily a bad “Hmm”; just the curious kind of “Hmm”. Taking the full real-time route makes perfect sense in a regular Silent Hunter game, and it may well do here as well. It sounds slightly out of place though, in a world with no grand apparent grand strategy going on outside the isolated missions. Also, while I’m told that nothing will happen to your submarines while you’re not there to watch over them, there was no mention of whether anything can happen if you are. Hopefully there’s at least a chance of some wet wandering encounters to make travelling the oceans more than the pure timesink it sounded like.

Running in a web browser will at least make it easy to pass the time by flicking over to TV Tropes for a few hours, but it feels like it might be a feature too far for this version. Maybe. Unsurprisingly, and frankly, mercifully, staring at a map for eight hours wasn’t part of the demo I saw, so it could well be more interesting than it sounds on paper. Someone with waaaay more time and patience than me will no doubt find out when the closed beta starts.

If you want to be one of the first to find out, said beta is due to start very soon, and you can sign up right here. No specific launch date for the final version has been announced, but don’t expect it to see it raising its periscope this side of 2013. Even with time compression.

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16 Comments »

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  1. Freud says:

    Who needs submarines when you can use loose lips?

  2. vonkrieger says:

    Am I the only one for whom this sounds potentially brilliant?

    • DigitalParadox says:

      To me this seems like the one franchise of Ubisoft where going F2P would actually work out. Let’s face it, Silent Hunter games have never made a ton of money despite being beloved by their niche fanbase, and just the general type of game it is could actually work out in this format. I’m mildly excited for this.

      F2P Anno and HOMM is still pants-on-head retarded though.

  3. Jason Lefkowitz says:

    The online side kicks in with the ability to team up with three other players to form a wolfpack

    It seems like it’d be more fun to let your friends take the places of some of those NPC officers, so you could work the sonar while Friend A handles the torpedoes, Friend B plots courses at the navigation table, etc. Oh well…

  4. Brise Bonbons says:

    Not really enough information to say anything solid, yet, but the F2P aspects sound like they could be incredibly intrusive and annoying in this one.

    Also, solely mission based? Yeck. Leveling up NPCs? Silly persistent progression for the sake of it, probably. And “upgrading” a military vessel? Isn’t that something that the administrators overseeing theater operations would have last say on?

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      “Also, solely mission based?”

      From what I could see. There’s a map for travel, which you appear to do in real-time if you’re out of time compression points, but there was no talk at all of just heading out and seeing what you can find.

  5. HisMastersVoice says:

    “More realistic than a German U-Boat commander with a British accent”

    Obviously an Oxford graduate.

  6. battles_atlas says:

    10 comments, one of which is spam, and one of which is this one, suggest this is going to fail in the same way the last Silent Hunter did, namely by failing to convince anyone outside the sub sim niche that this is worth playing, and convincing those within it that its dumb-downed crap. The only one I played was 4, which from what I read was already going this way, but despite some enormously annoying bugs (a dynamic campaign that generated the same mission endlessly) I really quite enjoyed it.

    I can’t help but feel the smart commercial move with this franchise is to target the niche actually interested in it and keep dev costs relative to its size.

    • Torgen says:

      The thing about the Silent Hunter franchise except the first one back in the VGA days is, they’ve always been released so buggy and unfinished, that the fan community has had to pitch in together to bring them to a playable state for every single one. That’s gonna be hard to do for an online game.

      (I own SH 1, 3, and 4)

      • mageta says:

        Is the 4th game playable today? Bought it when it was released and it was so bugged that I couldn’t stand playing more than a very few hours.. never touched it again.. played on the 3rd instead.

  7. Barman1942 says:

    Silent Hunter reduced to a free to play flash game is just depressing. It’s like saying “Oh, you enjoyed Das Boot? Well, here’s U-571 as a worthy sequel”.

  8. Alien Smithee says:

    Are those at Ubisoft related to Caligula at all? Or are they merely exploiting an ignorant, dumbed-down public who have the attention-span and memory of Alzheimers patients? I mean, we already have Silent Hunter 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5… why would any normal person in their right mind buy into the same idea all over again? Nevermind a “cut down version” that features even less?

    Here’s a crazy idea… we’ve enjoyed Sonalysts’ excellent Dangerous Waters for some years now… so why won’t Ubisoft put their money behind a new “modern” subsim with say, a few Los Angeles Class, Typhoons, Akula’s, Alfa’s, Kilio’s, Swiftsure’s or Trafalgars to play with, instead of always 1939-1945? Or how about WWI? Or the Victorian era… anyone? Anything please, except the same thing, over and over again. You know, something different we might actually BUY??