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Diary: Exploring The Watery Depths Of Sub Commander


Sub Commander is a free roguelike submarine sim. I first learned about it from Tim’s Flare Path write up of the game, and since then I’ve been spending occasional afternoons sending crew upon crew to their watery demise at the bottom of the murky depths. Playing it this afternoon has proven the perfect antidote to the ramp-up of E3 bombast, and so I thought I’d talk you through my dynamically-generated mission to take out the SS Vancouver.

Most roguelikes are about creatures: simulating the skills of your hero, the dwarves of your dwarf fortress, or the ruleset of your enemies in something like Angband. Sub Commander has its crew of coloured dots, each with their own job, skills and equipment, but it’s the submarine itself which gets the greatest amount of attention. It’s the vessel that transports you to your target for any given mission, but it’s also a dungeon, and the enemy that’s most likely to kill you.

You control that submarine by highlighting one of its many coloured rectangles, each representing a control panel, and hitting enter. What then appears on screen might look something like this:

This is the control panel for your submarine’s miscellaneous systems, and mouse control allows you to directly flick those switches to open to vents or turn on the sprinkler system in a given part of the ship. Given the graphical simplicity of the submarine in the top half of the screen, these control panels are surprisingly detailed, and the clear labeling makes them easy to learn and control. The trick is remembering where to look for the switch you’re looking for, and being able to quickly rush between them all in an emergency situation.

And those emergency situations will happen, a lot, even when you’re not under attack. It turns out that submarines are temperamental machines, and operating under the ocean in a tin can containing a nuclear generator is a recipe for disaster. Disaster like:

Something in the torpedo room has exploded. Every moving part on your ship has the ability to become damaged and break, just through the wear and tear of normal use. It’s possible to order your crew to carry out inspections of any part of the ship, but it’s far more likely that your first indication of something being wrong will be a crack in the hull, some radiation leaking out of your generators, or as in this case, an explosion.

The initial blast kills one of my men instantly. I act quickly by sending two more people into the torpedo room to fight the fires, but this proves a bad idea. Torpedoes are basically just explosives. Now they’re explosives which are on fire, and those have a different name: explosions. Each torpedo not loaded into a launch tube explodes, causing more fire, more injury and more hull breaches. I’m currently surfaced somewhere near the East China sea, so there’s no risk of those hull breaches causing a flood, but…

At this point I have an idea. You know that previous screenshot in which I showed the “Fire Suppression” panel, from which a single click would turn on an internal sprinkler system and put out fires in any room in the ship? My idea isn’t that. I forgot that existed.

You know how the old poem goes. “Water, water, everywhere, so crash dive beneath its surface to douse your burning sub”?

In my defense, it works. The water pours in – fluids are realistically simulated and will rise and flow throughout your sub depending on open doors, etc. – and the fire is put out. In this case, I’m lucky enough in that I’m not so badly damaged that I can’t re-surface again afterwards.

I’m also unlucky enough that my nuclear reactor’s cooling system has become damaged, causing a slight radiation leak into the room that contains it. I send a man in to try to fix it, after wisely ordering him to don a radiation suit. Unfortunately, I didn’t tell him to take a self-contained breathing apparatus inside as well, so once he’s finished fixing the coolant system, he passes unconscious and later dies.

It’s worth noting that, at this point, I am some 500 miles outside of port, having taken a dumb route to my intended destination and having thus far not encountered a single enemy. I make perhaps the only smart decision of my first hour of the mission and turn back towards a friendly port. Shanghai is the closest – I’m in a Russian submarine – and I’m able to repair the damage and re-stock my crew and torpedoes while I’m there.

I set back out into the ocean blue. This time I’m lucky enough that the only faults I encounter are with the fire suppression system itself, and the only consequence of that fault seems to be that sprinklers will come on random and of their own volition. This is easily resolved by pushing the button I forgot about earlier to turn them off again, and it occurs to me that in some ways, these random faults are a neat teaching tool for the inner-workings of your sub.

Unfortunately, I fail to realise that when the sprinklers come on, the same fault also automatically closes the vents in that area. Starving oxygen to a room is a really great way to stop fires. It’s less useful for the humans inside. I only notice this is happening when one of my crew of white and blue dots turns red:

I’m sorry, Seaman Iosif Magomedov. The others: sorry too, because while I know how to send medical help your way to wake you up, it takes me a further five minutes to work out what the problem is and open the vents back up. By that point, you’ll all be dead.

I’m now too far from port to easily replace my fallen comrades, and so I continue on, undeterred but slightly more cautious. If I get into a messy scrap now, I’ll have fewer people with whom to deal with any fallout, whether that be literal nuclear fallout, cracked hulls or more fires. But since my target is a boat, there’s a chance I might be able to take it out without it ever even knowing I’m here.

As I get closer to its reported location, I open up and switch on a whole new control panel.

As soon as I do, it gets a hit. My target sits 64 nautical miles away at a bearing of 225 degrees. I dive below the surface – a thing I should have done long before now, honestly – slow my engines, and lay in a course for what I can only assume is going to be a disastrous battle which I have no chance of surviving.

When I get closer to my intended target, I survey the area through the ship’s periscope. This is the best view for initiating and dealing with combat, and maybe films cartoons about submarines have lied to me, but peering through it gives you a top-down view of the world around you which displays nearby planes, subs and enemy ships. I sneak closer still to my target, who is now less than a single nautical mile away.

When I get close enough that I think I can hit it, press the space bar twice to launch the torpedoes in tubes 1 and 2. Missiles away!

The first torpedo hits its intended target, immediately destroying it. The second torpedo, unneeded, speeds off into the distance in a huff. Success! I can hardly believe it, not least because I’ve played this game a bunch of times before – can’t you tell? – and every mission has ended with a deadly run-in against a stronger than indicated force.

But instead of us all dying at the bottom of the ocean in a crippled submarine, I find myself with a new set of orders to attack a new set of enemies somewhere to the west. I briefly imagine everyone cheering, before I remember the four asphyxiated bodies still lying on the engine room floor.

And then the torpedo room explodes again, destroying the hull.

Sub Commander is incomplete, but as of version 0.23 is already fun and feature rich. Its learning curve is a little steep, but you’ll be having fun in failure (and occasionally surprising straightforward success) from the off. Give it a try.

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Graham Smith


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