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That Sinking Feeling: At Sea With Silent Hunter Online

Don't ask its makers 'Wait, you play as the baddies?'

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.

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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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