Silent Hunter 5 Reader Review
It’s 4:48 am and I am 150 metres below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. I’ve been down here for about 28 hours, give or take, and there’s no space left on the Chalkboard to record depth charges. We ran out of room at 80. Above me the ocean is whipping itself into larger and larger waves, a storm rising after days of dull flat water, and there are no less than twelve Destroyers circling my position. Historically, not a single Uboat that entered the Mediterranean survived.
Any other Captain would balk at such a hopeless situation, but not me. I’ve just sunk a Battleship, my first – a 31,000 ton ‘Queen Elizabeth’ class – and I am determined to get my crew out of this alive. Heart hard with defiance, I order a sharp turn as one Destroyer passes overhead, but he swings to port at the last second, unwittingly matching my escape manoeuvre. Depth charges splash above but in the rattle of my own engines and the roar of the Destroyer’s screws overhead I don’t hear them, and the first I know of it is the sickening lurch and thunder as they explode against the hull. U021 shakes, her engines go silent. The crew calls out cracks in the pressure hull and we begin to lose depth, slipping slowly into the deep black.
That same feeling of impending doom may have also been felt by Ubisoft after the release of Silent Hunter 5. While the series has been known for buggy releases, 5 was a broken mess, scoring 5/10 at Eurogamer and a mediocre 62 from Metacritic. Terrible framerates, lost legacy features and some mind-bogglingly glaring oversights (did they really not put a command for Depth Under Keel in the stock game?!) sunk Silent Hunter 5 without a trace, with the final depth charge dealt by the much-hated ‘Permanent Internet Connection Required’. More so than with any other game in the series, it was up to the modders to fix it.
Enter the heroically dedicated Captains at subsim.com and other modding communities. In the year or so since release, they have been hard at work, picking apart the game and turning it into something quite different from the mangled mess it began as. The famously inadequate and unrealistic campaign has been extended to 1945 and now incorporates new shipping traffic, naval minefields, icebergs, schools of dolphins and anti-submarine netting, as well as completely reworked objectives. Game UI is available in several different flavours, including facsimiles of the older SH3/4 UIs for the more traditionally inclined or more functional versions of the new UI for the more adventurous, nearly all of which remove the need to run around the boat giving orders like some headless chicken.
All the Uboats in the campaign have been reworked to their historical specifications; equipment upgrades that were included but never accessible are now available to budding Kaleuns in port. The AI has received a major overhaul as well and allows for proper radio-coordinated submarine wolfpacks, working enemy submarines and much deadlier aircraft – as well as improving convoys and their lurking escort Destroyers. Even the framerate has been improved thanks to renowned modder Kegetys' ‘D3D Antilag’, a downloadable .DLL file that allows you to force your GPU to render a frame or two ahead – turning the game from a slideshow to a slick sim with one easy drag & drop.
All of this comes together (via the help of Jonesoft’s trusty Generic Mod Enabler) to turn Silent Hunter 5 into a much more coherent game at a slight performance cost, largely nullified by the Antilag.dll and only noticeable at high levels of Time Compression. This forces you to play the game a little slower, but in many ways this isn’t a bad thing, as it forces you to take in the scenery (even better thanks to the many environmental upgrades) and not rocket about the high seas like some demon-possessed Nazi vibrator.
Taking in the scenery is only half the fun, of course. With the right mods installed, the sim regains the unique qualities that were so lacking in the stock game. Hunting is once more a slow, patient process where attention to shipping lanes and the contact reports of your brothers in the Ubootwaffe are key to success. Sighting your prey, plotting his course and then powering past him for the end-around still makes your heart pound as you approach your point of interception. With the new UIs you can opt for automatic or manual targeting at will without needing to change the game options, and if you play for a while the ease of the auto-method will eventually begin to feel somehow wrong. You’ll want to start using the stadimeter for ranging, to find out how to plot your target’s angle on bow and estimate his speed. Then you’ll flood your tubes, launch and slip away into the deep below, waiting with held breath for the explosions you hope will follow.
You can take the time out to talk to your crew and give your orders to them in person, if you wish – but you no longer have to. If things are going to hell buttons are still faster, and if a Blenheim bomber has snuck up on you in heavy fog you don’t want to have to waste precious time running to your Executive Officer below deck before you crash dive. But if things are quiet, and the seas calm, you can stand on deck and watch the sun set over the waves while the radio plays actual 1940s era radio broadcasts, complete with war reports. Unlike the real Uboat Kaleuns, you are free to ignore the offered missions completely and just cruise the oceans and seas, attacking and evading as you see fit – though your effectiveness will directly affect the campaign path you are offered, with multiple branches becoming available upon success.
It’s not all rosy though, and there are some bugs that are impossible to fix. AI collision detection is hardcoded and still terrible, which can lead to some amusing accidents if you’re being pursued by a lot of ships. More than once I’ve been playing possum as deep as I can go to avoid detection, and upon checking out the scene above me with the free camera have yelped in panic and slammed the engines to flank ahead to avoid the rapidly sinking victim of an accidental collision. A few users still receive CTDs at high system load and the game’s particle system is still system-heavy (though it can be mitigated with D3D antilag and in-game reductions), while load times in general are increased throughout.
There’s still very little in the way of a tutorial, making the learning curve a steep one and forcing you to learn about evasive manoeuvres and general submarine operation by trial and error, or extensive research. One of the biggest gripes also remains unsolved: there is still only one type of playable submarine – the Type VII, in four variants. Due to the complexity of the interior modelling, it may be a while before we see new submarines in Silent Hunter 5. As for the DRM, well, it’s still there. The game still connects to the Ubisoft servers to store your save games (though it’s recommended you switch this off in the Uplay Launcher) when you enter the game – but that is all. The ‘always on’ side of it has been switched off, which means you won’t get kicked out if your connection drops, leaving the DRM almost unnoticeable for the majority. It’s not victory, but it’s a start.
There is flooding in two rear compartments and one electric engine is out of action completely, the other heavily damaged and inoperable. 180 metres and dropping; the hull will give way somewhere between 200 and 250 metres, according to Wikipedia, though the red danger line starts at 150. I scream at the Chief Engineer to call more crew to damage control and desperately think of a way to stop my descent – my only chance is a controlled release from the ballast tanks. Too much and I’ll float too high – more vulnerable to depth charges or, heaven forbid, accidentally surfacing. Too little and I won’t rise at all. I blow the tanks and the boat finally stops at 208 metres and begins to rise, the hull creaking and groaning as it begins to succumb to the pressure. We pass above the danger line agonizingly slowly and I set for lower depth once we hit 110 metres, sinking back down. I yo-yo the boat in this way three more times until I have only enough compressed air left for one final attempt. Through the sonar – all but forgotten in the labours to keep the boat above crush depth – the Warships are fainter now, moving away. Hull integrity is a hair-whitening 32% and the pumps are struggling to contain the flooding. I hold my breath and give the order to surface.
The rising storm has brought with it an enormous fog bank. I climb the ladder to the conning tower and look out into a thick grey mist, the searchlights of the destroyers barely visible on the starboard side. The charge that wrecked the electric engines somehow spared the diesels used for surface running, and throwing caution to the wind I order all ahead flank and swing the boat to port with all guns manned; to hell with their sonar. But somehow, miraculously, the searchlights do not find us, the cannons do not fire, and U021 vanishes into the mist to fight another day. Thanks almost solely to its steadfast and inventive community, so does Silent Hunter 5.
List of mods used:
Shadow Improvement ModLR
OPEN HORIZONS II_full
OH II and Light Campaign Radio Messages v3
Dynamic Environment SH5 Basemod (normal ) V2.1
Dynamic Environment SH5 Atlantic Floor V2.1
Dynamic Environment SH5 Sounds V2.1
Dynamic Environment SH5 Sleet For Winter Campaigns V2.1
Dynamic Environment SH5 Waves (realistic version) V2.1
NOZAURIO'S SKIN (Standard No Emblem) v-1.0.0
Sobers smaller water drops
KZS Hull wetness for U-Boats + co tower and deck
Critical hits 1.1 Torpedoes
Critical hits v 1.2
Stoianm pitch&roll for SH5 V1 (normal)
Stoianm upgrade available mod comp
Dynamic Environment SH5 Undersea (temperate and polar) V2.1
Note: while this list may seem laboriously extensive, the actual process of installing them via JSGME is very simple – simply drag & drop into a folder, then enable. Individual mod settings are handled by easily editable, fully annotated text files. Work is in progress on a ‘super-mod’ that will contain a large number of these in a single package (Magnum Opus, an early version of which is used here), but the frequency of new mod releases means it will be some time before it is fully realised. All mods and much helpful advice can be found at http://www.subsim.com.