Version tested: PC
As usual for this World War II u-boat sim series, your first task in Silent Hunter 5 is going into the options and filling out a long checkbox questionnaire while the game holds a protractor and set square up to your masculinity.
"Realistic repair times?" Check. "Limited compressed air?" Check. "Manual targeting?" Uh, maybe not. "No external view?" Check. Meanwhile the game updates a judgemental "realism" percentage at the bottom of the screen. Once again a "Sexual tension as men rub past one another in corridors" checkbox is conspicuous by its absence, and once again I ended up with a history-tastic 70 per cent.
I also began to get excited. Again. I really do like this series. For anyone who hasn't played them, Silent Hunter games are capable of great things. Riffing off the fact that subs in World War II often acted as independent vessels, Silent Hunter gives you your own ship with your own crew and your own mission, and in simply allowing you to prowl the oceans like some phallic sea monster it ends up providing both incredible freedom and an overwhelmingly atmospheric vision of what life was like for all those sailors in WWII.
Which is to say life was basically the worst thing. The only thing more horrible than successfully torpedoing four ships and watching them catch fire and sink out in the freezing, inky wetness a thousand miles from anywhere is being on the other side of that coin, in a hunted sub.
The Silent Hunter games have always excelled at this. You get to wield this awesome power and send 20,000 tons of cargo to the bottom of the ocean with each successful torpedo salvo, but there's also the terror of being sighted, of the emergency dive, of your crew whispering to one another so the enemy hydrophones don't pick you up. And then that haunting conclusion: the depth charges, the flickering lighting, the spraying valves, the God-groan of your penile vessel being warped by unknowable pressure.
This has always been an unforgiving series. But what I didn't know, clicking through those realism checkboxes in Silent Hunter 5, is that this game comes with way more little difficulties than the ones you can chose. Silent Hunter 3 was a buggy game at release, Silent Hunter 4 more so. But this is something else. I cannot believe they shouldered this game out the door.
Let's start with it being a chubby system hog. This is the first game I've seen my 2.4GHz quad-core with 6GB RAM and a Radeon X1900 struggle with, even on reasonable settings. Running the game at the high speeds required to travel large distances, the frame-rate often falls into unbearable choppiness. So, a taxing simulation of the North Sea in more ways than one.
Another early problem is the game's tutorial, or lack of one. The way the game starts you off as a First Officer doing a Captain's bidding is the smartest introduction this series has ever had, so it's a bit surprising when your schoolin' ends after the game's done nothing but make you fire some torpedoes at stationary merchant vessels and dock in a port. Nothing on emergency manoeuvres, your deck guns, hunting tactics, logistics or your crew, and don't think you'll learn any of this stuff in the manual, which is a flimsy bare cupboard of a thing.
That the crew receive zero attention here is especially odd since they've gotten some new features. As well as having to manage their morale as usual, your crew now have stats and even special powers you upgrade with "promotion points".
You can even upgrade your ship's mess officer to unlock his ability to make morale-boosting Special Food, or chat to your men about their about their wives, children, the boat, the war, even their novel. Throughout the campaign your men receive new (if brief) lines of dialogue, and their continued growth as characters is a nice reward for your continued survival.
Yes, that's right, there's a campaign now. Rather than picking a submarine and a year and floating off to create your own story, the game now features a single sub and has you commanding it through a branching path of missions, each made up of many patrols.
Sadly though it's very limited. You command a team of fixed personalities, which means that nobody on your ship can get injured or die, and this is hardly ideal for a simulation, or any game which sells itself on being dramatic. Console fans and Silent Hunter fans probably don't overlap too much, but the example set by Valkyria Chronicles on PS3 was better, proving that when characters with names, histories, traits and voice actors die due to your actions, you feel it.
A bigger issue is that Silent Hunter 5 players can look forward to a spectacular first mission set in 1939, which takes some five tired hours to complete and sees you sinking dozens of merchant vessels around a poorly defended England before you can proceed to the more hostile waters of 1940 onwards.
The final serious new feature is what Ubisoft describe as your u-boat becoming a "Living Space", wherein more of your ship than ever is available to wander around (not the entire thing, still), and lots of your orders are issued directly to crew members by clicking on them and then selecting various options.
It's pretty and atmospheric, but between this new need for you to go pottering around your boat, that grubby frame-rate and the revised UI being hugely clunky, running your ship can become very trying indeed. Imagine controlling a Captain with two peglegs who's trying to maintain his dignity while an important part of his job is still climbing ladders. Imagine him squinting at his cramped ship through tear-glossed eyes. That's Silent Hunter 5.
But all of these missteps pale in comparison to how unfinished this game is. Any notes I take while reviewing a game tend to be of the angry variety; when I'm having fun I don't often stop to jot things down. Thanks to Silent Hunter 5 the room I'm writing in now looks like Russell Crowe's shed from A Beautiful Mind. I'm just going to go ahead and read some of what I've written on the wall, floor and ceiling:
Rudder control is broken. Hull integrity dropped to 81 per cent while I was circumnavigating Denmark. WHY IS MY CREW'S MORALE ZERO. Why will no-one man the deck gun? Why do I have to man the deck gun? Why can I man and fire the deck gun in waves so fierce that I'm underwater most of the time? Realism options revert to defaults each time you start the game?! Changing resolution causes game to run in window on monitor. What are the blue health bars? What does this button do? Why is nobody chasing me?
As was the case with Silent Hunter 3 and 4, it's likely that between Ubisoft and the boys at Subsim.com (who've already released a glut of mods which, among other things, disable Silent Hunter 5's currently broken morale system) Silent Hunter 5 will be patched from the leaking, barnacle-coated wreck that it is now to comparative perfection by autumn, but right here and now it's simply not good enough.
On my first day with Silent Hunter 5 I spent 40 minutes trying to figure out how to get my crew to man a deck gun and never got further than making an officer scream "MAN THE DECK GUN" with no result.
Today I sank a tanker that a Destroyer was escorting and was denied the breathtaking chase I've come to expect from the series when the warship slunk off dejectedly. It couldn't have given up the fight quicker if my sub had sprouted legs and wriggled onshore like a caterpillar.
Why on earth was this game rushed? Were they trying to hit the shelves before all those high-profile submarine simulators under development at BioWare and Infinity Ward came out or something? And I'm playing version 1.1.5! What was SH5 like before they patched it several times?
As a game, Silent Hunter 5 fails because the bugs and UI render it a chore. As a simulation, it fails because the bugs and UI render it ridiculous and incomplete. As a product, it's just overwhelming disrespectful to this long running series' fans. And finally, as one of the first games to receive Ubisoft's new copy protection, it's an embarrassment.
In case you're not aware (or at least not actively part of the PC gaming community that's been frothing with rage about this), Silent Hunter 5 requires you to be connected to the internet at all times so that Ubisoft's launcher program can stay connected to the game's authentication servers. Without internet access the game won't begin, and if your internet connection drops while you're playing then it saves your game and quits itself.
Now, this works the other way- if Ubisoft's authentication servers are down, you can't play your game. Staggeringly for a company introducing something like this, this Sunday and Monday Ubisoft's servers were in fact brought down, and myself and many others were left with a game we couldn't play. There's no way of knowing whether this was just the growing pains of a new service, but it's worth remembering all the same, especially so when a patched Silent Hunter 4 can be found cheaper and is, for now, the better game.
5 / 10