Read this short fairy-tale then tell me if it makes any sense:
Once upon a time, in a land far far away, lived a farmer called Bill. One day, when Bill was attending the livestock market in his local town, a hooded stranger grabbed him by the arm and said: "You sir, are a very lucky man. In this basket, I've got a goose than lays golden eggs. It's yours for the measly sum of one guinea." Bill, being a trusting soul, bought the goose, and discovered, during the months that followed, that the man hadn't lied.
A year later a considerably wealthier Bill was back at the market and once again he got waylaid by the stranger. "Hello my friend. Interested in buying this magic chicken? It lays eggs of pure silver." Once again Bill bought the animal and discovered that the sales pitch had been true. Twelve months later (Don't worry, we're nearly done) Bill returns to the market and, surprise-surprise, he bumps into the fowl merchant. "This year I've got a couple of lovely specimens for you. A duck that produces silver eggs, and a peacock that produces gold ones." This time Bill shakes his head "No thanks. To be honest I've only come to market this year to get shot of my magic chicken." The End.
This touched tale is my allegorical take on Microsoft's baffling attitude towards simulator games. In the story, Bill is MS, the goose their chart-topping Flight Simulator series, the chicken the one-million-selling Train Simulator franchise (ditched after just one instalment). The peacock and the duck? Those are the Car Simulator and Ship Simulator concepts that MS have - strangely - never shown any interest in. Until now.
Oh, hang on a minute, it turns out Ship Simulator 2006 hasn't got anything to do with Microsoft. The redolent title and the familiar box design are just cheeky piggyback marketing from a new developer and publisher eager to tap into the massive MS customer-base. VSTEP and Lighthouse Interactive have realised that the same people that enjoy tootling around in MSFS aeroplanes and MSTS locomotives, will probably enjoy tootling around in SS2006 ships and boats. At first glance, that assumption would seem to be a reasonable one; it's only when you've tried all three titles that you see the flaws in the logic. SS2006 boasts the kind of looks and atmosphere that makes MS sims so popular, but, crucially, it lacks the variety, the realism, and the open architecture.
Let's deal with that variety issue first. Although there are eight different captain-able vessels included - varying in size from tiny tugs and water taxis, up to hulking container ships, and the titanic Titanic - none of the rides are wind-powered. If you fancy spending an hour or two darting round buoys in a dinghy, or wrestling a majestic multi-masted clipper around a storm-whipped cape, then you're out of luck. Anyone hoping for long-distance voyages a la the MSFS series is also in for disappointment. Rather than recreate all of the world's oceans and harbours with minimal detail (a Herculean task) the developers have chosen to focus their efforts on faithfully reproducing two large Western European harbours and a Thai archipelago. 700km2 of Rotterdam, Hamburg, and the Phi Phi islands might sound reasonably impressive on paper but after a few days you'll almost certainly be hungering for the open ocean and new surroundings.
The geography shortage wouldn't be quite so significant if the three areas on offer could be experienced in a variety of conditions. Ploughing down the Niewe Meuse (a waterway in the Rotterdam environment) in driving rain is certainly atmospheric, but why is it impossible to do the same trip in thick fog, at night, or at dusk or dawn? Why aren't the picturesque tropical islands ever assaulted by high seas and typhoon-force winds? With their perpetually placid oceans, binary meteorology and constant daylight VSTEP strip a lot of colour from life afloat.
Narrow berth canal
A big part of the appeal of any weapon-free transport sim is just rambling around in the vehicle of your choice. That said it's always good to have a store of scenarios in reserve for occasions when you fancy a bit of reassuring structure. SS2006 provides 40 scored activities for such times, ten of which are available from the start (the rest are unlocked one by one as rewards for mission success). At the beginning the challenges tend to be short and simple: move these containers from here to there, take these passengers from A to B, jump these ramps with the powerboat. Later on jobs get lengthier, tougher, and more complex; you start bad-mouthing the devs for not including a mid-mission save facility, and ranting at the Port Authorities for not making their berths more spacious. Yes, manoeuvring large ships in small, congested spaces can be a surprisingly tricky and entertaining business. With damage levels tracked and no time limits to fret about, everything comes down to how delicately you steer your tub. Thump the quayside, nudge the freighter in the next berth, or run down an AI yacht while crossing traffic lanes and usually you forfeit the mission.
Because manoeuvring is so central to the play experience you'd hope, wouldn't you, that the developers had done their homework on ship handling. Being as my maritime experience is limited to Greek pedalos and park rowing boats, I can't give a definitive verdict on the realism in this area, but I'd say - with a couple of reservations - they seem to have done a pretty sound job. If you can ignore the lack of stern thrusters (larger craft have bow thrusters only) and the car-like ease with which bigger vessels can reverse around corners, then you shouldn't have too many complaints.
VSTEP might have captured handling characteristics reasonably successfully but they've made little effort to simulate the engines and electronic systems that generate, monitor, and control those characteristics. Virtual bridges are very crude compared to the 3D cockpits and cabs in top flight and train sims. Generally the only functioning instrument in view is a chart-cum-radar; for other information like speed and headings you must study the toggleable windows that are part of the sleek, well-organised interface. Search these same windows for information about fuel levels, battery status, oil pressure and the depth of bilge water in your #3 hold, and you'll find nothing. For those that love realistic panels and credibly complex start-up procedures, this lack of systems detail is going to be annoying. For those that don't want to spend hours reading manuals, assigning controls to joystick buttons, and watching dials, it's obviously a blessing.
Shipwrights and wrongs
A new non-military sim can get away with skimping on detail, it can get away with a meagre choice of vehicles and scenery, if - and this a Lusitania-sized 'if' - it lets enthusiastic fans fill in gaps. The prospects for community-made content don't look fantastic in SS2006's case. Although the game ships with a friendly mission editor (the fruits of which are already being distributed via the official forums) it looks as though VSTEP don't intend to encourage the kind of free-for-all mod culture that has underpinned the success of the MS sims. Instead it seems they'd rather work with a select band of quality-approved mod-makers and supplement the game themselves (a free NYC harbour add-on will apparently be released to coincide with the US launch). We'll have to wait and see how this strategy works out.
Wait and see - that's not a bad note to end this review on. Ship Simulator 2006 doesn't have the feature-set to compete with sims like MSFS and MSTS, but it's a solid start. The developers are already talking about the next instalment and making encouraging noises about wave modelling, long voyages, and multiplayer (not included at present). Unless you've got salt in your blood, I'd recommend sitting on the dock of the bay until SS2007 arrives.