Sit down; this might come as a bit of shock. You know those big rusty things with the pointy fronts and the funnels and the anchors and the little round windows? Well, according to VSTEP - the creators of this atmospheric maritime sim - not all of them are crewed by terrorists and gangsters, or packed to the gunwales with dirty-bombs, guns or drugs. Apparently some have holds stuffed with completely innocent cargoes (bananas, disposable nappies, tropical hardwood, mercury-laced industrial waste...) and ply the oceans on totally legitimate business.
It's these strange law-abiding toilers of the sea that Ship Simulator 2008 lets you captain and explore. Thirteen different vessels ranging from tubby tugs and zippy launches to hulking oil tankers and car-crammed ro-ro ferries wait patiently in seven different ports for player pilots. If you're familiar with Ship Simulator 2006 you'll appreciate the significance of those numbers and realise the Dutch dev has been damn busy during the past year. Where the first instalment felt skinny and tentative, this one feels confident and plump.
The Poseidon Adventure
Just as important as the extra craft and harbours are the new open ocean areas with their queasy wave action. In SS2006 the brine was always close to shore and halibut-flat. Now, for relatively short distances, ships get to wallow in gloomy troughs and ride foamy crests. The eight tracts of landless scenery act as token transition zones between the various destinations. While there's no comparison with the vast expanses of water offered by MS Flight Simulator or Silent Hunter, you do at least get a taste of Poseidon at his angriest, and a feel for the mind-numbing tedium of long-distance voyaging.
Not having to fiddle with crinkly Norway or all those annoying little archipelagos in Indonesia has obviously allowed VSTEP's scenery team to put a lot of love into Rotterdam, Hamburg, San Francisco, New York, Marseilles, and Southampton/Portsmouth. Perhaps I've had my expectations lowered by years of generic Microsoft sim cities, but these intricate ports with their crowded shorelines and numerous custom objects impressed me. Threading a towering container ship down the Hudson River yesterday evening was really quite evocative. The milky swirl of the wake, the sun setting behind the skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty looming out of the gathering gloom... if mood and atmosphere are as important to you in your sims as technical verisimilitude then SS2008 is definitely worth a look.
Of course, I've never cruised down the Hudson River in a container ship so they may have fudged a lot of the vistas. Having crossed the Solent on many occasions, I can testify with authority to the fine job they've done there. Again, what strikes you is the amount of custom architecture. Ooooh, there's Fawley's forest of chimneys, the space-age incinerator at Marchwood, the stupidly expensive Spinnaker Tower! Pulling into Cowes I found myself scanning a familiar hillside for a particularly scary B&B I'd once stayed in.
Easy as falling off a ship's log
Admiring the views and soaking-up the ambience is something you end-up doing a lot of in SS2008 because, frankly, there isn't much to ship control. With the notable exception of one truly fiendish scenario involving a pair of tugs and some oil-rig repositioning, most of the thirty missions boil down to following relatively straightforward waypoint sequences. No tasks will frustrate you for long once you've mastered the twin throttles and bow thruster common to most vessels. Compared to high intensity, high workload sims like Falcon 4.0 and GTR2 this is a nap in the park.
If the dev had modelled bridge instrumentation and ship systems in a little more depth, added more subtlety to handling characteristics, and perhaps even gone as far as simulating currents and tides, then users would have got a much better idea of what it takes to be a master on a modern merchant ship. Though aircraft-style auto-pilots have taken some of the skill and labour out of contemporary seamanship, it's still a far more demanding occupation than the game suggests. The scenarios themselves could have made trickier simply by imposing penalties for reckless driving. A virtual harbour master that docked you points every time you cut-up a barge, tailgated a tanker, or went the wrong way down a channel would have added some welcome tension.
Other areas that would benefit from some added reality include damage modelling. Although hulls now dent and hole above the waterline, there's often little correlation between the circumstances of an accident and the result. Steer a ship into a quay at full tilt and, assuming it's your first prang, you'll probably get away with a bent prow and '1% damage'. Subsequent impacts, however slight, rapidly ramp-up the total until eventually you're left crawling along unable to turn. Sinkings however never seem to occur (Something that might change after the coming patch - VSTEP claim they're working on sub-surface damage).
The patch will hopefully also address the glaring need for a save function. With many scenarios taking over thirty minutes to complete (that oil-rig challenge took me almost two hours) it's absurd that you can't quit and come back later. There's the odd broken mission too. It's possible to enjoy the impressive upgraded Titanic model in free-roam mode, but try to captain it on a recreation of the ill-fated Southampton-New York run (complete with berg encounters) and you're instantly dumped into the middle of the Solent without so much as a liferaft.
The real challenge ahead for VSTEP is finding a development model that keeps the funds rolling in and the customers happy. The MS Flight Simulator approach - open architecture with new instalments coming every couple of years - lets users grow the sim themseleves and recharge their wallets between episodes. If SS's creators plan to selfishly keep shipbuilding to themselves (seemingly the case) and release new versions and official vessel packs every year, they risk alienating their fledgeling community, and driving customers back into the arms of the less handsome, yet more rounded and flexible Virtual Sailor.
If I find myself sat here next year reviewing Ship Simulator 2009, it's going to have to offer some pretty substantial new content (Sailboats? Super-real ships? Real-time Whaling?) to avoid condemnation as a cash-in. SS2008 is a pleasant place to spend an occasional evening, but ultimately there's not enough challenge and realism here to distract a seasoned simmer for long.