by Len "Viking1" Hjalmarson
Article Type: Review
Article Date: December 03, 2001
Game Title: Sub Command: Seawolf / Akula / 688(I)
Category: Naval Combat
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: Released
Files / Links: Click Here
First there was 688IJaneís 688I Hunter-Killer was released in 1998, three years before the release of Sub Command. At the time it was by far the most realistic nuclear submarine simulation ever, and it was widely lauded by naval simulation fans worldwide.
Last spring I reinstalled Janeís 688I Hunter/Killer and spent many hours running the single missions. In the course of that time I rediscovered both the genius of the game and its faults.
The genius of 688I was the re-creation of the combat environment with which nukes have to deal. With a high degree of authenticity, 688I allows one to play with most of the weapon systems and all the tension of the actual environment.
The weaknesses of 688I also stood out. The main ones include the following:
- The inability to really command the sub. One is always changing screens to do a number of other duties. Doing it all raises the learning curve beyond what most players will want to do. Having the choice to do it all or merely command is a huge improvement.
- Not enough keyboard shortcuts, and no voice command means that one was constantly accessing other stations. Again, the player is forced to do too much work.
- Not enough detail in some systems. The addition of new control panels, as for countermeasures, increases the fun so long as the player isnít forced to do more.
- An unrealistic 3D world (graphical representation of ships is almost an afterthought). While there is some debate among naval fans as to whether a realistic 3D world is necessary, I think itís a necessity. It broadens the appeal of the game and really helps immersion.
- The campaign was too predictable. This was a weakness that eventually bothered almost every serious player. Broadening the scope of the game and expanding the dynamic elements, even to the point of surface ships engaging each other, brings the combat environment to life.
- The inability to go head-to-head with a dissimilar platform. Choice of the Akula or Seawolf in addition to new weapon systems is a huge addition to the scope of the game. Having the ability to go head-to-head with dissimilar platforms manned by human players is a blast. ErÖno pun intended.
|Periscope station in a 688I in Sub Command |
In spite of the weaknesses, 688I left a solid legacy, and it made us all the more excited about Sub Command. After interviewing Kim Castro I was even more excited.
By now most of you are aware that Sonalysts makes the real deal: military simulators that are used in training. That shows at most levels in Sub Commandóattention to detail, plus a careful mirroring of real world conditions and real world systems.
Cut the Outer Wires, Reload Tubes One and TwoThe MK 48 is a 3000 pound weapon, each unit costing more than 2.5 million dollars. Nearly twenty percent of its weight, or 650 pounds, consists of PBXN-103 high explosive. One advantage of the weapon is its flexibility; it can be employed against both surface and submerged targets.
The long thin wire streaming from the rear of the MK 48 allows the fire control officer to take charge of the weapon if it should be blocked by countermeasures. But it also allows some tactical freedom. The launcher can steer the weapons, making a pair of torpedoes appear to come from two different launch points. This kind of tactical freedom can be yours in Sub Command.
|Tracking a MK48 torpedo |
|Tracking a TLAM in 3D View |
Learning Curve and AI AssistThe learning curve in 688I was often steepÖer, or deep, I canít remember. The learning curve in Sub Command is equally tough. I havenít yet heard anyone complain that the game is too simple. Itís true that the odd bug adds to the challenge, but overall the game is challenging because it so closely mirrors life.
Furthermore, there are fewer cheats. While the player can enable crew assists, as in 688I, the crew wonít work magic on your behalf, with the possible exception of the sonar operator (whew, that guy is good). Additional improvements to realism, particularly in the physics and sonar models, broaden the game while making it much more interesting at the same time.
In 688I the player could enable crew assistance in the form of sonar, TMA, and fire control assistants. Sub Command adds a radar operator to the crew. These guys will plot contacts, work up a firing solution, and keep you informed of enemy positions and keep you from getting buried in information and tasks. As you grow in ability youíll find yourself relying more on your own judgment, but the crew will help you get your feet wet and enable you to learn one station at a time.
|Countermeasures station |
CampaignThe campaign system in Sub Command remains scripted, a disappointment to some who hoped for a dynamic setting. In reality, the campaign has increased in complexity by an order of magnitude. There are random elements and probabilities, and even dynamic groups. Overall the intensity is excellent, and replayability is higher.
One clear advantage of a scripted campaign is the ability to offer more detailed briefings which are woven into a plot. While this doesnít ensure greater immersion, it really helps. Sonalysts has done well with the campaign from the standpoint of storyline, and the branching option helps. A successful mission leads one way, and an unsuccessful one results in greater challenge and ups the ante for later missions. If the player fails to remain stealthy, his chances of survival in later missions decrease.
|Campaign interface |
|Single missions |
If thatís the case, what about training? Glad you asked.
TrainingSub Command has only three training missions, only enough to cover the bases. The tutorials lead you through basic maneuvers, using your periscope, sonar, ESM, radar, performing TMA, and getting firing solutions. A voiceover offers instructions and explanations. When these are done, and you will find yourself running through them more than once, the twenty-three single missions will help you to grow in proficiency.
The range of tasks and roles is broad. Missions include spying, search and rescue, battle group escort, tailing enemy boomers, and search-and-destroy. Rules of Engagement (ROE) vary, with many missions prohibiting your firing on the enemy. Just as in the actual cold war there are times when you are expected to get in and out again without being detected.
The campaign comprises fourteen missions. This seems brief, but remember that Sub Command, unlike 688I, allows you to play from either the Russian or the American side (sorry, no British campaign yet).
The Mission Builder
|Mission builder interface |
When you have exhausted the single missions and the campaign, there is a very powerful mission builder that will allow you to create new missions.
I took a careful look through the builder, but I confess that I didnít spend enough time with it. It looks very thorough, and is likely the very tool that Sonalysts used to create the campaign and missions they gave us.
The mission editor allows the player to create complex missions that involve random and dynamic elements and specify very narrow ROEs, tasks and goals. TO my surprise, completed missions can be locked with a password so that other players cannot preview it in the editor. This means that there is no option to cheat and spoil the fun. In order to find out what the mission is about, it has to be played through. This was a great idea.
But how are you going to decide what platform to pit against what? After all, how much time have you spent poring through Janeís books this last year?
|USNI Online |
|A random encounter |
Donít worry, Sonalysts have include an online USNI Reference set. You may think this is standard fare, but it really does help the mission builder make good decisions, and it also educates the virtual nuke so that he can make intelligent responses to the particular platforms he encounters.
Strategy and Simulation MeetItís intriguing to speculate that what Sonalysts is really about is strategy. Sub Command is more like a wargame with a simulation overlay, than a simulation overlaid with a strategy game.
|Playing from the map screen |
Even the interface lends itself to this conclusion. Sub Command borrows from Fleet Command and then updates and expands the interface, using drop-down menus in the plot screen that give you quick access to various options and commands. In fact, you can control the sub, target and launch weapons; you can even play through entire missions from the nav map.
What this means is that there are really two closely meshed approaches to this game, and it allows the player to learn in his or her own particular style. Itís a winning combination for me. The simulation adds breadth to the strategy game, and the strategy game adds interest to the simulation.
Inside the NukeWhile three diverse platforms do increase the challenge, standardization makes things easier. The interfaces aboard the various subs offer uniform symbols, easing control for the player. Tags which would be in Russian in the Akula occur in English instead. The respective ship stations have similar functions, though the differences in layout can be more obvious at first glance.
|Autocrew on sonar |
The real differences are not immediately obvious. The sonar display on the Akula looks different and is not quite as powerful as that on the 688I. The Seawolf is more powerful still. Each ship has its own nuances and strengths, the trick is to know your own platform and that of your enemy very well.
Sound is nicely executed, over all. A problem with torpedos pinging 360 degrees was addressed in the first patch. Voice acting is quite good. And the ability to issue orders via your own voice really streamlines the game.
Graphics are functional, and sometimes quite good. We are far beyond 688I here, as we should be. The subs look good, as do the weapons. The game has a Fleet Command look to it, not unreasonable given the heritage.
The 3D environment is appealing, and the ability to move quickly from 3D views to the main interface and even swap the windows is handy. The 3D view can be used as a cheat, but this can also be disabled and in online play the cheat view can be locked out.
|Probability level can be set for realism |
Hot, Straight, and Normal?Players who have already spent extended time running silent and deep know that Sub Command isnít perfect. It was launched with a number of problems. Thankfully, the most glaring were quickly addressed in the first patch. Some problems that are ongoing include:
- The sonar does not 'blank out' during an explosion. While modern sonars may have powerful filters, itís tough to believe they are this good!
- The submarines stop very quickly. Even when going from flank speed to all stop there is almost no drift.
- When changing speeds, the sound of the boat doesn't change. It would be nice to have some aural cue to speeding up and slowing down.
- The crew assistants are not using active intercept to plot incoming torpedo to map. You receive "Torpedo in the water bearing xxx" but no plotówhich is necessary for evasion!
ConclusionSub Command is a worthy successor to 688I, and a testament to Sonalysts ability to offer quality product. The game is well designed, plays well, and expands the multiplayer world of modern naval simulations very nicely.
The second patch is well in progress and should be out in mid December. Mike Kolar has outlined the major items that will appear in patch number two.
- Passive torpedos not working
- Ping sound relative to distance
- Master lockout of multiplay options
- Air recharge requirements after weapon launches
- Active sonar return levels
- Incorrect blade counts
- Show Master contacts in Sonar DDI
- Fix intercept course for fired weapons
- Narrowband filter toggle
- Periscope flickering bug
- Periscope viewing long distances underwater
- 688 weapon loadout (40 vs. 52)
- Sub slows much too quickly
- Torpedo floor/ceiling/enable speed issues
- Add ability for Sonar crewman to mark Active Intercept
- Torpedo ice collisions
- Self-noise affecting towed array performance
- Missiles exploding after failed launches
- UUV does not shutdown after 30 min
- UUVs detonate mines but do not sustain damage
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