SeaWolf SSN-21

a game by Electronic Arts
Platform: PC
User Rating: 8.0/10 - 1 vote
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SeaWolf SSN-21
SeaWolf SSN-21
SeaWolf SSN-21
SeaWolf SSN-21

If youve read the intro youll now know, without any doubt in your mind whatsoever, that submarines are vessels which are capable of travelling beneath the water. Its nice to clear these things up, isnt it? What you probably wont know, however, is that (a) America is now back at war with the New Soviet Union and (b) that this game is in fact 688 Attack Sub 2. There are many other things you wont be aware of either, but lets take these as we come to them and start back at the beginning...

    1. Submarines are underwater aeroplanes, with missiles.
    1. And the one youre in charge of in Seawolf is nuclear-powered, meaning it can stay underwater for a zillion years without ever needing to surface.
    1. Johnny Russia, as said previously, is back on the war-path.
    1. And its down to you to stop him! So there you go. Its hide n seek at 50 fathoms. Just like 688 Attack Sub, the prequel.

But not exactly the same, surely?

Er, youd be surprised actually. Now, I was going to save this for a kind of bombshell at the end of the review, but if youre familiar with the original game then my stunning climax would turn out to be more of a blindingly obvious footnote. So Im going to use it now, while its still newsworthy. Seawol/is totally identical to 688 Attack Sub.

Totally Identical?

Hmm, okay, so maybe thats going a tad over the top - but its worth exaggerating sometimes to get the point home. There are revamped graphics, loads of excellent digitised speech and sound effects, far more missions and theres even the new all-singing, alldancing Sonar Waterfall Display... but at the end of the day anybody whos played 688 Attack Sub is going to be in for something of a deja vu.

Seawolf is one of those games that seems to have been a labour of love, and the designers obviously felt, in an if it aint broke dont fix it kind of way, that they didnt want to tamper too much with their first born. There is, however, one thing they maybe should have tampered with, right down to the genetic level... and thats the interface. 688 Attack Sub was a nightmare, and Seawolf is worse. Controlling the submarines many operations (especially in critical situations when the shit is literally pouring through the fan and being plastered over the walls like paint) is a bit like being marooned on an island with only Jeffrey Archer for company. In other words, its horrible.

Newcomers

Time to get back to those of you who arent familiar with 688 Attack Sub. Okay, the submarine in Seawolf is controlled via a series of menus - like hitting F3 will drop down the main Weapons menu. On this menu you can then either point and click with the mouse or use the relevant hotkeys. You can, for instance, load torpedo tubes, flood them, fire and so on - or you can even pop further down, into sub-menus, where you might (as an example) guide a torpedo manually. To fire or guide a torpedo, however, you need to either have a target already nominated or you have to set up a series of secondary waypoints. And to do this you need to make sure youre on the right screen. And then youll be needing to open another menu.

Fiddly? Yes, but there are always the hotkeys. Unfortunately you wont have much fun with them either, and Ill tell you why here and now (oh, and Im talking from the viewpoint of a first time user here, rather than a hardened salty Seawolf dog). Okay, here goes: the functions (all eight trillion of them) have not only been assigned to rather weird keys (no P for periscope or D for dive here), but the majority require you to simultaneously hold down the Ctrl key, too. It tends to be that the hotkeys you use least are the more palatable single presses, while the most useful ones are the bastards whove been twinned with Ctrl. Add to this the aforementioned illogicalities regarding the choice of keys and you have something approaching a brick wall right at the beginning of the overall Seawolf learning curve (which is hard enough anyway). Actually, I think Ill share a couple ofjokes with you - each a gem. Ready? Did you hear the one about the two blokes in the pub who wanted to access the Waterfall Display? By the time theyd remembered to press Ctrl f, it was drinking up time! (No laughter). Im not saying my mother-in-law is fat, but when she tried to use the sonar, her finger and thumb became jammed in the ctrl and P keys! (No laughter). Get the idea? Even the pause command is tricky... ctrl g, for Christs sake. So to sum up thus far: beware the Seawolf interface, for it is a hard beast to tame.

But it gets better, right?

Yes, it does get better actually because, if you force yourself to stop being annoyed by the control system, you soon find that what you have left (just like 688 Attack Sub before it) is an absolutely engrossing game. To the uninitiate i, simulated submarine warfare must seem like the most boring thing on the planet. I used to think the same thing myself, as it happens: Have you got any submarine games? a friend once asked. Youre joking, I replied, theyre the most boring things on the planet! But theyre not, as I now readily admit (although not to members of the opposite sex, obviously).

Sub sims are slow, yes, but as long as theyre done properly, the atmosphere prevails. And when it comes down to atmosphere, Seawolf hits the nail right on the head.

A large part of it is down to the sound because, lets face it, theres not much to look at. Seeing as the general idea is not to surface unless you absolutely have to, most of your time will be spent looking at the satellite view - which is just a map basically. A map with little dots moving around on it. But, thanks to the sound, you do somehow feel as if youre under the water. Oh dear. I cant believe I just said that. It sounds incredibly poncey, I know - but its true. You look at the map, you watch your dot heading towards another dot, you see a third and fourth dot in the distance, but in your minds eye theres a picture straight out of Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, complete with giant octopuses and bubbles.

Periscope death

Try as you might to avoid it, theres going to be that moment when you can no longer resist the temptation to visit the surface. Enter bitmap city! Yes, like 688 Attack Sub, all the ships (and helicopters) are simple bitmaps. Theyre nicely detailed, for sure, but theyre still just bitmaps and, as such, are a bit limited on the 'view from all angles front (ie they jerk suddenly rather than turn gradually).

In the MicroProse Silent Service games, which also used bitmaps, this was annoying (after all, real wwn sub warfare relied totally on visual contact). Youd plonk up your periscope and be treated to the sight of loads of giant blocky blobs travelling in God knows what direction, and so youd have to consult the moving map. In Seawolf, however, it's not so bad for two reasons: (a) the bitmaps are more detailed and scale better, and (b) your torpedoes are computer controlled... you set the target on the map screen, call up the weapons menu, fire, and then just use the periscope to watch the resulting explosion. Or you do to begin with, because after a while you tend to stay away from the surface like the manual suggests -and concentrate on using the thermal layers to your advantage instead. (Did you know that the different thermal layers of the ocean bend sound in much the same way that a prism bends light?

I didnt, but I do now. You can use this fact to give yourself a very confusing sonar signature: Where's he gone? cry the enemy subs. Im down at 15 squillion feet with a creaking hull, you whisper to yourself.)

The sonar waterfall display

Da-da! This is the new bit. There was a sort of mini cut-down version of the technology in 68S Attack Sub. but heres the whole nine yards Seawol/extravaganza. And its scary. Very scary indeed. But its also, at the same time, the most brilliant thing in the game. Heres the story. Your computer-controlled sonar operator is solid and reliable, but has inherited some kind of dodgy chromosome meaning hes extremely slow in locating and identifying potential threats. And guess what that means? Im afraid it does, yes. Youre best off doing all this stuff yourself, as follows:

  • a) The main display (above): think of this as a compass... with your sub right in the middle. As distant signals are picked up by the subs sonar, so a colour wash will bleed in from the relevant point around the circumference. Different colours indicate different types of contact. You pick up signals better towards the front of your sub, by the way, and the strengths of the signals from all directions are affected by your speed (seeing as the faster your props are turning, the more cavitation is produced, confusing the overall picture. In fact at flank speed you're completely blind).
  • b) Blob thingy (above): by moving this little blob around the main display, you can aim your sonar directly at any signal you like the look (or sound) of, then focus upon and analyse it further...
  • c & d) Signal analyser (above): this has two parts. The upper part (c) indicates the strength of the signal while the lower part (d) is the Seaxvolf computers spectrum analysis of it. Using the reference documentation which comes with the game, youre meant to be able to work out what the distant vessel actually is. (It might even be a whale). You also have to take into account certain variables such as your own depth, speed and so forth.
  • e) Contact bearing display (main screen opposite): this is not unlike the Padlock View in Falcon 3. Its the Main Circular Display, essentially, but its a wrap-around version. Signals in the centre are straight ahead and signals to the far left and far right are directly behind. Anything in-between is, er... in-between. Yes? No? Oh, I know, imagine this. Cut the strip out, enlarge it on a photocopier, and wrap it around your head. Now rotate your head but not the strip. Got it now? Thank God for that.

Trip out, man!

When youre in the Sonar Waterfall Display room, its very easy to lose your mind. Why? Because of the sonics. Seawolf has excellent general action effects anyway, but when youre tracking targets in the Waterfall room its something else altogether. If you played this game in an isolation tank youd probably never reappear. Aldous Huxley would have found the experience more enjoyable than mescaline.

What am I talking about? Ill tell you. You know those melancholy echoey distant whale calls you hear on documentaries? And you know white noise? And the sounds you get when youre under the water in large, crowded swimming pools?

And the choppy chop chop sounds of propellers chewing up water? Well samples of all these are cleverly mixed together to give the full underwater experience. Furthermore the volumes of each sound weave up and down, and in and out of one another, depending upon where youre aiming your sonar detector. It gets to the point where the digitised voice of your computer controlled sonar bloke says Captain, Ive detected a torpedo, and all you can be bothered to do, in your semi-trance, is aim the sonar towards the incoming missile to see how well itll mix in with the overall sea-song. Most distressing.

So Seawolfs not so shite after all?

Its funny how you can change your mind while writing a review. For instance when I started this one I was so annoyed by Seawolfs general interface that I was determined to see only the bad things. And I was determined, at the same time, to pompously state what I wanted of a sub-sim myself. I want Doom in a tube. I want to walk around. To see the crew panicking in 3D. To see the lights flash on and off when a depth charge goes off nearby. To walk into the engine room and see everyone working. To ..touch the map table and be taken into map mode. To lie on my bunk and sleep. To touch the periscope and see texture-mapped polygon ships on an undulating ocean. To promote and demote. To say: Fire one, fire two, to the torpedo geezers. To hear Dickie Attenborough scream Captain, Jocks gone crazy!

But at the end of the day, and to get real for a moment, the game I really want doesnt exist. Seawolf however, does exist. And while the overall approach may be getting a bit long in the tooth, theres no denying that the atmosphere it produces excels. (As long as you have the right soundcard, of course). Its going to be interesting to see what Dynamix has done with Aces Of The Deep, but for now, if I had to answer the question Whats the best sub-sim currently available? the answer would have to be Seawolf. And maybe that same answer will hold for the next nine months. Who can tell? Basically the sub-sim genre is still so untapped that theres no real 100% classic benchmark, so vary my score as you see fit.

Download SeaWolf SSN-21

PC

System requirements:

  • PC compatible
  • Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP

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