Lovers of action/adventure games set entirely in an undersea environment have been quite lucky in the past year. First, Microsoft released Deadly Tide, which contained stunning 16-bit visual effects under the ocean (even though the gameplay lacked much player control as a straightforward rail shooter); then Blue Byte released Archimedean Dynasty, which added a richer and more flexible adventure plot to a beautiful deep sea environment; and now Ubi Soft has released Sub Culture (developed by Criterion Studios), which tops them all in video and audio effects as well as in gameplay. Like the other two, this new offering does not purport to be a simulation, so it would be unfair to compare it to the many submarine simulations on the market (which, by the way, do not focus much on depicting the underwater environment).
You play a freelance mercenary named Bubba Kosh (whose tiny home was just destroyed by a tin can carelessly tossed overboard by a human on a surface ship) who tools around in a miniature submarine in the midst of waterways that are the site of an ongoing bloody civil war among the Bohine, Procha, and Pirates clans. You try to survive and save the world from destruction. The aquatic world is filled with mutant creatures, interesting sea plants, and human debris. You undertake a series of missions in which trading and prospecting are essential for success.
Every aspect of Sub Culture is extremely well designed, from the options screen to the controls displayed while moving around in the submarine. Controlling the submarine takes a little getting used to, given all the abilities it has, but the controls are highly customizable. I could not imagine playing this kind of game without a joystick or a gamepad, as the keyboard and the mouse seem quite awkward.
The pace of the game is up to you, ranging from slow exploration to frenzied combat sequences. In the latter mode, the game is tons of fun: in one mission where you attack a rampaging "attack walker" the action was quite similar to a MechWarrior combat scene, only in Sub Culture the graphics are more spectacular and the environment a lot more multifaceted. Trading is the most cerebral part of the game, and through this process you use money gained from successful completion of missions to upgrade machinery or purchase tools, weapons, and commodities needed for future success in the game. Because prices and availability differ from place to place, successful trading requires quite a bit of strategic thinking.
All the creatures in the game have advanced artificial intelligence, allowing them to attack when provoked and flee when pursued. It is a lot of fun interacting with them and watching their reactions to differing moves you make; this capability stands in stark contrast to most games of this type where these creatures are simply window dressing, moving only in pre-programmed directions and impervious to anything the player does. Unfortunately, there is no multiplayer mode to enhance the varying interactions even further.
The missions are quite varied and provide innovative and diverse challenges. There are 27 missions each divided into four stages. This is clearly not the kind of game you just whiz through in a couple of days. At times I had problems not only getting through missions but also locating key mission objectives. As you go through the game you can increase your armaments, but you begin with simply a "mini-zapper" that shoots out weak short-range stabs of electricity. You can switch between third-person and first-person perspectives, and this is often essential to see clearly what is going on or to interact properly with parts of the environment. You can save games, but only at the end of a mission.
The visuals in Sub Culture are simply stunning, setting a new standard for undersea graphics. Criterion's proprietary Dive game engine, based on its generic Renderware 3D library, provides the basis for the astounding beauty and realistic physics. Everything is done well, but I especially love the bubbles. However, this is only the case if you have 3D hardware acceleration (with the 3Dfx implementation as usual the best). as otherwise what you see loses much of its engrossing gorgeous qualities. Also, the superior nature of the graphics during gameplay contrasts with the rather average quality of the full-motion videos (the mediocre docking video becomes annoyingly repetitive over time) encountered during the game.
In contrast to many other games, Sub Culture focuses its graphical attention not on the moving creatures and objects in the ocean, which though beautiful are composed of a relatively small number of polygons, but rather on the background terrain. I cannot imagine seeing a more detailed dynamic ocean floor, more astounding changing lighting effects (including automatic switching between day and night lighting), or a more mesmerizing translucent ocean surface when one looks upward.
But the graphics contain some strange incongruities. The central character in the game, Bubba Kosh, looks like a Claymation refugee from a Saturday morning children's television show, and somehow this seems out of place when juxtaposed to the refined and serene undersea environment. When you destroy one of the attacking mutant sea creatures, it explodes into a bloody mess (presumably accounting for the "realistic violence" warning on the game box); somehow this kind of graphic carnage does not fit the rather peaceful spirit of the rest of the game.
The sound during the game is excellent, with wonderful mood music and realistic sound effects. But the whir of the submarine's engine can be a bit monotonous or irritating at times. Otherwise I loved the intriguing variety of atmospheric sound effects. The music is innovative, pensive, and engrossing. The whole audio tone of the game is understated rather than being loud, brash, and dominating.
The printed documentation consists of the usual black-and-white CD jewel case manual, but this one is very nicely done. It is very well organized and well written, and it provides extremely helpful instructions on how to approach a quite complex multi-layered game.
System Requirements and Comments
The minimum system requirements for Sub Culture are a Pentium 90 CPU, 16 MB RAM, 80 MB hard disk space, 4X CD-ROM drive, 8-bit sound card, 256-color VGA or SVGA graphics card, and the Windows 95 operating system. These are about average requirements for this kind of game, but (as mentioned earlier) more than in most games you really need a 3D accelerator card to take full advantage of the graphics.
Aside from state-of-the-art graphics and sound, what really makes this game special is its innovative completely non-linear open-ended quality. You can pursue the missions in sequence, or you can just zoom around exploring and encountering interesting creatures of all sorts. Of course, this versatility has its drawbacks: it is not the very best adventure game, the very best action shooter, or the very best strategic challenge precisely because Sub Culture attempts to combine all three genres. While this game is a bit heavy on premeditated strategy for my personal taste, gaming fans of all stripes will find a ton of absorbing elements here to make it not only worth their while but actually one of their most enjoyable and memorable gaming experiences.
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