Digits & Dragons
The Sim-ple Life
I want to like all simulation games, I really do. And, while I do love quite a few of the
sub-genres of simulation games, there are some types of sims that I just can't love. Vehicle sims,
for one, have incredible complexity and depth, which is really appealing to me in theory. Come
on, who hasn't wanted to have the freedom to fly anywhere they wanted in the world in a flight
sim or to roam the seas as a predator in a submarine sim? The possibilities seem endless and
exciting... until I play one.
The Oceans are a Dangerous Place
Silent Hunter: Wolves of the Pacific came out last year and was the latest iteration in a pretty
well respected series of WWII submarine game. The graphics looked great and I've certainly
never played a sub-sim, so I decided to pick it up and give it a go. SH4 takes place in the Pacific
theater of World War II with you, an American sub captain, taking on missions as you seek to
defend your country and rise in the naval ranks.
After slogging through a bit of training I set off on my first mission with high hopes and a full
load of torpedoes. My first mission was simply to patrol near a Japanese island and see what
trouble I could get into. After launching from Pearl Harbor, I set westward at full speed and
realized just how ridiculously huge the Pacific is. Forget instant action here; before getting
anywhere close to an enemy vessel you have thousands of miles of open ocean to cross.
Now, diehard subsim fans may enjoy this and may like the time checking the crew roster and
schedules, making sure everything is in working order, and calibrating their torpedoes, but I
wanted to get to where the excitement was.
It seems like the developers started to solve the problem--they included a way to speed up time
up to something like 8000x normal--but the fatal flaw with this is that no matter what, any time
there is a major radio announcement, any time an airplane is spotted, or any time you get new
readings on fleets or ships, the timer is reset back to 1x normal. This seems like a good
precaution, but when it is slow to ramp back up to 8000x and the chances are slim that you will
actually do something about the interruption, it really makes getting to war a bore.
Once you get there, however, things start to get more interesting. The first enemy I sighted was
a pair of little Sampan class merchant ships minding their business not too far from shore.
Thinking this a good time to test my aim, I raised my sub up to surface level and headed up top
to arm the deck gun. Picking out some ammunition (I never really noticed too much difference
between the High Explosive or the Armor Piercing ammo) I starting letting lose on the hapless
vessels. After playing a lot of first person shooters, firing the deck gun was a little slow and
clunky but the rewards for hitting are much greater. Taking out the merchants felt like a good
start to my patrol of terror.
Recharting a course to the original island, I set off again through the open oceans. I had to
constantly fiddle with time-lapse to get anywhere, but pretty soon I arrived and spotted two
destroyers patrolling the seas. This was the moment I was waiting for. I went to periscope depth
and brought up my attack periscope.
In the dark night, I could just make out the bright lights of the enemy vessels against the stars.
My front and aft torpedo bays were full so I arranged my course so that my fore torpedoes would
have the best chance. Waiting until my lock was good (I chose to forgo most of the more
realistic and more manual settings), I locked in and fired.
After nothing happened for a minute (I hadn't yet realized there was an attack map view that lets
you see the position of your torpedoes as they move towards the enemy), I let loose with another
torpedo and then a third. Just after letting off the third, though, I saw the fantastic explosion of
my first torpedo and the enemy destroyer was in flames. The explosion was hugely rewarding
and I began to understand why people like these subsim games.
Smoke and flames courtesy of my silent predator
My hit to the ship must have thrown off the predictions in my previous torpedo launches because
the second and third shots I fired both missed. The other enemy destroyer wasn't about to let
things go easily, though, and it altered its course and headed for me. Feeling invincible, I turned
away from the injured vessel and let out a poorly aimed torpedo at the approaching vessel. That
shot didn't have much of a chance so I decided to go back to the deck guns to see what I could do
against this fiend.
Coming to the surface for a more brazen attack
This move was the first of a number of bad ideas. As it turns out, submarines were never meant
to do top-side battle with destroyers. As soon as I reached the surface, my deck began to be
raked by shots from the enemy as it got closer and closer. I managed to land a couple of hits
with my deck gun but they must have been on worthless areas of the ship because they certainly
didn't slow it down.
Destroyers make short work of unwise subs who decide to surface
In the meantime, not only was the destroyer heading straight for me, but I was beginning to get
reports of hull damage from the enemy fire. I told my crew to drop us back down to periscope
depth and set forward at full speed with hopes of making it to fight another day. Had I realized
the peril I was in, I would have told them to go down at emergency speed to a much lower depth,
but I was still not too worried.
As I began to descend, the gravity of my situation set in as the destroyer ran right over the top of
me, causing massive damage to engines, my hull, my periscopes, and just about every other
onboard piece of equipment. Still diving, I began to realize that we weren't going to be able to
sustain the pressure of a few hundred feet, but that realization came too late. Game over.
In a later attempt on the mission, I was able to successfully complete the patrol and had some
really fun cat-and-mouse battles with enemy vessels. Learning that I wasn't an invulnerable
battleship was the first of many of my lessons as a sub commander.
While there were some fun times, I still felt after playing for a while that this just isn't the kind of
game I really enjoy. While I'm going to move on to other games, there are certainly a lot of
people who are extremely passionate about this, and many other simulation games. The forums
around Silent Hunter are very active; there are some people who really get into it, which is cool.
Seeing such a vibrant community was great but in the end, I like games with a different kind of
Sims of All Flavors
Silent Hunter is a classic sub sim, but there are a wide variety of other simulation games as well,
some of which I really love.
Vehicle simulators like sub sims or flight sims are often very deep and because of this, often
don't appeal to casual gamers. Nevertheless, there is certainly a market for people who love
having a lot of instruments in front of them, as evidenced by the ten Microsoft Flight Simulator
games which have been released.
Maybe I just have a short attention span but, like Silent Hunter, I found the idea of Microsoft
Flight Simulator X a lot more appealing than the game play. The gorgeous graphics and
limitless possibilities were cool, but they just didn't make up for the (to me) agonizingly slow
pace. Thankfully, there are enough out there that disagree with me that these games keep getting
Business simulations of various sorts have been huge over the last ten years as games have
appealed to the the inner lemon/roller-coaster/movie tycoon in us. From making theme parks to
running a sports sim, these games make economics a lot of fun.
For whatever reason, I find these business simulation games to be way more addicting than
vehicle simulations and, when combined with something already fun like a theme park, these
games are a blast. Unfortunately, the genre seems to have gotten a bit oversaturated and it can
be hard to find the gems between all of the generic-tycoon wannabes. For me, the Roller
Coaster Tycoon series will always be the high-water mark of the genre.
If managing a vehicle or a business isn't enough, what about a simulation of life itself? The
best-selling PC game of all time, The Sims, is just one example. If your daily routine of waking
up, showering, going to work, and coming home to putz around before bed is not exciting
enough for you, you can enter a virtual world where your character, well, sleeps, showers, goes
to work, and putzes around! It's beyond my comprehension, yet somehow the Sims series is
ridiculously popular and people continue to buy expansions with new places to work and things
to do. Again, not for me, but I'm glad there are games for people who like this kind of thing.
If taking care of a household is too menial, how about taking care of the entire evolution of a
species? Spore has been one of the most anticipated games of the year for the past couple of
years running (ever-delayed release dates seem to keep this game always on the verge of
completion). The game allows you control almost every stage of a creature's progression. From
the microbial level to the stars, Spore looks to be everything a micromanager could dream of.
For now, though, only one piece, the creature creator, has been released so we'll have to wait a
month to see if it lives up to years of hype.