There's a long running argument in videogames journalism about what constitutes a "game" as opposed to a "simulation". The shortest (and most disingenuous) answer is that the former is fun, and the latter is not. Though, when you look at what submarining is, a gastric ulcer inducing combination of hours of tedium punctuated by scant seconds of sheer abject terror, you might not think that the above argument is particularly unbalanced. If you're the kind of person who does five hour transatlantic crossings from Heathrow to La Guardia on Microsoft Flight Simulator in real-time, then you're probably going to enjoy Silent Hunter III. If your gaming tastes veer more on the side of blitzkrieg than boredom, then you need to approach this title with as much caution as a U-Boat approaching an aircraft carrier task force.
Silent Hunter III is definitely more simulation than game, though thankfully, it's far from joyless. One thing Silent Hunter III requires, though, is patience, and lots of it. With a typical war patrol lasting anything between twenty to eighty days of game time, despite having the ability to speed up time on the navigation map up to 1024 times, you can still be waiting over an hour (depending upon how lucky you are) until you make contact with a merchant convoy or naval ship. That's a lot of time to invest for very little of consequence, though it's part of the inherent nature of simulation, and at least gives you time to peruse the manual (which is worryingly thin, given the complexity level of simulation present). To help pass the time there's an onboard gramophone which acts as an MP3 player, allowing you to annihilate shipping to tunes as periodically authentic as Marlene Dietrich or as temporally inappropriate as Queen. (Though there is something to be said for launching torpedoes at an oil tanker to the beat of "We Will Rock You")
'Silent Hunter III seems to fall between the stools of "game" and "simulation"'
The purpose of simulation is to build a sense of atmosphere - to use realism in such a way to create the illusion that you're actually a part of the situation being simulated. This is undermined not only by the ability to play the Axel F Crazy Frog remix on a 1940's gramophone, but also by an emphasis on what's commonly called "the pretty". Silent Hunter III is without doubt the prettiest naval simulation to date, and the developers seem determined to make the most of it, even at the expense of realism. The inclusion of external "free view" and event cameras, which allow you to track torpedoes and sinking ships, show off the beauty of the 3D engine and model detail, but also give you a totally unrealistic tactical advantage, should you choose to use them, turning a life and death battle of wits into a turkey shoot. Whilst the difficulty and the amount of aid can be scaled, Silent Hunter III seems to fall between the stools of "game" and "simulation", with the potential to alienate both the more action-oriented audience and the simulation hardcore. For example, the graphical effects, particularly the water effects, are brilliant. The way thin skeins of water wash over the lens of your attack periscope, blurring the image, or the way you can see the waves swell as the bow of your U-boat crashes up and down in an ocean storm are fabulously realistic and genuinely impressive. Unfortunately, this is counterbalanced by a curious approach to damage modelling. Whilst scoring a torpedo hit in the middle of a ship, within half a metre of the bottom of its keel can break its back, causing it to sink in two pieces, non-fatal (but damaging) hits don't even leave visible damage on the hull - no ragged holes blasted in the steel - just a deck fire, if you're lucky. When you see all the attention lavished on the 3D models, textures, and the event camera to show them off, such a gap left in the damage model is bewildering - it's almost like it's a title that can't make up it's mind about what it should be; full-on simulation, or game?
Another example of this is the Thief-inspired stealth indicator, which displays how likely you are to be detected by the enemy. Whilst this feature may be found useful by novices, all it really does is serve to rob the player of any sense of tension during an attack. With it turned on, you know precisely how long you can risk leaving the periscope up, as you sneak up on that otherwise unsuspecting cargo ship. It also prevents you from getting that kick of adrenalin when you realise that you've messed up your approach and the escorts are gunning for you; you can see it coming, and prevent it. This completely destroys any chance of generating the agonising suspense of a Das Boot atmosphere. There isn't fast enough or frequent enough action in the career mode to justify an eye-candy approach, and there aren't enough single missions to provide players with a quick stream of adrenalin-fuelled excitement, either. It all points to a design document that's trying to satisfy two camps, and failing at both - either due to lack of development time or planning.
There are several other notable flaws that also make the game feel like it has been slightly rushed to release. Things get off to a bad start with the installation, when you see that the CD key is actually on the surface of the DVD disk itself, requiring you to note it down prior to starting the install. It's admittedly a minor planning flaw, but a needless annoyance. You may notice that the screenshots have been taken with the application windowed. This is because Silent Hunter III doesn't support the native resolution of my TFT monitor. Surely, in this day and age, there really can't be any excuses for not supporting screen resolutions above 1024x768. It's a crying shame, because these small flaws really take the edge off a potentially spectacular simulation.