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")
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.
When you treat Silent Hunter III as a simulation, rather than a game, the experience becomes much more atmospheric. The real heart of the game is the career mode. You can start a career with the Kriegsmarine from any point between the last few months of 1939 up to 1943. This allows you to either sample the whole range of U-Boats, from the small Type-II up to the later, ocean-going Type-IX and Type XXI U-boats, (which are more heavily armed and better equipped), or, for the ultimate challenge, to take a Captain from the beginning of the war in 1939 all the way to its conclusion in 1945. Doing this will require considerable time, effort, skill and dedication. If you average 30 days per war patrol, a full war-time campaign will last around 60 voyages, eating up a couple of hours each. The motivation to develop one Captain's career is provided by the accumulation of "Renown" after a successful war patrol. This "Renown" quantifies your standing in the Kriegsmarine, and can be used to "buy" anything from more experienced crew members; new equipment (such as better radars or deck guns) all the way up to newer models of U-boat. Your crew, likewise, can gain qualifications and experience as they complete war patrols, making them perform tasks (such as detecting contacts on sonar, or reloading torpedoes) more efficiently. Each crewman has stats for Morale, Endurance and Resilience. The effects of morale and endurance are fairly self explanatory (if they fall too low, their efficiency at performing tasks likewise plummets), but their resilience stat doesn't appear to have been implemented in any way. Even after a couple of simulated hours being pummelled by depth charges, with the hull creaking and leaking, nothing appears to happen to it, making you wonder why on Earth it's there at all.
As your crew gains more experience, and you gain the renown to buy better equipment and more capable boats, the challenge presented to you steadily increases as the war drags on. It's a sobering thought to realise that Germany's top U-boat Captain, Otto Kretschmer, probably only survived the war because he spent the last three and a half years of it in an Allied concentration camp. By the beginning of 1945 the average U-boat crew was lucky to survive a single war patrol, the threat posed by Allied air cover and convoy screening ships was so great. This is more than adequately reflected in the simulation, with airborne attacks becoming much more frequent, and destroyers becoming more adept at detecting you with their sonar, so the importance of generating enough renown over the course of a long career in order to get the very best equipment quickly becomes apparent.
A player who approaches Silent Hunter III with a simulation mindset and a willingness to devote entire afternoons to the title will undoubtedly get more out of it than a casual gamer. This isn't to say that you need to play it at 100% realism to get any measure of enjoyment out of it. On the contrary, very few people will be able to manually calculate torpedo solutions, and derive any sort of enjoyment out of it. That said, the game really is best played with the realism aids turned off. The external cameras and stealth indicator in particular are completely superfluous additions to the game that only serve to diminish the sense of immersion critical to a simulation. I don't object to developers making a game accessible to play, but it is best not to do it at the expense of providing any sort of challenge at all.
As a game, Silent Hunter III is (if you'll forgive the pun) sub-standard. It has the looks, but doesn't provide the consistent, frequent thrills to please the average gamer. Even the multiplayer mode is fairly redundant, with just four co-operative scenarios on offer. As a simulation, it's satisfying without being exceptional in anything except its graphics. With significant flaws in the crew management system and a few interface difficulties - the navigation map, for example, will happily let you plot a course intersecting the harbour wall or any other land mass without giving you any warning at all, meaning you can make a trip to Davy Jones's Locker before your career has even left port - it fails to surpass the experience of the original title in the franchise, which is now a good ten years old. Whilst a considerable improvement upon its immediate predecessor, Silent Hunter III's halfway-house game design prevents it from entering the Submariner's Hall of Fame. If there is one genuine positive to be taken, it's that Silent Hunter III already seems to have a vibrant modding scene, which is already churning out bespoke missions and other mods by the dozen, thanks to the bundled mission editor, which may well turn out to be the title's ultimate saving grace...