Some wargames take a very long view of their subject matter, covering a campaign taking place over a period of years. Others zoom in a little closer and recreate the strategy of a single battle. At the microscopic end of this spectrum is the 'war machine simulation.' If you think about it, there can't be a more detailed wargame than one which allows you to press the buttons. And Silent Service, a submarine simulation set in the Second World War, places itself firmly in the category of wargame simulation. There's not so much mechanical apparatus that the military scenario is obscured, and not so much 'dap-zapping' that the illusion of authenticity is lost. Conceptually, Silent Service has got it just right.
However the implementation falls something short of the promise of the game design. I haven't seen Silent Service on other machines, but from playing the Spectrum version I can tell that it has been translated from a Commodore. There's a style of design which shows that this is a too-literal Spectrum 'translation'; chunky graphics, wide spaces, large lettering, joystick fixation. The trouble with such translations is that they tend to look slightly tatty around the Spectrum edges, and Silent Service suffers from this.
The quality that is most lacking is atmosphere. There is too much 'number-crunching,' and there's a lack of sound effects - there are a few, but those which exist seem to highlight the deficiency (this is made worse by the long list describing them - for Amstrad owners I suppose). Despite the Spectrum's well-known limitations, I feel that more attention ought to have been paid to sound in a submarine simulation. The silence of the Silent Service ceases to be interesting when it's a default mode occasionally interrupted by squeaks and scrapes.
Silent Service is supported by superb instruction, including detailed historical and technical information, and diversifying into maps, diagrams and charts. With a game like this, interesting and informative documentation is extremely important. It's unfortunate that the physical format of the ' manual ' is so inconvenient; two of those large sheets of glossy paper which are supposed to be folded fifteen times into the cassette box, and quickly get tatty. In the form of a booklet these instructions would have been a joy to consult, but as it is, it is very difficult to find things. Format aside, the instructions contain descriptions of the multiple stages and scenarios, technical information about the history and 'real-life' use of equipment simulated.
There are three types of scenario; Practice, Convoy Actions and War Patrols. The Practice scenario puts your submarine near the Midway Allied Base, surrounded by a number of empty cargo ships which have been anchored in place so they can't run away. This scenario allows you to learn how to operate the controls of the submarine, and how to aim and fire torpedos effectively. Though this option is mostly useful, the moored ships do have the irritating habit of drifting, making it difficult to keep a good angle on the bow. The Convoy Action scenarios put you in specific historical situations. Somewhere in the Pacific you are faced with a convoy, and you are equipped with a submarine appropriate to the time of the encounter. It is much more difficult to attack a moving, thinking target effectively. Every wargame has a scenario which really counts, in this case its the War Patrols. This option allows you an initial fifty days of fuel and complete freedom of the South Pacific. By roaming across a large scale map you have to locate your own convoys and deal with them. The aim is to sink the maximum possible tonnage of Japanese cargo ships.
On top of four basic 'skill levels' Midshipman, Lieutenant, Commander and Captain, difficulty is also controlled by what the game calls 'reality levels.' For example, the player can choose whether or not to have limited visibility, or the possibility of the occasional dud torpedo. Skill levels like this which directly influence gameplay are a good idea, and one of the many satisfying touches of Silent Service. On the War Patrol scenario the player also has a choice of historical submarines which, fully described in the instructions, reflect the innovations which were added to submarines as the war progressed.
The first two scenarios merely land the player's submarine at the appropriate location, but the War Patrol opens with a large scale map of the entire South Pacific. There is certainly no shortage of convoys, and finding them is not at all difficult. There is a map to indicate the shipping lanes where the more valuable targets - oil tankers and troop ships - are likely to be found. You can then zoom in on the map to four degrees of magnification, which will eventually show your position relative to the other ships in the vicinity.
Internal control of the submarine is based around a picture of the conning tower, complete with a picture of a man who I suppose is intended to represent the player. For some reason I found this screen slightly disconcerting. It seems to take away the perspective of immediacy, as if the simulation allows you to leap in and out of your own body. The conning tower screen's main function is to act as a visual menu for joystick control; by moving the man to various positions about the tower, other screens can be selected with the fire button. There are direct key presses to bypass all this if you wish. The game is paused while on the conning tower, so to get things going you have to be doing something else. Climbing a ladder takes you to the bridge screen, which allows a literal view of the surrounding seas and provides information about visibility conditions. You can spot distant ships off the edge of radar range as you sweep around 360 degrees with your binoculars, but on the whole it is safer to do that from inside the ship through the periscope. The periscope can operate up to a depth of 44 feet (if you remember to raise it), and can rotate through 360 degrees - also independent of the submarines's bearing. The periscope screen is vital when it comes to sinking ships, as it identifies targets when they are entered on the periscope's crosshairs, and provides information about the speed, bearing, distance and angle on the bow. Other screens show a panel of instruments relating to the condition of the submarine itself and a damage report.
Manoeuvring and positioning the submarine is not too difficult, being largely a matter of turning the hull by means of the rudders. There is no need to be pointing at targets in order to fire torpedos at them. The periscope crosshairs aim, and a handy device called the torpedo computer calculates a course for the torpedo, based on the speed and bearing of the target. If you wish, you can turn this off and try to do this calculation yourself - though I wouldn't advise taking on this extra difficulty. While I have faith that the program knows what it's doing underneath, the visual confirmation of torpedo strikes is disappointing - and often ambiguous. It is reasonable that some torpedoes which appear to be heading straight for a target don't cause a strike, because it warns in the instructions that there were sometimes faults in the mechanism. But I become cynical when the torpedo appears to shoot neatly past a ship - and then hits it anyway! All hits are accompanied by stunning silence, and a hit to the submarine is indicated by the corny (and distinctly un-submarine-like) device of a flashing margin.
Japanese convoys are accompanied by destroyers. The idea is to attack the destroyers first, then pick off the helpless cargo ships. Unfortunately the convoys tend to scatter when you make your presence known, making the chase frustrating and time-consuming. There is a facility to speed up time - as the designer points out in the instructions, real submarine patrols and encounters could last for hours - but on this version at least, it doesn't seem to work particularly well.
The designers of this simulation have done a good job in fitting an ambitious game environment into a little 48K Spectrum, and to be honest it's hard to find anything wrong either with the idea or implementation. It is certainly an impressive piece of software. And yet, despite being someone who loves simulations of anything (especially with lots of buttons to press and technical detail to back it up). I feel uncompelled by Silent Service. This is disappointing, because with just a little tweaking (and extra bytes, I suspect) it could have had that extra something. I'm afraid I'm going to have to close another review wishing for a 128 version... no doubt to the irritation of 48K owners.
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