The joy of seeing your nemesis, the Destroyer, struck by a torpedo is rather diminished when it doesn't sink, and starts dropping depth charges.

Review: Silent Depth

Silent Depth is a long-gestating WWII submarine sim, placing you in an American sub in the Pacific Theater in 1942. Success means slowing the flow of vital supplies to Japan, sinking troopships, and buying the U.S. industrial effort time to rebuild the surface fleet after the catastrophe at Pearl Harbor. And, in a cruel metaphor involving sinking ships, it represents the first Stately Play use of the tag “Windows_Phone. [and possibly the last. -ed.]

The most important thing to recognize about a submarine sim that isn’t completely sacrificed on the altar of arcade-style action is that the experience of captaining such a vessel does not lend itself to the power fantasies we often seek in our escapist entertainment. Silent Depth does well at threading that needle. While it doesn’t aim for quite the level of authenticity which appears to have drawn out development of still-upcoming competitor Wolves of the Atlantic, the interface mimics much of the instrumentation and controls you’d expect to see in a WWII sub. And, while the game helpfully allows for time compression to speed past the boring bits, your boat acts much as you’d expect; it takes time to change your heading or depth, you’ll need to time your shots with the deck gun to account for tipping on the swells, and it takes longer than you might expect to get feedback on your actions.

There aren’t usually quite so many notifications on the left.

The resulting experience is surprisingly emotional. Even relatively straightforward encounters, like running down and sinking a sole freighter, can provoke a reaction. It doesn’t feel threatening at all, so, from a gameplay perspective, it’s a simple opportunity to practice your gunnery and optimize your impact for the expenditure of war materiel. But I read in Stephen Budiansky’s Blackett’s War of the outrage felt across the civilized world at the change in doctrine introduced by the Kriegsmarine, in which U-boats abandoned the previous standard of attempting to rescue survivors. I once sat and watched a merchantman sink, knowing the only thing preventing me from saving its mercifully unrendered crew was efficiency, and I experienced a moment of moral panic at the inhumanity war forces upon us. Apocalypse Now is a fantastic movie.

That’s the easy part. The trouble comes when you encounter Destroyers. Well-named, they are. I first tried to just torpedo them from the surface, as I had done with the freighters. When that didn’t work, I tried hiding at periscope depth. No dice. Then I remembered the name “Run Silent, Run Deep”, and figured there was probably a reason that was good advice. The tension of popping off some torpedoes and then trying to stay very quiet deep down was sufficiently evocative that I never want to be in a submarine. Eventually, I was poking around on the internet trying to find a guide to WWII sub tactics. At that point, I felt pretty satisfied that Silent Depth had done what it set out to do.

It would be better to be much, much deeper right now.

The game does come with the sorts of limits we’ve come to expect from independent developers. There appears to be a scaling issue in Unity which I’ve seen cause several indies fits, and makes some of the text on the iPad look pixelated enough to be of historical interest in its own right, but the same text on my phone looks beautiful (I know I mentioned Windows Phone, but the game’s out for Android and iOS, too, and we’re lucky to have a reviewer with an Nvidia Shield on staff here at Professor Neumann’s School for Exceptional Gamers). There’s a promise of future leaderboards, but they’re not implemented yet. Most glaringly, the manual doesn’t exist in the app and doesn’t even attempt to do the work of a real tutorial. But, it’s a niche game, and these are the compromises we have to expect.

Not being a real submarine buff, I found the experience of Silent Depth not entirely to my taste. The crucial decision points seem to happen too rarely, and there’s too little opportunity to learn from a mistake before it sends you and your crew to the bottom of the ocean. That very fact seems like a point in its favor for those who crave an authentic experience, though–concentrated tension and terrifying uncertainty perfectly suit the setting. Readers with a particular interest in the subject matter and a tolerance for the limitations of the simulation genre may find Silent Depth quite a treat, but those with a principle interest in tight, rewarding gameplay are better served by other options.

Gonna fly this boat to the moon somehow.
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