Summary: The team that made Silent Hunter III is back, this time with a Pacific War installment of the franchise. More task forces! More battleships! More missions! WAY better graphics? What's not to love, right?
Wolves of the Pacific, quite naturally, brings the player into the Pacific Theater of Operations the war against Japan. The PTO was quite an interesting campaign. Historically, it was the Japanese who had more to gain by using submarines, since it was their strategy to be on the defensive and wear out the Americans after the first rapid conquests. Thus, American fleets and their supply lines would be constantly stretched further out, ever-more-vulnerable. Despite this, the Japanese built few submarines and those they did build were tasked with attacking warships, and generally did not strike at the merchantmen. As such, the Americans dominated the submarine conflict, with no restrictions on what types of ships their submarines could attack. The Japanese were slow to adopt anti-submarine warfare (ASW) measures in comparison to the Allies and their desperate struggle against the U-boat fleets in the North Atlantic.
Wolves of the Pacific, especially with the recently-released 1.2 patch, is a beautiful game. Previous versions could not properly increase resolution past 1024x768, they simply scaled up the images which resulted in a very pixellated look. Optional rendering filters give it a look like the game is being played back from 8mm colorized film. The effect makes spotting aircraft already a difficult task more difficult, but it does create a certain atmosphere to play the game in. Other technical improvements include crew on ships and much more detailed craft in general. Even the damage states are improved, with holes from torpedo hits showing exposed decks, and ships which break in half show their inner compartments.
Naturally, this all comes at a cost in performance. Even on my new system, running at full detail in 1600x1200 without anti-aliasing on, the game would occasionally slow down during action, especially if several ships were present on-screen. On the bright side however, the strategic map does support time compression up to 8192x real time, in 512x increments starting from 512x itself. This permits players to choose a setting that will run relatively well on their computers while minimizing travel time from their home base to their mission destinations.
Speaking of missions, unlike Silent Hunter III, Wolves of the Pacific doesn't just have your submarine attacking enemy shipping. This is naturally the primary task of your boat but there are a couple of other mission types as well. Two new examples we saw included intelligence work sneaking into an enemy harbor and taking pictures of the ships there, and dropping off agents, soldiers, and supplies at various land locations.
The game includes a button to dive to periscope depth, though though that depth is marked in red on the dive indicator. Fair enough, right? No harm in redundancy, goes the saying. Not until you realize that the same icon is also used for silent running, at a different station in the game.
Another fun job is trying to set torpedo depth. The depth, like salvo angle, is set by a dial. The difficulty is in getting the dial to the position you'd require. For some reason the game's attempt at approximating the spinning of a dial with the mouse is quite erratic. Pin-pointing a depth takes more effort than it should. Also, the torpedo interface in general has a bizarre fetish for click-to-open menus. Would you like to see how fast the ship is going? You need to open that menu. Or would you prefer to adjust your torpedo settings? Can't have both open at the same time. The ship ID book isn't any better, it opens and closes by clicking a small icon on the bottom bar. Given how necessary the book is, especially for manual targeting, one would think easy access to it would be important. Alas, ease of use clearly wasn't a design priority.
The interface is never outright bad, it's just usually worse than what Silent Hunter III had or at least didn't improve on that game's issues. Take torpedo loading for example in SH3 they were clicked and dragged one by one into torpedo bays, same thing here. Map controls are actually inferior now the player has to pick out the eraser from the protractor and compass and pencil, all tightly clustered together in one corner, rather than using the old drop-down menu.
Minor graphical glitches do exist but rarely affect gameplay. One fairly significant problem occurs when manning certain anti-aircraft guns. The camera clips through the sides of the conning tower, which prevents aiming at certain angles. This can be anything from a minor nuisance to a career-ending bug, depending on how effective or lucky the bomber attacking your sub is.
Other game issues are just bizarre. Radar is more of a curse than a blessing, for example. It will constantly knock the player out of time compression because of radar contact warnings, especially near a harbor. Since ending a patrol requires being physically close to the fleet harbor, this is a tedious and annoying warning. Supposedly radar has an on/off switch, but this doesn't work. It can be clicked dozens of times to no effect.
There are some crash bugs as well, though fewer than in earlier releases. Supposedly there also exists a bug with the Gato class submarines, where after three patrols the player's character is automatically fired from his post for inadequate performance. However, this reviewer has never survived far enough from the start of the 1941 campaign to earn a Gato.
The first thing to master, however, are the American boats. Compared with the nimble and ubiquitous Type VII class U-boats of the Kriegsmarine, American submarines are big, long, fat, heavy, and ungainly. Diving speeds, especially initial dives, are atrocious. Forget about diving away from an aircraft that has spotted you the same time you've spotted it. Just grit your teeth and man the AA guns! By the time the submarine has finally made it under the surface, it could have sustained two or three attacks from the same aircraft. Turning radius is also poor, and dive depths are not as excellent as the German boats. However, American submarines do have great range and a good number of torpedoes to them. From as early as 1941, it's possible to get a sub with six forward torpedo tubes and four rear ones. Popping up in the middle of a Japanese carrier task force may be hair-raising, but it's also certainly rewarding with that much firepower at hand!
American subs available are the S-18, S-42, Salmon, Porpoise, Tambor, Gar, Gato, and Balao classes. Sadly, a personal favorite from Silent Service II the oddball Narwhal didn't make the cut, despite its giant twin 6 guns mounted on the fore deck. In general, this is actually one of the small problems with the game there isn't that much variety to American designs. Other than early models not having stern tubes or being limited to 4 tubes up front, American subs are more or less identical to each other. Sure, they dive deeper as the war goes on, but that's pretty much it. Even the torpedo choices are rather boring, and the renown costs for basic electric torpedoes are ridiculous! The Mk 18 electric torpedo, whose German equivalent was free, costs 500 renown in Wolves of the Pacific, all because it's the only torpedo that doesn't leave a wake of steam. 500 renown is more than a typical patrol earns.
Once the player has a grasp of American subs and their primary weaknesses steam powered torpedoes and poor maneuverability it's a matter of simply adjusting tactics. The AI will make a beeline straight for the firing location. It doesn't matter if it's a moonless night and no one was there to see the torpedo's wake, the AI destroyers automatically know where the last shot was fired and the player must evacuate the area. Diving deep under the thermal layer, changing direction and hitting the engines are the first steps. If the convoy or task force slows down, another attack run can be made from a different location.
One of the thrills of fighting in the Pacific is the much higher likelihood of running into a task force. The escorts will be numerous, as will the screen of cruisers, but deep down in the center of the task force is likely to be one or more deliciously crunchy aircraft carriers or battleships. The force will be moving quickly, though not at flank speed as they were in Silent Hunter III. Usually the player will have only one shot at it, so picking his spot and shots correctly are vital.
Convoys are also present from the start of the war. Independent merchant shipping exists of course but the likelihood of running into a convoy is quite high. Understanding the way to elude escorts is obviously of the highest importance then, and can be frustrating until it becomes clear that the AI has a homing sensor to wherever the last shot was fired.
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