Nintendo's Steel Diver has come a long way. For us in Australia, and for most of the rest of the world, the game is a new IP released during the launch window of the Nintendo 3DS. However, the title's history goes much further back. What most people probably won't be aware of is that Steel Diver began as a tech demo for the very original Nintendo DS. Yep, that's right. Six years ago submarine simulation was used to demonstrate the touch screen control methods of the DS, and it took all this time for it to evolve into a retail release for the successor platform.
Interestingly, Steel Diver could be considered the very first completely touch screen focused 3DS title released yet. Unlike most other available titles, Steel Diver forgoes all use of buttons as well as the analogue nub in favour of the touch screen, retaining it's origins as a touch screen tech demo. Additionally, the shift to a new generation of platforms has seen it adopt technologies and features distinguished by the 3DS, notably an expected stereoscopic 3D display, as well as optional gyroscope features for certain modes.
This hybrid of old ideas with new technology has made for an interesting beast, and with six years of work under it's belt (if submarines have belts) one would probably expect a meaty package. At the 2011 Game Developer's Conference Nintendo President Satoru Iwata stated that "content is king". It is sad then that Steel Diver fails to meet the benchmark set by this philosophy. But before we get ahead of ourselves, lets take a step back and look at the fundamentals of Steel Diver.
Steel Diver's gameplay is broken up into three modes; campaign missions, periscope strike, and a turn based strategy mode titled 'steel commander'. Of the three, the campaign missions and steel commander are the most distinct and where you'll spend most of your time, while periscope mode is simply an optional mini-game that makes an appearance at various intervals in the other two modes. Notably, all three offer their own unique gameplay mechanics.
During campaign missions the game is played from a 'side scrolling' locked camera perspective. Here the player is tasked with navigating the treacherous ocean depths in one of three submarines, while avoiding obstacles and defeating enemies that litter the path. Rather than give complete control to the player like one would experience in a 2D platformer, subs are controlled via speed and surfacing direction and rate dials, and directional steering wheels, all of which are simulated on the touch screen. This means that a large part of mastering Steel Diver comes not from navigating the stages, but mastering the control method of each sub, as controlling a sub is not a simple as pointing in the direction you want to go, but instead requires taking into account momentum, weight, direction of the sub, and even the level of oxygen.
As unique as this control method may be, it is bound to turn off some players looking for a more accessible experience, as navigating the submarines through stages usually requires a fair bit of patience, and the somewhat steep learning curve behind mastering the controls against an ever ticking clock does no favours. That being said, the control method makes for a surprisingly engaging experience, that manages to challenge the player without ever being broken or clumsy.
At the end of each campaign mission the game will enter the aforementioned periscope strike mode. Just as it sounds, the goal is peer out of the periscope and shoot down enemy ships and submarines from a first person perspective. Gyroscope controls that require the player quite literally spin around to aim the periscope are both responsive and functional, though certainly unconventional and difficult to use in most settings, and thus we expect most players will resort to the optional touch pad controls for this particular mode. Sadly, unlike the campaign missions, periscope strike is a shallow novelty with little depth (no pun intended) of it's own, and is unlikely to be played as a separate entity.
Capping off the campaign mode package are a series of time trial missions, each built on the same basic control premise as the main missions though with a stronger emphasis on beating the clock. All of these coupled with all of the main campaign missions, as well as unlockable campaign extras, should take a little over ten hours to complete.
The last option we mentioned was 'steel diver', a turn based strategy game that functions like a hybrid between the classic games chess and battleships. Situated on a grid, the player takes turn against either a computer controlled enemy or a human player playing via the 3DS local wifi download play, positioning and moving their ships and submarines from their side of the grid to the opposition, as they seek out and destroy the opposition's supply ships or submarine to win the game.
Though it is an enjoyable and more tactical distraction from the campaign missions, that manages to differentiate itself in mechanics, the basic concept and limited set of vehicles, as well as maps, simplifies the experience a little too much to have any real staying power, an issue that could have been partially eradicated by online multiplayer.
All three modes are displayed in stereoscopic 3D, and at no point does it have any impact on the gameplay. Throughout both the campaign and strategy mode, the stereo 3D is nothing more than visual gimmick like it has proven to be in nearly all titles so far. However, that doesn't mean the 3D effect itself isn't pleasing, and instead the effect adds a valuable amount of extra quality to an otherwise standard presentation, particularly in the campaign where the there side scrolling camera perspective coupled with 3D creates an effect similar to staring into a fish tank, with a great sense of depth to the far reaching ocean background .
Taking advantage of the modern GPU, Steel Diver also deploys a number of shaders and neat lighting tricks that dramatically improve the image quality in particular scenarios, such as an exploding under water volcano lighting up bellowing smoke, making the overall presentation pleasing to look at, even if it never matches the more impressive 3DS titles like Super Street Fighter IV and Pilotwings Resort.
The worst of the presentation can be blamed squarely on the audio. Bland, unmemorable musical tracks are scattered throughout, while majority of the sound effects, from the submarine's sonar and missile explosions, to the tinny though minimal voice work, sound as if they were ripped straight from the Nintendo DS era of technology, failing to meet a clearer audio standard.
Reading through so far you might be thinking to yourself "This sound good! Where do I sign up?". Unfortunately, it's not all smooth sailing (no puns!), and Steel Diver hits a few hurdles, notably in value for content. Simply put, there's not a whole lot going on, at least not necessarily enough to completely justify the full retail pricing, let alone six years of turbulent (okay, we'll stop) development.
At the root of this problem is the seven standard campaign missions, which are all too easy and over far too quickly, and themselves relatively bare-bones in structure and execution. The much more demanding expert mode somewhat remedies this, but requires the player grind through all seven standard missions with all three submarines, and while each submarine offers it's own set of weight and control variables, the differences themselves are not enough to warrant locking away arguably the best part of the game in a way that will prevent many from ever knowing it exists. Unlockable decals that alter properties of the submarines, such as reducing damage from specific attacks, have potential to extend game time by offering changes to fundamentals for perfecting speed runs, but for the gamer out there not interested in besting their score over and over there's really not a lot of raw content on offer, particularly in the repetitive and simple missions structure that fails to evolve mechanically as the campaign progresses.
The basic campaign mode, coupled with the aforementioned simplicity of the 'steel diver' strategy mode, as well as the basic 'periscope strike' mode, is what makes the minimal packaging so disappointing, as the core mechanics are, for all intents and purposes, highly enjoyable and well polished. Learning curve and slow pacing aside, Steel Diver presents a unique and engaging submarine simulation with just the right amount of arcade gameplay to distinguish itself from other titles on the market, and is certain to hook it's target audience, but never manages to capitalise on the premise it establishes. It's not that the content isn't good, it just isn't rich or varied enough to warrant the price of admission for most people.
Even so, for gamers intrigued by the premise, and patient enough to learn the control mechanisms and master the subs, there's fun to be had. What it will ultimately comes down to is whether you're the kind of gamer who enjoys continually beating scores and striving to be the best, or the kind that seeks games with plenty of mission and content substance. The former might find Steel Diver to be one of the better launch window titles, while the latter would be wise to wait for a price drop. The rest of us can wait for a deeper, more involved and varied title.