There are three types of people in the world: those who snapped up Silent Hunter 4: Wolves of the Pacific on the first day of release and are now impatiently awaiting the arrival of the new patch; those for whom the phrase "submarine simulation" is all the motivation they need to click through to something far more colourful and over-caffeinated; and finally, there's everybody else - the majority, probably - who are always up for a good game, no matter what shape it takes, but are naturally suspicious of the inherent entertainment value of a submarine.
Fair enough. The thought of driving leaking tubes of metal around vast empty oceans at an excruciatingly slow pace, only to be violently de-pantsed when breaking the surface at exactly the wrong moment, summons up a large, revolving question mark over just how much fun you can expect to get out of SH4. It is, in fact, a perfectly natural reaction for those of us who live outside the small (but enthusiastic) world of dedicated sub-sim groupies.
Let's get the obvious pros out of the way first. A quick squint at the screenshots should be all you need to convince you that SH4 is gorgeous, and it looks even better in motion. There have been very few games, of any genre, that are quite as accomplished in the looks department. It's not just a matter of being show-offishly pretty, either. SH4 presents you with exactly what you need to get drawn into its utterly convincing world, and never seems to overstep the mark into needless whiz-bangery. It's the detail that draws it all together, from the perfectly modelled ocean waves splashing over your periscope, to the animated sailors wandering across the decks of enemy ships, unaware that you've just emptied all your tubes and their day is about to take a turn for the worse.
The use of sound is equally as impressive, as it should be. So much of the atmosphere of the game comes from the sound - sonar pings, the distant crump of depth charges, the bassy boom of a torpedo hit, the creak of your hull as you slide into the depths or the whispered voices of your crew as a destroyer churns overhead. The sound design of the game succeeds admirably in creating a little sonic bubble around you, full of threat and malice. You'll never hear the beep-beep-beep of a reversing van again without expecting a delayed barrage of depth charges...
But what do you do in a sub-sim? Where's the fun? What is it about Silent Hunter 4 that'll keep you coming back? Just for the moment, forget that SH4 is a simulation of anything. Unless you're really into the history of submarine warfare, you'll have no idea if SH4 is providing a realistic simulation and most likely won't care. The fact that a submarine is involved is simply not enough to keep most of us interested. The game is the thing - and, thankfully, it's a great game.
Boiled down to its purest form, the fun of Silent Hunter 4 is all about ambushes and stabbing the big guy in the back before he even knows you're there, then running away as he slowly bleeds to death. You are cast as the most fragile thing bobbing around the ocean, save for a few fishing boats and seagulls. Anything that you're interested in, and are therefore compelled to get close to, can kill you in a heartbeat. Here's the thing, though - you're sneaky. Sneaky as all heck. And sneakiness is fun. If you've ever enjoyed a first-person sneaker like Thief or Splinter Cell, you'll understand the thrill of lurking in the darkness before taking down a heavily armed goon with one deadly, silent bullet. SH4 captures the joy of the unexpected low-blow, the whack to the back of the head or the malevolent rush that comes from hobbling something much stronger than you, then coming back later to finish it off.
One of the big differences, from a gameplay point of view, between SH4 and the aforementioned FPS's is pacing. Even after liberal use of the time acceleration functions, it's not uncommon to have more than an hour go by before getting anywhere near to shooting anything. And you still might miss. Worse than that, if you've cranked the difficulty way up, you might score a direct hit only to discover you've just fired a dud torpedo and are now obliged to spend the next half hour hugging the sea floor as a vengeful destroyer tries to peel you open. Where, f'gosh sake, is the fun in that?
The thing to realise here is we're talking about a different kind of fun. If, say, Gears of War is a boisterous friend who, when he gets to the bottom of his fifth pint, is going to drag you around the dance floor in a headlock while bellowing at the scattering punters, SH4 is more like a relaxed afternoon with an uncle who knows several heads of state and can defuse a bomb while blindfolded. Both perfectly good ways to pass the time, but each feeding a different part of the brain. So while SH4 features a lot of slow skulking about, punctuated with moments of explosive action that are followed by extended periods of even slower skulking about, it isn't even remotely boring. When it takes an hour or more to find your quarry, set up the perfect ambush, plan an escape route and then wait for everything to fall into (or out of) place, it's not surprising that the moment when you commit to an attack is usually accompanied by sweaty palms and a raised pulse. It's all brilliantly, nail-bitingly tense.
The simulation side of Silent Hunter 4 is remarkably accessible. All the dials, knob and charts can be a bit overwhelming on first glance, but think of everything as a Sneakiness Support System that just happens to have been hammered into the shape of a submarine. You can tweak the difficulty levels until they suit you perfectly, though you'll inevitably find yourself slowly notching up the realism as you get familiar with all the toys at your disposal.
SH4 provides a multitude of different ways to enjoy its slow-burn gaming goodness. If you're really desperate to cut the chase, you can leap into a Quick Mission or War Patrol - try the Battle of Midway for some awesomely cinematic fisticuffs - but the real full-blooded, salt 'n' rust flavour of the game is found in Career Mode. This will see you cruising the oceans, setting up patrols, tip-toeing into enemy harbours and generally engaging in all sorts of naval skullduggery. There's a light role-playing aspect to it as well, as successful missions earn you renown points that you can spend on better gear and crew members. Finally, there's a multiplayer mode in which you can either team up with friends and go a-huntin', or have someone control a fleet on the surface while others lurk below in their subs. We weren't actually able to get a multiplayer game going but potentially there's a good time waiting to be had online.
It's heartbreaking to have to report that Silent Hunter 4, at the time of writing, is not entirely well. A number of bugs have plagued the initial release but, in all fairness, we experienced fewer than average. A v1.1 patch has been released which fixed some problems but caused others and v1.2 is on the way. Still, a game that demands as much of your time and concentration as SH4 really needs to be rock solid before getting an unreserved recommendation. The developers appear to be doing their damnedest to fix things up but before you put down the cash, it wouldn't be a bad idea to wait and see how the game stands after the v1.2 patch is out. It's a real shame to see a game as fundamentally excellent as Silent Hunter 4 marred by something as tedious and preventable as bugs, but there you go - welcome to the joys of PC gaming.
Assuming that the bugs are eventually crushed, Silent Hunter 4 will easily take its place as the best submarine simulation on the market. Not only that, but it's also one of the overall best games around and shouldn't be overlooked by those wary of the often over-complicated nature of sims. SH4 is accessible, loads of fun and will provide countless hours of tense, watery warfare.