by Chris “BeachAV8R” Frishmuth
For naval simulation fans the next iteration of the Ship Simulator series was released in late August. Having reviewed the original Ship Simulator 2006, I was interested to see how the series had evolved since I had skipped the Ship Simulator 2008 release. The obvious changes are improved graphics, expanded areas of operation, and a huge list of playable ships. The product is available from multiple sources including a boxed version, via direct download from the VSTEP web site, or downloadable by Steam.
Upon firing up the game you can choose to play multiple modes including single missions, campaigns, free roam, or multiplayer. In free roam you can choose any port area or open ocean location, choose a type of ship, set the weather and just go out exploring on your own. The single mission folder, oddly enough, is empty. That’s right — there are no single missions with the game even though that is one of the choices. The three campaign selections are full of individual missions that are somewhat linked together to give a feeling of a continuous job path, but calling it a campaign is a bit of a stretch.
The 43-page PDF manual does a good job of describing the simulator menus, options, and overlays, but it is overwhelmingly inadequate since it doesn’t discuss the physics or normal operating procedures for doing things like tugging boats, mooring or anchoring them. There is no discussion of how to use differential engine thrust, bow thrusters, or mooring lines to pivot the ship around a point. If you had no basic knowledge of ship handling, you would be lost on how to actually utilize the controls to control the ships in the manner needed to do precision maneuvers. Perhaps VSTEP is anticipating that likely purchasers of Ship Simulator Extremes are ship enthusiasts that have a good background knowledge of ship operations, but the lack of any tutorial missions or a ship handling addendum would make learning this sim frustrating for an inexperienced prospective ship captain.
The graphics of SSE are gorgeous. The sea state conditions are nicely rendered and the fog, lighting, and environmental conditions (rain/snow) are very well done. The 3D models of the dozens of included ships range from excellent to fair. There are some graphics artifacts in some areas of the sim, particularly in heavy seas. Sometimes you can see water rendering bleeding through the floors (ahem… decks) of the ships. The first person viewpoint allows you to walk around to access certain areas of each ship including other deck levels, wing bridges, and up and down staircases. The graphics are passable, but there certainly isn’t an extreme amount of detail included in the interiors. Given the large number of ships available, I would have preferred to have seen some ultra-realistic modeling of just a few ships instead of seeing somewhat generic looking interiors on all of the ships.
Controlling the ships can be accomplished via keyboard, mouse, or by using a controller(s). Without a doubt the best option for controlling ships is a dual throttle setup so that you can use each lever to control the differential thrust from each engine. A joystick can also be useful for mapping to things like bow thrusters and maneuvering engines. Again, you are left a bit in the dark on how exactly ships work in that regard, so you’ll have to figure it out on your own.
The actual physics of the simulation seem very good and this is where the game excels. Using a small tug boat to maneuver a massive tanker or container ship into a very tight location is a fun challenge. You must think way far ahead and manage the enormous inertia carefully. Often you will apply a correction that may take many minutes to actually translate as the momentum of the maneuver slowly alters the ship’s course. The sim allows you to moor to other vessels in many different areas using different line tie off locations, so the combinations of how you get the job done are endless. You are allowed to swap between both the ship doing the towing to the ship being towed to control things like rudder position, mooring lines, and anchors. In some of the more difficult scenarios you will be using multiple tug boats to try to shepherd large tankers into their allocated spot. My only real complaint is that while there is certainly a challenge to getting ships to their berth safely, there isn’t a huge focus on getting them berthed exactly properly. Once you get them somewhat close, you can click on the mooring lines and even if you are 10 or 15 feet away that is often good enough to complete the mission.
Mission types vary from industrial applications such as moving container ships around and delivering parts, to leisure missions that range from piloting a speedboat or cruise ship. A third campaign option is to drive ships for the environmental organization Greenpeace, which might add a political slant to the game that could affect sales (positively or negatively). It seems that Ship Simulator is wildly popular in European markets, so perhaps the marketing strategy is soundly thought out, but who knows. As someone who has flown simulated German aircraft against Allied forces, and Russian jets against American targets, I’m able to detach myself enough from reality to not get all wound up about mixing gaming and causes. I’m sure there are many peace activists out there playing Call of Duty, and the fact that environmental action groups have scenarios that can add a bit of spice to a naval simulation game makes them worthy of inclusion. Unfortunately, like many of the missions of all types in SSE, the missions are just not that difficult and they can really be an exercise of just going through the motions. Success often hinges on just putting your vessel in the right place for the right amount of time and then waiting for the mission success box to pop up. A little more complexity and dynamic action would be a welcomed addition to the sim.