The Front

The Front
The Agony of Defeat

Rob Zacny | 3 Nov 2009 12:31
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Ironically, the military games that tell the most compelling stories are often the ones that discard storytelling altogether. Simulations and wargames (by which I mean the gaming genre, not simply "games about war") offer a different representation of armed conflict. Some skirmishes end in complete victory, but most outcomes are equivocal. You fight a winning battle, but fail to attain your most important objectives. You enjoy stunning success in some small portion of a larger conflict, but you know it won't make much difference either way. You make a slight miscalculation and watch your forces get demolished. You struggle just to achieve some kind of stalemate and know that even that kind of non-decision will require a near perfect performance. This kind of fighting may not make for a rousing war epic, but it's faithful to the frustrations and debacles that are commonplace in real warfare.

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Silent Hunter III is a World War II submarine simulation that discards narrative and characterization in favor of a focus on technologies, procedures and tactics. Yet despite its lack of conventional storytelling elements, it conveys an experience akin to Wolfgang Petersen's classic U-boat film, Das Boot. Petersen's masterwork is a realistic, painful, yet ambivalently anti-war film, and that ambivalence is one of the reasons the movie occupies such a privileged space among fans of its genre. We know Das Boot's protagonists will lose the war, and they are starting to suspect it themselves, but they continue to fight because it's their job and they're the best at it.

Silent Hunter III opens this experience to players. You play as a Kriegsmarine sub commander whose career unfolds over the course of the war. There is no story except the one in the history books. The war begins in September 1939 and, for you, it will end in 1944 at the latest - probably sooner, but we'll get to that in a moment.

At the start of the game, commanding a German submarine in the North Atlantic is like being a fox loose in a henhouse. Allied cargo ships cross the ocean unescorted, and Allied warships cannot find you. The only thing that can stop you is bad weather and a lack of munitions; aside from those concerns, you can stalk, attack and kill at will. You are a predator, and the game seduces you with the charms of the hunt: the first sighting and pursuit, the slow, methodical setup for an encounter and finally the attack itself. You witness tremendous explosions, ships on fire against a night sky, merchantmen struggling to stay afloat as the water consumes them and that last glimpse of hull before a ship vanishes into the deep. Then you slip away as if you were never there.

By the time you reach Silent Hunter III's end game, it's an entirely different experience. Germany is losing, and no matter how much Allied tonnage you send to the ocean floor, more is slipping past with each passing day. Worse, missions are inestimably harder. Allied ships now travel in very large, very well guarded convoys. They've become so skilled at spotting you that even raising your periscope above the surface is a gut-check moment. And even if you somehow get close enough to fire a volley of torpedoes, you'll find escaping is a nightmare. Allied destroyers are legion, incredibly fast and armed with sonar equipment that makes vanishing next to impossible once they have found you.

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