UBoat's attempt to be a more personable Cold Waters is admirable, but there's still work to do

By Jack Trumbull 28 May 2019 0

UBOAT has been creating quite the stir in the wargaming community recently for its fresh take on submarine warfare, and before playing, I got a good look at it through a couple of different streamers. I was impressed with what I saw, and happily picked it up to see what amazing escapades I would have as well. Here are some things I spent doing in the various, lengthy downtimes I faced when playing UBOAT: played three separate mobile games, made myself food downstairs, and actively started typing this up as the game played in the background. I returned each time to find that my sub had been mostly happily chugging along, and there would still be nothing for me to do for another 15 minutes or so.

UBOAT is certainly a game with potential, but it’s currently unpolished. To be fair to UBOAT, it is in Early Access and I’ve already seen improvements over the time I’ve been playing, but it is still rough around the edges. Sub sim enthusiasts could find a real treat here, but I can’t fully stamp it with my seal of recommendation quite yet.

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WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING DEPTH CHARGES

UBOAT places you in the commander’s shoes of a World War 2 German U-Boat. You directly control the five officers on board, instructing them on what actions to take, such as spotting for vessels topside, performing maintenance on the engines, plotting navigation courses, etc. You can also assign these officers some sailors to assist them in their duties, who will work with the officer until you direct the officer to get rest. The officers all have levels, and can acquire new skills in their profession such as “Leaders” (Captain for example) acquiring torpedo targets faster, or engineers making quicker repairs to the sub.

The game, which currently consists of a tutorial and sandbox mode, places you at La Rochelle, a French port, in early 1941. From here, you can accept missions from the HQ officer, recruit new men for the ship, and requisition supplies and upgrades for your ship. Once that’s all taken care of, you can plot a course for the open sea and get to stalking Allied ships. While you’re out at sea, you monitor most of the sub’s functions and stores, from the reserves of fuel and electricity to the food and morale of the crew, but most of what you’ll be doing is staring at a map as your sub slowly moves to where you want to go. Even at high speed, it can take a very long time to get anywhere. This is a game that you can feel comfortable playing your mobile games during… at least when you’re alone.

Any contact coming into range out on the water will snap you out of fast travel and bring you back to your sub immediately. Combat is where the game really thrives, as you rush to get your ship submerged before you’re spotted, or you plot a course to intercept the oblivious cargo ship ahead. It can be very tense, but the feeling of working your spotting team in tandem with your targeting team and landing a hit on a ship without ever physically seeing it is incredibly satisfying. Even when things start off poorly, such as the time I was brought back to my sub mid-bombing run, salvaging (or at least surviving) a bad situation can be an enjoyable experience. That’s not to say everything about UBOAT is shipshape, however…

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“…DID I JUST MINE MYSELF?”

I am not good at UBOAT. I will openly admit this: UBOAT is not a game that treats you kindly. I have experience with sub sims before, but UBOAT forces the player to pay attention to the abstract without telling the player they need to do that. Many of the actions you want to undertake are not clearly automated or manual. Even now, after several hours of puttering about the Bay of Biscay, some things are only now becoming clear. Your engineers will indeed fix leaks on their own, something that was never stated. But your radioman/sub medic won’t just get up and go heal a hurt crewman…. Unless he feels like it? Much of what goes on in your sub seems to be erratic and spontaneous, as if the crewmen themselves are unsure what you’re allowing them to do at any point in time.

Even more challenging is the fact that several integral parts of the sub aren’t explained, and the game just expects you to already understand that you should be using your electric and diesel compressors when you surface to restore air to your hull, or that switching to using blue lights underwater will increase air filtering. Further frustrations come when asking your officers to perform actions that aren’t immediately on the sub. You can click boxes out of the water to scavenge them for supplies, or send your officer to check out the abandoned ship nearby. However, there’s no specific radius around the ship that shows you what is actionable and what isn’t. I did indeed mine my own sub at one point because I was under the impression that I had to pull up close to the other ship to get my officer to go set charges. The second he finished, the ship exploded, and I ended up sinking directly to the bottom.

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This is coupled with a fair amount of very annoying bugs, which have forced me to crash the game and reboot several times. The UI disappeared at one point and would not return, so I couldn’t order my men to do anything until I had restarted. Similarly, twice I have had the misfortune of inventory windows just opening. Every. Time. They. Were. Closed. They even got in the way of me trying to exit the game, appearing over the Escape menu, forcing me to Alt+F4 to get the menacing torpedo menu from following me any further. Even through the fun I had with the game, I could recommend giving it a pass currently purely for the way the bugs detract from the experience. To the developer’s credit, they have launched two patches to fix bugs from when I started playing to when I’m currently writing this line one week later. They are nothing if not committed to making UBOAT better, which is commendable in an age of games abandoned in Early Access.

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NOT QUITE A SILENT HUNTER OR A COLD WATERS

UBOAT enters a genre that’s not quite crowded, but it certainly has some classics, such as Silent Hunter and Cold Waters, that UBOAT clearly wants to emulate, but it’s not there yet. There’s a familiar tension to the stress of submerged combat and similarities in how detailed the games can be with their modeling, but familiar and similar don’t mean as good as. UBOAT has failed to make me as attached to my submarine as I have been with a less personified sub in Cold Waters, even though I see and know the names of every crewman aboard my sub in UBOAT. The crew are largely stilted and lifeless, even with names and faces, they aren’t the actors from Das Boot. Executing a sailor for burning scrambled eggs was absolutely comical rather than dramatic, and I couldn’t care less about the crew when the game reminded me on several occasions that “many joined for ideology.”

On top of this, your actions as the collective officer hivemind of the ship feel insignificant overall. Perhaps it’s because you as the player don’t get to see the effect you’re having on the war, or maybe the achievement of sinking an enemy vessel feels less earned than in other sub simulators. But even while completing objectives does not bring the sense of satisfaction it would in a Cold Waters, it still does feel impressive. And it does bear repeating that UBOAT did only just emerge into Early Access, so there is plenty of time for us to see improvement. With this in mind, UBOAT has set off in choppy waters, but there could be a break in the storm ahead.

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