Aces of the Deep

     Mention the word submarine to most people and they instantly experience a form of cinematic deja vu. See, I'll bet your mind is racing too. In an instant, you're brain has rewound through your private video library of the mind, probably scanning such film epics as Das Boote and Run Silent, Run Deep. Fast-forwarding now, you're no doubt recounting several vivid images of submarines at war; torpedo spreads streaming towards helpless passenger laden oceanliners, destroyers discharging an endless barrage of depth charges, and diesel soaked crewmen, trapped in cramped water-filling compartments, their instrument of destruction perhaps unenviably doubling as their own coffin.

     Submarine. The word can elicit some intense images of war. Let's see what Dynamix has drawn out of their 'Ace in the hole', Aces of the Deep.

     Dynamix soon-to-be released simulation contains no airfields to visit, aircraft to fly or trains to incinerate. Instead, the latest 'Ace' to be dealt from Dynamix literally comes from the bottom of their deck. Aces of the Deep (AotD) covers the Atlantic U-Boat campaign waged by the Third Reich's Kriegsmarine (naval forces) during World War II. While the earlier games in the Aces series afforded players the opportunity to command and control the forces from either sides vantagepoint, AotD uniquely restricts the player to the control of a singular U-Boat set amidst Die Deutsche Seekriegsleitung, Germany's war at sea.

     Germany's Battle for the Atlantic was perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of World War II. The U-Boat menace (U-Boat being an abbreviation for untersee boote or under-the-sea boat), became a prime component in the plans to strangle Britain economically and militarily. Conducted by Grand Admiral Karl Donitz, the prolonged campaign differed markedly from other battles virtually because a singular weapon was being used to wage the battle. Historians will no doubt point to various surface actions conducted by such infamous warships as the Bismarck and Graf Spee, but for the most part, these weapons served as ephemeral terrorists rather than enduring hurdles for the Anglo-Allied navies.

     As the war years progressed, both adversaries introduced better equipment, evolving their submarine and anti-submarine strategy and tactics accordingly. Unlike, the other military branches though, no one weapon could potentially win a battle outright. Combined arms tactics, heavily espoused by the Nazi leadership, were one thing. Tactics exclusively utilizing one weapon were another. The Axis, nevertheless, nearly succeeded.

     Like its predecessors, AotD offers a myriad of choices to the would-be U-Boat kapitaen, or ship's captain. The main menu contains a variety of choices including whether one plans on setting sail on a training or historical mission, a hypothetical encounter or enlisting in a career. Other choices include the viewing of various ship types, perusing the U-Boat Commander's Hall of Fame and accessing the options menu.

     Options are a many splendid thing in AotD. The game is broken down into one of 8 distinct time periods of the war beginning with the opening salvoes in 1939 through Die Gluckliche Zeit (better known as the Happy Time) and up until the end of the war. Choosing an encounter necessitates more nose burying in the menus. The hard drive waitress will make inquiries regarding crew types (green, veteran, elite), sub types (IIC, IID, VIIB, VIIC, VII/41, IXB, IXC/40), adversarial strengths (light, medium, heavy) and types (cruiser, battleship, carrier), wolfpack size or submarine density (none, small, medium, large), whether air cover is present, the time of day (morning, day, dusk, night), the sea state (calm, choppy, heavy) and weather conditions (clear, cloudy, overcast, and fog).

     The realism menu offers options such as the inclusion of dud torpedoes, slow reloads, realistic repairs, collisions, the boat's vulnerability to deep diving and depth charge attacks as well as limiting various tangibles such as fuel, ammunition and visibility. If one so desires, the combat and sailing models can be toggled between novice, intermediate and expert mode. Whew! shades of Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces!

     As you might have guessed, all that button clicking gave this seadog a case of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Well, there's more clicking ahead. The game's interface is entirely mouse driven so have a finger splint at the ready when you've called it a day. All whining aside, though, the interface is intuitively simple to master. Ideally, the game is built around two central management stations; the bridge and the control room. Both screens include an icon bar at the bottom of the screen, 'sim-tomatic' evidence of a point and click interface. When icons are engaged message windows pop up on screen delineating various canned message cues or informational screens.

     Depending upon one's location on the sub, the various icons control such functions as the sub's course, speed and depth, a stopwatch, time compression, a magnified binocular view, the Torpedo Data Computer (TDC), and communication with various crewed positions. For instance, canned messages for the Sonar Operator include inquiries as to the depth under the sub's keel and the status on any sonar contacts.

     The control room is replete with various maps, dials and gauges, all of which are accessible for viewing and adjustment. Players may manually imput any changes or order crew members to carry out their commands.

     In addition, the Captain's Log serves as a mission recorder of sorts, taking notes on damage, enemy encounters and the like. Due to the nature and length of the simulation, a film recorder was unavoidably omited although missions can be saved to disk.

     One of the most striking characteristics of AotD is the way Dynamix has handled Neptune's neighborhood. Wow! To say the ocean swell looks, er, swell is perhaps the 'under-the-sea' statement of the year. The rolling surf appears so realistic that Dynamix may have to include some dramamine with every game purchase!

     Utilizing texture mapping and Gouraud shading, the surging waves nearly caused this lookout to abandon ship! Even under calm tidal conditions, ships will momentarily disappear behind the billowing surf. Astute kapitaens will no doubt have a devil of a time locating and maintaining fixes on distant surface contacts.

     Fortunately, Dynamix facilitates play by providing a very easy to use method of smoothly surveying the horizon. Best described as a 'virtual crow's nest', players need only depress the mouse button and can then scroll in a full 360 degree arc by manipulating an on-screen arrow within the horizontal plane. Submerged, the U-Boat's persicope view works in much the same way as the aforementioned lookout view.

     Once enabled, the TDC is overlaid upon the leftmost portion of either the binocular or the periscope viewing screen. The TDC displays the range to target, bearing, heading and relative speed of the vessel in relation to the U-Boat and includes apparatus for the kapitaen to fire the torpedoes.

     While the map extends from the Americas to the Middle East and from Greenland to Southern Africa, for the most part play involves sailing within the North Atlantic region and is dependant upon various stages comprising the Atlantic campaign. Ships and aircraft detail has been rendered with Gouraud shaded polygons while Dynamix has utilized a runtime anti-aliasing technique which reduces the jaggedness afforded pixels when viewed either askew or askance of the horizontal plane.

     AotD doesn't capsize when it comes to the realism factor. Commanders will have to deal with such logistical issues as oxygen, electric and battery levels, as well as monitor radio transmissions to and from BdU (Befehlshaber der U-boote), the U-Boat Headquarters based in Western Europe. Coordinating and apprising BdU on the unfolding events becomes an important concern since some missions either require the shadowing or stalking of the Allied convoys and working in conjunction with other U-Boats.

     The BdU as undersea naval coordinator, alerts the commander when to coordinate attacks with other U-Boats in order to successfully carry out Donitz's legendary 'rudeltaktik', or wolf pack tactics of massed submarine charges. Other determinants  (at least in the early stages of the war) are political issues like the Prize regulations which governed the restrictions placed upon submarine warfare.

     As indicated in AotD's historical notes, players expecting to captain the typical U-Boat as if it were an American submarine are in for a rather rude maritime awakening. Most of the German boats were smaller and more nimble than their American counterparts with far different design considerations in mind. Add to this the fact that the anti-submarine warfare waged by the Allies differed markedly than those adopted by the Japanese in the Pacific and one can readily see how the U-Boat stratagem under Donitz's tutelage developed.

     Not surprisingly then, many attacks will probably take place at night and on the ocean surface. This doctrine greatly reduced the risk of visual detection while rendering the British underwater echo-ranging device (ASDIC) all but useless. Finally, the U-Boats surface speed far exceeded many of the convoy escorts which all but guaranteed success for the rudeltaktik.

     Interestingly, AotD eliminates the floating camera and external viewpoints normally associated with an Ace offering. The creators felt that the game design would be compromised if information such as submarine depth, depth charge settings and enemy locations were apparent to the U-Boat commander. What will be included are external viewpoints tied into action sequences such as a destroyer's launching of depth charges or the dropping of bombs from  long range Mosquito bombers.

     The campaign game commences with the captaining of a diminuitive Type II U-Boat. As one successfully completes missions, the commander-as-player then is afforded the option of piloting variants of either the Type VII or Type IX Boats. Confronted by the choices, players soon realize that design tradeoffs are painfully evident. The Type VII Boat stored less materiel and remained on station for shorter durations than the Type IX Boat but could dive rapidly and easily evade enemy actions. On the other hand, the Type IX Boats could put to sea longer, dive deeper and shoulder a larger payload but was more susceptible to both air and surface attack due to slower diving times.

     Not only must the wary U-Boat skipper stay alert for anti-submarine and reconnaissance aircraft, but he would be wise to plan his attacks with the sun and moon's position in mind. Silhouettes of hunter and prey alike become supremely evident so care must be taken to avoid detection. Stealth retains health.

     Since I was working from an early beta, certain aspects of the game, such as firing deck guns and aerial bombings could not be commented on. Certain features associated with submarine warfare, such as underwater mines and torpedo wakes, have been abandoned. Interestingly, the latter facet has been intentionally omitted because a typical U-Boat's ordnance load out was determined by such factors as whether the attack was to occur during daylight or at night. The Germans made use of both steam and electrically powered torpedoes, thereby reducing the likelihood of detection usually associated with a torpedoes tell-tale signature.

     Like most simulations, success (determined by sinking ships and overall shipping tonnage) brings advancements such as the schnorkel device and new forward bases to deploy from while rewarding keen play with various awards for valor and merit. Donitz was known to personally greet returning U-Boat crews and saw to it that ribbons and medals were awarded promptly. The Grand Admirals at the Dynamix naval base have their ribbons at the ready too.

     Some of the readership may wonder why the more advanced Type XXI and Type XXIII U-Boats weren't included in AotD. Not surprisingly, Dynamix has plans to introduce these craft in an add-on module that will not only incorporate these powerful subs, but will incorporate a more detailed 3 Space modeling of the land terrain. The extension set will also include scenarios centered amidst the Mediterranean Sea.

     Perhaps the German midget submarines, the Kleine Kampfmittel, mass produced in anticipation of the cross channel invasion, will see inclusion in the update too. Rest assured I'll be manning the midget subs even if I do have to assume the lotus position to man the periscope. I suppose it'll give new meaning to the phrase 'contemplation of one's navel' <g>.

     This is the ship's cook signing off...