For as long as I can remember, my wife has wanted me to take her on a cruise. Oddly enough, I resisted. For some reason I didn't mentally or emotionally equate a cruise liner with being a boat; I viewed it more like a hotel laid on its side and set adrift on an ocean. My vision of an acceptable cruise was something like the now defunct Windjammer lines where a small-ish number of passengers embarked on a sailing yacht to spend a week puttering about in warm Caribbean waters, and those that wanted to could take a turn at the helm or hoisting sails. The competing vision, that of my spouse, was comprised of dreams of lazing about in a recliner and being served cold drinks by svelte, attractive Jamaican men. How, I ask you, could I compete with that?
For some reason,probably having to do with my desire to buy an expensive electronic gadget for the airplane, the idea came upon me to finally break down and take her on a cruise for our anniversary. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that those humongous cruise liners are, at the end of the day, really just big boats. While she spent the week soaking in the scenery, luxuriating in the nearly unlimited high quality food, and shopping in the ports of call, I spent my time observing the operation of the very complex ship. One of the highlights of the entire trip was when I happened to see some of the crew members testing one of the lifeboat davits. The lifeboats are pretty complex in their own right and I had been struggling with figuring out how the davits would move the lifeboat outboard of the ship and lower it to the water.
If that's not bad enough, I spent a couple of hours one afternoon drinking cold champagne on our veranda and watching the ship-to-shore tenders approach the ship and get in position to drop off passengers and take on another set. Seeing how they maneuvered with a combination of rudder and throttle inputs to the twin engines was fascinating. After a couple of hours of observing, I could see that different skippers used varying techniques. And, much like landing an airplane, there is no right way or wrong way. Also common to making a good landing in an airplane was the way that the boats had to respond to ever changing (one could almost say “fluid”) conditions.
With this lengthy introduction in mind, you will better understand why I was intrigued with the opportunity to review VSTEP's new Ship Simulator Extremes. In the same way that I appreciate a good flight simulator's ability to help me understand what it's like to fly the types of heavy and/or fast airplanes that I am very unlikely to ever fly for real, I hoped that Ship Simulator would give me a feel for what it's like to drive (Pilot? Skipper? Sail?) a collection of various boats. What I hadn't counted on is that, well, sailing a boat is pretty mundane. That is to say, mostly boring.
In retrospect, I probably should have seen that coming. As I think back on the cruise with a different viewpoint, I realize that there were a whole lot of hours (approximately 23.5 a day) when I was completely unaware that I was even on a ship. It's not that eating, drinking, sleeping, losing quarters in the casino, and watching stand-up comics that weren't even good enough to make it on the open mike tour were such compelling distractions that I temporarily lost focus on the infinitely more interesting operation of the ship, it's that when the ship wasn't in the process of docking or undocking it was doing nothing more exciting than plodding along in a straight line at a speed attainable by a startled milk cow.
That isn't to say that I found Ship Simulator to be boring per se, but even with the relatively short missions in the campaigns there were long periods of abject nothingness to deal with. Let's just stipulate that the “Extremes” in the title refers to the endpoints of a level-of-activity continuum that is inordinately wide. In other words, there is an extreme difference between the interest level of docking a ship and the nearly hypnotic passing of the featureless water landscape while cruising along between activities. You get this in airplanes too, of course, which is why they have autopilots and the sims typically have an accelerated time mode.
I also found it frustratingly difficult to control with the mouse and keyboard. This led me to believe that there must be add-on controls available; no one devoted enough to spending a great deal of time with a ship simulator would be satisfied with this level of control. Again, this is why the market is rich with joysticks and racing wheels. A brief internet search revealed that there is, in fact, just such a peripheral available. And it was only 320 Euros. Unfortunately I'm rather provincial – I'll get back to you and let you know if that's expensive or not if I ever work up enough interest to find out what a “Euro” is. I'm not completely lazy, though. I actually took the time to hook up my twin throttle/joystick Logitech G940 and run through the configuration routines. It really works quite well compared to the mouse/keyboard for the primary functions, and for those functions that can't be mapped to the joystick the mouse works well enough.
I was a little more disappointed that I couldn't figure out how to map the hat switch to control the first-person, in the boat view. I tried my TrackIR but there wasn't a game driver available for the Extremes version yet. There were drivers available for Ship Simulator 2006 and 2008, so the prognosis is favorable that an Extremes version will soon come along. It doesn't matter much since all of the interesting stuff pretty much requires the use of the third-person view anyway.
Once I got the control situation squared away and ship shape, I was able to finally concentrate on learning how to pilot a boat. There are two major game modes available: Campaigns and Free Roaming. Since there was nothing like a training or tutorial mode, I chose Free Roaming. The first decision that I had to make was the selection of the boat I wanted to use. There are quite a few to choose from, ranging from small harbor ferries up through mid-size tug boats, rescue boats, fire boats, all the way up to super tankers and the types of cruise liners that I had been so fascinated with on my cruise. I selected a small harbor ferry. I then selected the location that I wanted to start in. I chose to start in San Francisco Bay, thinking that I'd recreate a ride I had taken a few years ago when I attended a company outing on Angel Island. The open-air marketing meeting was predictably boring, but the ride around the bay was superb!
As I took control of my boat, I was presented with a third-person view of my boat tied to a mooring point in San Francisco pay. A quick point & click operation unmoored my boat and I was off on a wild ride across the bay. There were control overlays on the screen to show my rudder position and the positions of the two throttles. Through trial and error (and at least two sunken boats) I was able to figure out how to start, stop, and steer the boat. With practice I’m sure that I could master the complex interaction between differential throttle settings combined with the position of the rudder, but in the short term is was enough to just be able to get close enough to a pier to tie down the boat. I haven’t the level of experience required to determine if the physics of the boat movement and steering is accurate, but I can say that it was faithful enough to what I had seen the tender boat skippers doing to assume that it is fairly realistic.
I have to say that I was not overly impressed with the quality of the graphics, though. I would not be surprised to find that there had been no notable improvement in their overall quality since the 2006 version. When I made my way into the first-person view I was even less impressed. Having become spoiled by the visual quality of the Far Cry’s and other more recent titles, the look of Ship Simulator comes off as extremely dated. It probably doesn’t matter as much in the third-person view, but I was very disappointed in the first-person view where it was hard to read the instruments. As mentioned previously, the lack of TrackIR support or view control via the hat switch was hugely limiting. Another factor completely missing is the concept of having a crew to handle mooring lines and such. Having to jump out to the third-person view to management trivial tasks like that is an unrealistic distraction.
Having trained myself to some degree in the Free Roaming mode, I took a look at the campaigns. The campaigns fall into three categories: Greenpeace, Core, and Tourist Tales. I decided to avoid the Greenpeace campaigns for various personal reasons (not the least of which being that I have an insatiable taste for tuna-safe dolphin) and concentrate on the Core and Tourist Tales. In a nutshell the Tourist Tales tells the story of an event-filled cruise on an ocean liner, although there is a nice variety in the types of ships the player operates. While in the role of Captain on the ocean liner, I was aghast at my misfortune when a fire broke out on my ship. That said, when I was subsequently tasked with using a rescue/fire boat to put out the fire and rescue the three crew members that foolish enough to jump overboard without life jackets on I found the fire to be a nice diversion. The Core campaign isn’t really a campaign per se in that it is really just a collection of unrelated missions, but it too provided a good mix of disparate ship types and functions.
At the end of the day, I find that I’m having a hard time categorizing Extremes and, as such, having an equally hard time determining its intended audience. The goal with the Extremes title seems to be to make a hard core simulator more exciting to the casual player. The problem with that is that even as a novice I don’t think Extremes is a hard core simulator. The depth of interaction with the boats/ships is pretty simplistic. When I ask myself whether or not I would purchase a 320 Euro controller for it, I have to say no. As any pilot can tell you, learning how to fly an airplane is easy. The challenge comes from managing the navigational systems, dealing with weather that can swat you down like a fly or blind you to a majestic and extremely hard mountain 100 feet in front of your speeding plane, managing fuel, passenger, and cargo loads, and reacting appropriately to emergencies. Ship Simulator does none of this.
If instead the target audience is the casual gamer in search of exciting missions, well, there’s not much of that either. Combine that ambiguity of purpose with substandard graphics and you arrive at a simulator/game that is hard to recommend on either side. Those looking for a realistic representation of the full spectrum of challenges inherent in operating large, complex ships on the unforgiving landscape of the sea are going to be disappointed in the shallowness of the package. Those looking for pulse-pounding action on the high seas are not going to find it. Somewhere in the narrow slice of interests that resides equidistant between those two extremes might find what they're looking for in Extremes. All others would be best advised to look elsewhere for something more focused on their interests.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Ship Simulator Extremes suffers from an out-dated look and a disappointing lack of technical depth. The attempt to appeal to a wide audience fails due to the mediocre implementation of both ship simulation and compelling action.