A lot can change in a year. Examples supporting that assertion abound, of course, but I am going to discuss only two specific cases that are inextricably joined to each other. In other words, they will demonstrate a cause & effect change.
The first example is the U-boat battle against allied shipping during WWII. That particular war is best known in the gaming world for its land battles (soldiers, tanks), air battles (air-to-air dogfighting, predominantly), and surface battles between battleships and the like. What is relatively unknown is just how close Britain came to defeat due to the underwater scourge known as the U-boat.
Being an island nation, Britain was almost entirely dependent on shipping imports. Food, fuel, weapons, ammo… just about anything needed to defend against a well-armed and battle-seasoned enemy had to be brought in via ships. In the early stages of the Battle of the Atlantic, U-boats were nearly unstoppable. The ratio of ships sunk vs. U-boats destroyed was heavily weighted on the side of the U-boats sinking ships. By the end of 1942, the situation for Britain was dire.
That all changed in 1943. In a comeback story worthy of a Hollywood movie (say, Das Boot as an example), the Allies innovated advanced convoy tactics which, when combined with technological breakthroughs, completely turned the tide (so to speak) against the U-boats. The war dragged on for a couple more years, but the U-boats had been basically benched for the remainder of the war. When it was all said and done, a full two-thirds of U-boat submariners went down with their submarines. See also: Das Boot.
Now hold onto your hat because I am about to make a sharp change of direction. As my second example of a whole lot changing in a year, let’s consider Iron Wolf VR. Not surprisingly, Iron Wolf is a VR-based game involving a U-boat-esque submarine that shares many traits with the 1940’s era U-boats. My first encounter with Iron Wolf was about a year ago, just after it was went on sale as an Early Access title on Steam.
I was immediately hooked on it. Part of this is because I have read many books and seen many movies based on U-boats, and the other part that really wowed me is the amazing sense of immersion delivered by the Oculus Rift, and by the developer’s decision to make everything on the sub easy to manipulate with VR controllers and easy to read with the current generation of VR headsets.
At the time, the game did not officially support the Oculus and that caused me no end of problems, primarily having to do with getting the floor level set correctly, but sometimes I could get it close enough to be usable, albeit frustratingly. Even with that challenge, which I attributed to SteamVR, it didn’t take long at all to start thinking that VR was made exactly for this kind if game, while this game was obviously being made for VR. It was a match made 100m below the surface of the Atlantic.
Iron Wolf was already very sophisticated for the current state of the technology included at the time, but over the intervening months it has grown even more so. Iron Wolf is a multiplayer co-op game (for people that have VR gaming friends - it can also be played solo, which is a life-saver for folks like me that don’t) that initially had positions for four players. That’s not an entirely accurate way to say that; there could be four players, but there were no constraints as to where they could be on the boat. There were four rooms that needed crew members (or AI to fill in when there aren't enough human players) to operate equipment: the bridge (the only outside room), the command room, the periscope room, and the torpedo room. Now there are five, but we will get to that.
The bridge was obviously only used when the boat was on the surface. You might think there would be no reason to surface, and plenty of reasons not to. The reasons not to are not plentiful, but at least one of them is extraordinarily dangerous. Because weight matters, submarines did not typically have the thick steel sides of a typical surface ship. This made them more than a little vulnerable to bullets. Where are the bullets coming from way out in the middle of the Atlantic? Aircraft. How do you defend against them? Well, the anti-aircraft gun. Which, if you think about it, needs to be outside the boat. In this case, it was on the bridge.
So why would you ever surface? First of all, because the boat can travel faster on the water than it can in it. The other reasons are kind of sciency, but bear with me.
The primary engine in a U-boat is a big diesel. Diesels need at least two things to work: air and fuel. Fuel can be carried in fuel tanks, naturally, but air is trickier. The big diesels need a lot of it - far more than could be carried in tanks. Without air, the diesel engines can’t work, but without engines, the boat can’t move.
The inability to run the diesel engine underwater is the reason that there are also electric engines installed on the boat. Those require batteries to operate, so there are also tons of batteries installed. But what happens when the batteries die? And for that matter, what about air for the crew? People don’t breath as much or as fast as a big engine, so crew air is carried in onboard compressed air tanks, but that supply is also finite and will need to be refreshed eventually.
This begs a question: how do the batteries get charged and the air tanks replenished? The batteries are recharged from a generator and the tanks filled by an air compressor, both of which are driven by the diesel. As we know, the diesel needs air to run, so the boat has to be on the surface for that to happen.
And that is at least partially why you need a deck gun. More specifically, an anti-aircraft gun.
The other three rooms are self-explanatory: the command room is where the Captain works. The command room contains navigation, steering, dive/surface controls, rows of gauges displaying essential data items, and loads of other stuff - the command room is essentially the brains of the boat. The periscope room is…. right. Good guess. But besides the periscope, the torpedo aiming/tracking control systems are there. Also aptly named, the torpedo room is where the torpedoes are stored and fired. The job of the player in the torpedo room is to load the torpedoes into the tubes. That’s pretty much it, unless he is tagged to be one of the gunners when the boat is on the surface.
In this form, Iron Wolf VR was already a superb VR game.
Then a year went by. I moved on to other games. Not entirely because of the floor level thing, but it truly did wear on me.
Very recently something big changed: Iron Wolf VR became available in the Oculus store. I considered buying it again, thinking it was worth the risk just for the possibility that it would work with the Oculus floor level setting instead of depending on Steam VR. I didn’t need to re-buy it, though, as the developer decided to let anyone playing the game with an Oculus rig have the Oculus version for free. I won’t keep you on the edge of your seats: the Oculus version solved my problem. I started to play again and was immediately amazed by how much had changed.
Most notably, there are more rooms, although only one of them creates a new crew position. The new crew-enabled position for the fifth player is an important one too: the engine room. This guy is going to be busy! Not only is the engine room chief the person that actually sets the speed of the boat (the big brass handle the captain uses only tells the engine room what speed to set the engine to), he also balances the power devoted to the generator and air compressor, along with various other duties.
Another major change is the number of guns up on the deck. There are now two anti-aircraft guns, and a new deck gun that is used for sinking ships that are either defenceless or too small to justify the use of a torpedo. As an aside, firing the different guns at diving aircraft or a cargo ship are my absolute favorite things to do. Submarine warfare is by its nature something of a cerebral battle paired with a dire need for stealth. Not my style, really. I like to just shoot at stuff.
Related to the anti-aircraft guns, it is now possible to travel submerged for much greater distances. As happened with U-boats towards the end of the war, Iron Wolf now has a snorkel for the diesel engines. The sub can't be very deep underwater for it to work, but even at a shallow depth it adds a whole lot of stealth. This should radically alleviate the risks incurred when charging batteries on the surface.
Beyond those two big changes, there are tons of ease-of-use improvements. I remember a year ago when I was standing on the bridge wishing that it wasn’t such a long trip down to the periscope room, which I needed to do because it was the only magnified lens on the boat. Now I have a telescope that I carry with me. It was the same with sending steering, depth, and speed commands to whatever flunky was currently on helm duty (AI, for me) - now I have a little remote control box that I carry around to use for giving commands. In the old days of a year ago, once the boat sprung a leak from an attack, I couldn’t fix it. Now there’s a welding torch I can use to fix leaking pipes, and a bilge pump to get rid of whatever water had already gotten in. There is a portable emergency oxygen tank I can use if the water gets too high before I can pump it out. These little touches are all over the boat - to me, they are a clear validation of the Early Access model. Many of these improvements were presumably responses to player requests.
The underlying game remains unchanged. You are given an assignment to sink a certain number of, or type of, enemy ship. You will face aircraft attacks, underwater mines, and depth-charge attacks from enemy destroyers. You will have to balance the usage of resources such as battery power, the compressed air required to raise the ship after diving, the air required by the crew to live, and torpedoes.
It’s not easy. It is tense. It is stressful. And if you are one of the crewmembers that can’t see what’s going on, it’s terrifying.
It is absolutely worth it. It is also going to get better still. This is the tentative roadmap provided by the developer:
Here is a high-level roadmap of what’s planned:
I am very much looking forward to whatever comes next with Iron Wolf. It is already one of my absolute favorites of all time, and it appears to be poised to go even higher on that list.
* As a personal aside, I saw a YouTube video last year that made me want to learn how to build VR games just so I could build a sub-hunter airplane that used this kind of sonar gear to find subs. Iron Wolf VR was my inspiration, and I wondered if there would ever be a way for my airborne sub-hunter to integrate with Iron Wolf. Hmmmm.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.
My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.
While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.
My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.