Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ship Simulator 2008 Review

Ship Simulator 2008, developed by VSTEP and published on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Decent mission variety with a number of ships in a range of environments, outstanding graphics with comprehensive weather options, mission editor and other features (like multiplayer) to be included in future patches
The Not So Good: Needs a tutorial or more explicit objectives, pointless free roam mode with no dynamic real-time missions, no sailboats, no ship or environment editors, overt realism won’t appeal to everyone
What say you? An accurate motorized boating simulation with a number of good features balanced by a few limitations: 6/8

Boating simulations have their fair share of fans. While they aren’t nearly as popular as the droves of flight simulations available, there have been a number of titles covering the nautical side of things, like Days of Sail and Virtual Sailor. With a look into the future is Ship Simulator 2008, the second title in the series (apparently, in some countries, September 2007 counts as 2008…how futuristic!). Driving a boat might not be as exotic as flying planes or blowing stuff up with tanks, but there is still the potential for some entertaining gaming to be had.

The graphics of Ship Simulator 2008 are terrific. Although you wouldn’t think that an ocean-based simulation would be able to show off much graphical flair (the ocean is fairly featureless), Ship Simulator 2008 does its best in rendering a realistic environment. Each of the game’s coastal environments is very detailed, with recognizable landmarks and few repetitive buildings that combine to produce believable vistas. Reflections are nice, creating a mirrored look that works very well. The locations don’t span a large area, so the level of detail is less impressive than games that cover the entire world, but Ship Simulator 2008 still has great backdrops to your boating adventures. All of the fourteen ships in the game are highly detailed and full of animations that make them seem like real boats. You can even walk around in them, so their interiors are almost as impressive as their exteriors. Non-playable boats are a little rougher with low-resolution textures and the visible damage system isn’t quite as realistic as it could be (most damage is shown as a rusty paint spot), but the ship still look fantastic. The thorough weather effects in the game let you create any type of environment you wish. In fact, the sun changes orientation with time of day and time of year, which will alter the sunrise and sunset times: very neat. You can set the date and time, along with the concentration of four cloud types, wind speed and direction, wave height, rain, fog, and thunder. All of these adjustments are made to the background of the menus, so you can see your changes in real time to perfect the conditions you will experience. The ocean waves are also well done, with a good physics model present. With all of this graphical splendor, it’s strange that channel markers present on the map are not rendered in the game world, but I guess no game is perfect. The sound is pretty much what you would expect: engines, horns, and waves crashing against the boat. There isn’t a cacophony of sounds on the ocean, but there is a decent amount chaos when you are in a port. The game’s missions do not have voiced instructions, which would have been a nice addition for those people who hate to read. Still, the production values of Ship Simulator 2008 are quite high and the result is one of the best looking naval games available for the PC.

Ship Simulator 2008 features fourteen ships you can pilot around eight world ports, completing missions along the way. There is a good variety of boats to choose from: container ships, rescue boats, speedboats, ferries, tug boats, tankers, water taxis, and even the Titanic (and yes, there are icebergs that can cause damage). Future patches plan to introduce two additional ships (a jet ski and hovercraft) plus sinking ships, but Ship Simulator 2008 lacks sailboats (which begs the question: are sailboats ships or boats? If they are boats and not ships, I’ll let this game off the hook). Controlling the boats is straightforward: most boats have engine and rudder controls for power and steering. Some ships also have the ability to manipulate the crane, and you can always take a tour of your boat while autopilot is automatically engaged, maintaining your speed and heading while you hit on that hot chick on “B” deck (no, that’s not actually in the game). You can control Ship Simulator 2008 with either the keyboard or the joystick, and either works well: while the keyboard lacks the finesse of partial throttle, it is easier to just hold down a key than constantly push a joystick forward. The user interface is well-designed, allowing for two-click access to any of the game’s commands. Ship Simulator 2008 also has an “advanced rope system” that allows you to drop anchor, tug another ship, or tie off to a dock (I’m not quite sure what’s so advanced about that, although I don’t specifically remember many games offering those options). You’ll be boating in world locales like England, Marseille, San Francisco, New York, Hamburg, Rotterdam, and Thailand. There are also intermediate oceanic maps that join each of the ports: while these are simply areas of open water, it is nice to show some sort of connectivity between the ports instead of treating them as totally separate areas. This allows for long distance travel and open ocean trips, not that you would really want to do this considering the game takes place in real time.

Ship Simulator 2008 comes with a free roaming mode that is disappointing, considering how much potential there is for non-scripted gameplay in a boating simulation. You can customize your weather, pick and ship and location, and putt around with no limits, but there is nothing to do. It would be cool if missions became available that were appropriate for your ship (like rescues or shipping or whatever) that earned you money to purchase larger ships: a sort of career mode if you will. Dynamically-generated missions would flesh out Ship Simulator 2008 to be a more complete game and add a whole bunch of replay value on top of the thirty included missions. The missions do offer a good bit of variety that are related to each of the ship types in the game: rescuing swimmers, towing damaged or large vessels, taxing tourists, or undergoing the Titanic voyage (with hopefully better results). Most of these activities, however, simply involve traveling to waypoints so there is some repetition involved. There are some other maritime activities that are not modeled that aren’t beyond the scope of the game: Deadliest Catch-like crab fishing could easily be incorporated into the game (I smell expansion). While the game’s controls are straightforward, Ship Simulator 2008 lacks a tutorial (and the version I received didn’t even have a manual) and some marine terminology needs to be explained better (“moor to a boulder?” Sounds dirty). There isn’t any multiplayer yet, although it (like a lot of other things) is planned for a future free patch (apparently, the game is being released in September to a few countries and this is when a lot of these new features will appear). You also can’t save in the middle of a mission, though this (again) will be changed in upcoming patches. The game itself seems to replicate boating very well: small motorboats are agile and quick, while large tankers are slow to respond and require a lot of planning to maneuver. I can safely assume that none of us knows what it’s like to pilot the Titanic, but Ship Simulator 2008’s physics model seems to accurately model the behemoth. Those players looking for an authentic simulation of boating will find a pleasing title in Ship Simulator 2008.

Ship Simulator 2008 is a couple of features away from rivaling the Flight Simulator series: it brings almost the same level of quality to maritime operations as that particular franchise does to air travel. The graphics of the game are absolutely spectacular and each of the game’s environments is replicated in high detail, presenting realistic locales in which to do your boating fun. There are thirty missions that offer a range of different activities, although most of them just involve moving to a set of waypoints so none of the missions are challenging and some are actually tedious instead of enjoyable. Like Bus Driver, Ship Simulator 2008 is a faithful recreation that some will find extremely boring and some will find extremely realistic and engaging: it depends on whether you like driving boats. And if you do like driving boats, then Ship Simulator 2008 is a very enjoyable game.