Thursday, September 09, 2010

Ship Simulator Extremes Review

Ship Simulator Extremes, developed by VSTEP and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: A variety of ships from motorboats to container ships, detailed environments and ship models, scripted campaign missions with clear objectives including towing and fire rescue, impressive weather effects, autopilot with time acceleration, multiplayer, all content available from the beginning
The Not So Good: Terrible AI ships, lacks dynamic or random missions, touchy controls, no objectives for online play, no visual damage
What say you? This feature-filled civilian boating simulation has some new features but a lot of the same limitations: 5/8

Have you ever wanted to sail a gigantic oil tanker, or any other outrageously expensive boat? Don’t lie, I can tell when you are lying to me. That’s right, of course you do. Well, good thing there are niche PC simulations to satisfy your nautical desires. Ship Simulator Extremes is the next in the line of accurate non-combat maritime adventures, previously encountered in Ship Simulator 2008 (which was actually released in 2007). What has been added in three years’ development to warrant another $40 investment?

Ship Simulator Extremes features a strong presentation for a naval simulation. Each of the ships in the large roster (there are sixty ships in all, half of which can be controlled by the player) is very detailed, from the interiors (which you can walk around) out. While the textures aren’t the most various (none of the ships suffer from rust or other signs of wear-and-tear), the ship models are quite impressive. The environments are all recognizable locales, sending you off to exotic hot-spots around the world (like Rotterdam!). While it would have been nice to be able to sail anywhere, like in a fight simulation, the tradeoff for that limitation is more accurate port geography and landmarks. I found performance to be acceptable, not great, but acceptable. There is severe pop-in, though, when you quickly turn the camera, no matter what your detail settings are adjusted to. The waves are notable, as you would expect for a game that primarily takes place at sea, and weather can be dangerously beautiful. The wakes behind the ships, however, are very noticeable textures that ruin the immersion ever so slightly. On the sound front, all of the ships seem like they are outfitted with appropriate effects, although the game world is generally lifeless. None of the scripted mission objectives are voiced, either, though you do get movies when you complete campaign scenarios. The quality of the graphics carries the immersion of Ship Simulator Extremes.

Ship Simulator Extremes simulates ships (not doubt in an extreme manner). There are thirty ships (twenty-nine if you did not pre-order) that you can personally control, in addition to thirty AI-controlled vessels you might spot navigating around each harbor. There is a great variety of civilian vessels to helm, including freighters, pilot boats, rescue boats, tugboats, yachts, coast guard vessels, life boats, motorboats, hovercraft, tankers, cruise ships, patrol boats, and a ferry. Ship Simulator Extremes features three campaigns offering a total of thirty-three missions that can be thankfully completed in any order (+1 for not locking content from users simply based on experience): tourist missions (ferries, cruise ships), the “core” missions (freighters and rescue), and a set of Greenpeace missions (our motto: to annoy) that add some real-life application to the naval shenanigans. All of the missions are highly scripted and offer the same predictable objectives each play through; this reduces the replay value of this content. A mission editor is planned for a future patch to expand the content. Most of the missions involve sailing to waypoints, with some towing, fire rescue, or goods transport thrown in for good measure. The addition of water cannons makes missions a bit more interesting, but you’re still just sailing between locations most of the time. Twelve environments are provided for your boating pleasure, from Marseille to Bora Bora to 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney. Also included is the ability to freely sail around any of the locations with any of the available ships (again, thank you for not arbitrarily locking some of the ships), but this part of the game lacks any sort of structure. The inclusion of randomly generated missions (maybe like the Armory in ArmA II) would give some purpose here. You can customize the weather conditions to make things more interesting and earn ranks for completing missions, but I’d still like a less scripted but still focused option. Cooperative multiplayer is available, complete with an online server list, but since this mode behaves just like the free roam mode, there are no missions or any real point other than knowing that the other ships are controlled by humans. While Ship Simulator Extremes does feature a lot of nice content, it’s time to complete the package.

Controlling a ship might be difficult in real life, and Ship Simulator Extremes doesn’t make it any easier. The main problem is poor controls using either the mouse or keyboard. Clicking and dragging on controls is difficult, as the individual knobs and levels have a small area on which to position your mouse. When you are attempting precision maneuvering of a large ship, this method is less than idea. The keyboard commands aren’t any better: most are “all or nothing” (full steering or no steering) providing little mid-range accuracy. Things become more precise using a joystick, but there should be a better substitute for the touchy control scheme. You are given a number of navigational aids, including a compass, radar, and nautical map. Turning speed, rudder angles, and precise speeds are also given, as are the exact distance and bearing to the next waypoint. While not totally realistic, they are helpful. You can control the ship from the cockpit, interacting directly with the real controls in the (likely) appropriate locations; this is great for increased immersion. You can also walk around the ship (hopefully you set it to autopilot first), although the level of detail seen in the ship exteriors generally does not extend inside. There are a number of tools to play with: mooring to a dock, towing other boats, or anchoring. Ship Simulator Extremes makes it fairly easy to point-and-click roped connections to satisfy mission objectives. You can also use the proper navigational lights (aground, piloting, moored, underway) and deploy smaller ships you can switch between. The missions have clearly marked green stars to indicate the next waypoint, but the objectives are occasionally vague and may leave out key instructions (like requiring you to dock). You can use autopilot as long as you aren’t near an objective, and its an indispensable tool for the long stretches of boring boating. You must stay fixed to the full-screen map view during time acceleration that obviously doesn’t allow you to gawk at the scenery that a bunch of artists worked really hard on.

I found the missions in Ship Simulator Extremes to deliver a good level of variety, at least as much as you can in a simulation where you aren’t blowing stuff up. The harbors are generally a boring, empty place (unless the scenario calls for heavy traffic) and weather is generally on the calm side, so Ship Simulator Extremes isn’t exactly extreme. The game does not feature visual ship damage, but if you ram your boat into the dock often enough, it will slowly sink into the watery deep. Not that the AI plays a significant role in the game, but it is noticeable when the computer-controlled ships get stuck on the edge of a map or use odd paths through a harbor. Or, you know, try to crash into your ship. Luckily, the AI only plays a small role in most scenarios, so its shortcomings can generally be ignored. For a civilian boating simulation, Ship Simulator Extremes delivers the goods on most counts.

Ship Simulator Extremes is certainly better than its predecessor, but not significantly so. What you do get is the typical array of new items: plenty of ships to helm and a number of detailed environments. The mission structure is generally the same, with an emphasis on waypoint navigation with the occasional tow, goods transport, or use of water cannons. I do like the tie-in with Greenpeace, lending some authenticity to your nautical adventures. Objective locations are clearly marked on your map and usually helpful descriptions of what to do next accompany them. There is a fair amount of content here, although the promise of a future editor sweetens the long-term prospects of Ship Simulator Extremes. The free roaming mode remains too free: there is really no point to it. Unfortunately, the promise of cooperative multiplayer suffers a similar downfall: while you can play with others, you have to make up your own objectives. Ship Simulator Extremes needs to add more structure (like dynamic missions) to the freeform mode and robust online play to become a truly impressive simulation. The controls feature easy access to tools for anchoring and towing, but odd mouse-driven options and limitations for the keyboard make controlling Ship Simulator Extremes a bit more cumbersome than necessary. Autopilot cuts down on some of the boredom associated with straight, unimpeded navigation of the open ocean, and the graphics are generally excellent. Still, I have a lot of the same complaints as last time, and after refreshing my memory by reading that review, I’m a little astonished by how little the series has progressed in three years. The AI tries its best to sabotage your missions, controls are iffy, and the multiplayer mode feels incomplete. Fans of ship simulations might find another good time, but more significant improvements are required to reel in an expanded audience.