Review - Aces of the Deep (DOS, 1994)
The great dichotomy of the gaming industry lies between the gamer and the grognard. These two extreme ends of the market are enough to drive designers, programmers, and marketing types to their wit's end.
The gamer enjoys games which are entertaining, fast-paced and engaging. Eye candy, music and sound are major concerns. In short, the gamer is looking for games which look good, sound good and are entertaining.
The Grognard is looking for realism. Realistic models, accurate weapons and sensor data, and historic accuracy are the areas of interest for the Grognard. It can be ugly and awkward, but if it is realistic, and he can get into the guts of it, the Grognard will be satisfied.
Bridging this gap is a significant challenge. Few games even try; the gulf between Gamer and Grognard is a daunting one. Of those that do try, few succeed. Every once in a great while, a game comes along which appeals to both crowds, and Aces of the Deep (AoD) is one of those games.
The team at Dynamix (led by Mike Jones, Langdon Beeck, and Peter Lukasczuk) has accepted the challenge, and they produced a game that has bridged the gulf with and done so with style. AoD can range from a quick and flashy game to a deep and satisfying simulation (with stops at most of the conceivable points in between) at the player's discretion. It offers a range of options in reality settings, and scenarios which can range from single ship actions, to single war patrols, to a campaign game which can stretch to cover the length of the war and every major submarine class and weapon of the Kriegsmarine.
On the Gamer to Grognard scale, I fall rather towards the Grognard end. Nonetheless, I was very impressed with the amenities of this game. The graphics (standard VGA) are very well done indeed. They are rendered in standard VGA to enhance performance, but are so well done that they can compete comfortably with much higher resolution SVGA schemes. The scenes are appropriate and well executed (though I sometimes find them a little bit light for the subject matter).
The sound effects are quite good as well. The designers have gone so far as to allow the user to select whether the principal officers address the commander (i.e. the player) in English or German. The music is very good as well. The selections are appropriate (and historically accurate), and it definitely adds to the atmosphere to have the Sound Room play Beethoven (first movement of the 9th Symphony, with other selections ranging from Bach to Jazz) while in transit or patrolling on station.
When it comes to the reality of the simulation, this former submariner can find no great faults. In fact, the level of reality is the element which really drew me into the game, and it has retained both my interest and attention. Doing an end-around to get ahead of a convoy, and then ducking under (or around) the escorts to get into the heart of the convoy before firing torpedoes demands close attention and a fair share of luck. I then get to enjoy my "fair share" of duds and premature detonations, and the occasional glory of seeing a fish go home and sink a target. Then comes the delicate operation of getting away from the escorts. Avoiding the just wrath of the escorts once you have ravaged their convoy is a demanding task.
Other significant details include radio messages to and from BdU (Befehlshaber der U-Boat, the title of Admiral Karl Dönitz's command center for the Unterseeboots), and contact reports from other boats on patrol. Patrol zones are assigned in accordance with a facsimile of the actual chart used by the Kriegsmarine's Unterseeboot Waffe (this chart allowed both the Boats at sea and BdU to pass georeferences without using Lat/Lon format) in WWII. The manual is also very good, providing a solid overview of the German U-Boat campaign of the Second World War.
The only problems I found with AoD were a handful of "undocumented features," which allow you to freeze your system (requiring the dreaded RESET button) or to teleport your boat from the vicinity of Kiel to the Black Sea. And while these problems were non-trivial (and indeed, quite vexing at times), my habit of periodically saving my games while in progress prevented these incidents from being catastrophic. If Dynamix makes good on correcting these bugs, I will have nothing but praise for this game. Even so, I found the game enjoyable and engrossing enough to forgive several noteworthy stability issues.
Recommendation: if you have any interest in the Battle of the Atlantic from the German perspective, or submarine warfare in the Second World War, whether as a Gamer, a Grognard, or as a student of history, this game is a must. For those who are dilettantes, it should prove to be well worth your time and money. I anticipate that AoD will stay on my hard drive for a long time to come, and that folks passing my window in the night will be hearing phrases in German, ending with " . . . Herr Kauleu" for a long while to come.