SSN-21 SEAWOLF from Electronic Arts

Reviewed by R. Cliff Young

          Computer        Graphics        Memory          Disk Space
Minimum   386/25Mhz       VGA             4 MB            19 MB
Max/Rec.  486DX                           7 MB+

Control:  Keyboard, Mouse (recommended)
  Sound:  Sound Blaster, SB Pro, SB 16, Pro Audio Spectrum 16, PAS 8,
          Advanced Gravis Ultrasound, Roland LAPC/MT32, Roland Sound
          Canvas, MPU401 General Midi, Adlib, ATI Stereo FX, Microsoft
          Windows Sound System
  Notes:  Supports separate sound cards for digital sound and music using
          DIGPAK/MIDPAK drivers, supports Ultrasound using Ultramid

        Reviewed on: 486/33, 8MB RAM, SB 16 + WaveBlaster, Ultrasound
Reviewer recommends: 16-bit digital sound card + MIDI card

John Ratcliff's long-awaited sequel to his earlier Electronic Arts hit 688 ATTACK SUB has finally surfaced in the form of SSN-21 SEAWOLF. 688 Attack Sub gave computer submariners a chance to flex their skills in an arena of modern submarine warfare, and its modem play capability gave them a chance to test their mettle against a live, presumedly intelligent human opponent. Seawolf continues its predecessor's fine tradition, and its arrival is well-timed, coming right on the heels of the only other sub game to hit the market recently, Microprose's SUBWAR 2050. Subwar may appeal to some who like the idea of futuristic subs racing about like jet fighters with torpedoes less accurate than some of the worst performers of WWII, but for those of you thirsting for a more contemporary sub challenge, Seawolf is just what the doctor ordered.

Seawolf gives you three ways to play. You can tackle any of 33 missions on an individual basis; you can work your way through a campaign consisting of all 33 missions in the proper order; or you can engage a friend in head-to-head play over a direct (null modem) connection, by modem, or over a Netbios-compatible network. This reviewer was unable to evaluate the head-to-head options, but they appear fairly well implemented--you can even send sound effects to the other player or record your own "voice mail" to send. The prospect of engaging a live human opponent in a sub-to-sub duel is well worth checking out if you have a friend with Seawolf, but the rest of us will have to be content with the assortment of missions provided and the computer opponents bundled with them.

The background is simple--somehow things in Russia just didn't quite work out, the Soviets are back, and by the way--it's World War III! This may be a simple set up, but it's fairly well fleshed out--each mission is tied to the normal mission outline, a more candid and direct briefing from the Commander-in-Chief, and the latest breaking news stories. You'll get a pretty good idea of what you need to do for each mission, and what's at stake if you should fail. Upon mission success (or failure), you'll be debriefed by the C-in-C (if still alive!) and get a chance to see how your results were reflected in the news.

Once you embark on a mission, you find yourself out in the middle of things, 150 feet under (attack depth--the depth at which you can use missiles to attack surface vessels). Each mission takes place on its own fairly detailed terrain map (all 33 are generated during installation, using the by-now familiar "plasma cloud" method), but you'll find yourself starting out in different locations should you try the same mission more than once. Your first order of business will be to improve your situational awareness, and most likely you'll begin by deploying your towed sonar array, to improve your passive sonar capability. For most missions, caution is the key to survival--begin racing about at flank speed and sending out active pings, and you might as well paint a bulls-eye on your forehead and tape a "Kick Me!" sign to your back.

You'll find at your disposal several situational views. The overhead map display is where you'll find yourself most often, and comes in two varieties, low-res and hi-res. Hi-res only gives you more aesthetically-pleasing detail when you're zoomed in close and near a coastline, otherwise, the two modes are identical in function. You'll see sonar contacts on this map, color-coded according to their identity (friend, foe, or neutral), dimmed if they are old (lost) contacts, or gray if they are as yet unidentified. The manual promises that a legend describing the sonar contact symbology is to be found on Seawolf's "reference card" (actually a pamphlet), but such is not the case. Fortunately, such a legend does appear in the on-line hot-key help in the game, though the symbols will pretty much be simple to decipher without it. You'll also see tracks indicating the "wake" of each vessel on the map, very handy for determining their speed and course, and observing their reaction to your sub's activity.

The overhead view can get pretty cluttered, especially if you have submerged contacts fairly close to surface contacts. A 3D contour image view will provide a sonar image of the undersea floor about your sub, and is perfect for picking out enemy subs without having to sort through surface clutter. An experienced sub driver could presumedly also use this view to help exploit the undersea terrain to his advantage.

Sooner or later, someone will want to raise their sub to periscope depth and use their scope to gaze longingly at the sea, sky, and surrounding surface vessels or what's left of them. Seawolf provides a pleasing scope view, though you'll actually find yourself not needing it or using it as often as you would in a WWII sub sim. The rolling sea is beautiful, as are the various skies one will encounter (the sea at sunset, thunderstorms, etc.). The bitmapped ships are decent, though a bit magnified, making everyone seem a bit closer together than they actually are. You will see missile launches and ship explosions as you expect, but after a while, you'll tire of the fact that they're really just the same pre-rendered animations over and over again. You'll be best off sticking to attack depth (150 feet) or below. If you want, you can launch a remote camera that'll bob to the surface and show you a grayscale, continually rotating facsimile of what you'd see through your periscope.

Once you've deployed your towed sonar array and start seeing a few unidentified contacts popping up on your map, it's time to hit the waterfall display and try to figure out what they are. If you've got a supported digital sound card, you're in for a treat. The sonar waterfall display is positively the *best* aspect of Seawolf. You find yourself looking at a circular display. On the perimeter of this display, bright flashes of color indicate sonar contacts at that particular bearing--the brighter the color, the stronger the contact. As time progresses, the colors fade in to the center of the display, producing the "waterfall" effect as well as providing a history of recent sonar contacts. The display is reproduced in an "unfolded" rectangular form on the screen, which can ease the observation of a contact's heading change in relation to your sub.

You can focus on and analyze any sonar contact by moving an indicator around the perimeter of the waterfall display until you've aligned it with the sonar signal of interest. This is where having a good digital sound card will come in handy, as you will be able to hear (and distinguish between!) the various sonar contacts. If you have a stereo sound card, you win even more--a signal to the left of your current focus will sound as if it's coming from the left, and so forth. A graph to the right will show the strength of the signal, and a computer spectrum analysis will appear beneath the graph. Though your sub's sonarman will eventually analyze and identify contacts on his own, you can utilize the spectrum analysis and a handy chart in your reference pamphlet to beat your sonarman to the punch.

Sooner or later, the game's interface might get in your way. The menu structure is fairly straightforward, but the arrangement of some items is awkward from menu to menu, and you might find yourself clicking on the wrong things in a frantic, panicked haste. There are many hot-keys and they will prove of great use, but there are certain functions that practically demand a hot-key but weren't assigned one--firing torpedoes, for instance. Experienced Seawolf players will soon find themselves all but avoiding the mouse and using keystrokes to navigate the various menus quickly and reasonably consistently, especially when it comes to weapons functions.

As the captain of a Seawolf-class attack submarine, you've got quite a few weapons at your disposal. You have six missiles, two each of Harpoon, Tomahawk, and Sea Lance classes (the latter useful against subs as well as surface vessels). You have long range torpedoes, high speed torpedoes, wakehoming torpedos, and stasis torpedoes. Unfortunately, the various distinctions between weapons is not documented at all in the game's manual, though they are fairly simple to figure out. Until your torpedoes reach the limits of their guidance cables, you have an impressive amount of control over them--you can direct them to search out the nearest sub or surface target, detonate them prematurely, or send them to a waypoint.

Depending on the mission and type of enemy, you can expect anything from almost sheer ignorance of your presence and hostile intentions to a veritable sea of chaos. Some vessels seem to accept your death-dealing torpedoes with open arms, while others (especially those pesky attack subs!) have the audacity to actually take *evasive* action and then engage *you*! I'm quite impressed with the perceived A.I. of the computer opponents--doing stupid things (like broadcasting your presence with the cavitation generated by going flank speed or by pinging actively) will generally get you killed quickly, or at least dodging a mess of incoming torpedoes. You'll find yourself trying to be as quiet as possible and as deep as possible in order to get the job done and get out alive. The harder missions may very well find you trying your best to exploit the undersea terrain and thermal layers to your advantage while praying that the enemy does not.

It might take a while to notice it, but the music in this game is exceptional. It molds itself to the mood and pace of the current situation, and keeps you tense at all the right moments. It never overpowers the game. It demands a good MIDI card just as the sonar sounds demand a good digital sound card. Crew voices are also well done, rounding out the game with helpful audio feedback to your various commands and updates on your status. There is something very personal in hearing one of your poor crewmen scream, "We're all gonna DIE!" right before that third torpedo blows your sub apart.

The one flaw in the Seawolf package is the game's manual. Aside from the previously mentioned omissions (sonar contact symbology and weapon descriptions), one gets the sense that it was hastily slapped together in an effort to rush the game to market. (This actually was the case, apparently.) The manual *will* help you get started with the game, however, and once you've immersed yourself in the simulation, the manual may be conveniently forgotten.

Seawolf stands on its own, a remarkable piece of work that succeeds despite its flaws. It places the interested player in an environment where you'll really feel the pressure of being trapped in a tin can underwater, with sonar as your only eyes to the outside world. The tailored music and beautiful sonar sound effects enhance the atmosphere and heighten the illusion, and the graphics are pleasingly functional. Anyone looking for fast action and low strategy needs to look elsewhere. Anyone interested in a compelling simulation of modern submarine warfare will probably not be disappointed in Seawolf. It is the best game of its type out on the market today, and probably will be for some time.

This review is Copyright (C) 1994 by R. Cliff Young for Game Bytes Magazine. All rights reserved.