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Hailing from a sailing town myself (though my one and only foray out on a yacht had me dropping equipment overboard and then misreading the depth sounding equipment so badly that we nearly ran aground) I was looking forward to Ship Simulator 2008. The game, from Dutch developer VSTEP and published by Lighthouse Interactive, is a follow up to Ship Simulator 2006 with improved graphics and a wider range of ships to control (including speedboats, tugs, oil tankers and even the Titanic).
It's a slightly unusual experience, not least as some of the missions can literally take an age to complete. While that might seem to be a strange complaint, imagine that during the majority of this time you are just sat there steering straight ahead through a realistic but ultimately monotonous seas waiting to reach your destination. This has been addressed in some cases, where you just have to reach a waypoint and are then skipped forward to be just a few minutes away from your target. But there are still many cases where it just seems to be far too much pointless sailing.
The missions are a bit hit and miss too. I enjoyed some of the search and rescue style ones but found others, particularly the towing, a bit gruelling. The Titanic mission was a bit of a disappointment, as although it's pretty cool sailing out of (an albeit modern day) Southampton and towards the Atlantic, it does take an absolute age to get anywhere. Readying myself for the excitement of the iceberg encounter I felt a bit let down that all you get is a bright clear day, calm seas and five knobbly icebergs in a line which you just have to sail close to in order to hit the waypoints. I did stick it out though and, after 45 minutes, sailed triumphantly into New York only to wedge the ship under the Brooklyn Bridge where the fated vestle promptly began to sink. Oops - though at least the salvage teams would have had an easier job.
All you have to do is steer with the wheel and adjust left and right engine power.
I liked the in-cabin view, but it makes it a lot harder to manoeuvre larger boats, and there is no real interactivity on the bridge. It would have been nice to have the actual throttle controls as part of the cabin, and some more live parts such as radar screens, dials. The ability to wander around your vessel is also a neat idea (especially on the big ships), but it would have been better if the controls had changed to those used for an First Person Shooter (FPS) for this mode rather than sticking to the standard ones which are used for moving the camera.
From a simulation perspective things are pretty straightforward. All you have to do is steer with the wheel and adjust left and right engine power. There's often a bit of careful manoeuvring to be done in harbour and when coming to a halt at a waypoint but nothing too challenging. The fact that you don't have passengers screaming as you plough into the harbour wall also helps!
I did have a few technical issues with the game, some minor, some not so. The most serious of these was the sound getting screwed up without fail at some point during every play. A high pitched whine from my speakers led to the sound having to be turned off and an already fairly dull experience took another turn for the worse. Unfortunately my tech support enquiries have not resulted in a solution to this.
The sound effects (when they work) in the game are fairly adequate, but are nothing to get excited about. Some dedicated souls in the Ship Simulator 2008 community have addressed a few of these shortcomings by developing a 'horn and radio sounds add on' which expands and enhances the in-game sounds. The radio sounds are actual recordings of channel traffic at various parts around the Solent, including a real-life mayday situation (thankfully safely resolved!). This sort of community involvement in the game is really to be welcomed and can only enhance the player experience.
On a similar note, VSTEP and Philips have got together to add Philips' amBX support to the game. This will add fan, LED and rumble effects to make sailing through a violent storm that bit more of an absorbing experience - though no water effects are included so you'll be able to leave your so'wester in the cupboard. We're hoping to get hold of some kit to give this a go so watch this space!
A 'horn and radio sounds add on' which expands and enhances the in-game sounds
VSTEP have also brought out an add-on called 'New Horizons'. This brings, amongst other things, a new sailing area - Padstow in Cornwall, eight new vessels and 20 new missions (involving the new craft and location). It also introduces free-roaming online multiplayer. Unfortunately the couple of times I tried to go online to give this a go there was no-one else on the servers so I cant really comment on how this works in practice.
Ship Simulator 2008 is obviously a game that will have a very narrow target audience, and without doubt this audience will probably be more than happy with it. It has its moments for the casual player as well and anyone with connections to the locations used might like to give it a go. The game can also be had for a pretty reasonable price (though to get both will probably set you back around GBP 30.
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