It may not be everyone's cup of tea - heavy duty military simulations of this sort never are - but with the original Silent Service selling half a million worldwide, it's unlikely MicroProse are going to find themselves out of their depth with this one. (And - would you believe it? - it's fun too!)
You know the feeling. Every once in a while a game pops up that you just adore completely, and nothing any disbelievers might say will alter your fascination. For me, this year's beauty is Silent Service II. Matt hates submarine games, Stuart hates submarine games, I know a lot of people also find them unbearably tedious. I'm not listening though. Honestly, this is special.
Here's one reason why; at one stage, I was enjoying joint command of a sub with a pal, and we were cowering at 300 fathoms with all engines off, and half the Japanese Imperial Navy above and around us, bleeping sonar across the Pacific looking for our sorry butts. We actually sat there (in the safety of my living room, you understand, but with the lights turned off) whispering to one another in case the blighters heard us...
Okay, yes, the idea of sitting in silence during a computer game, doing absolutely nothing, may sound a bit daft. But it's the extraordinary tension created that counts here, rather than the level of activity - if you give it the time and allow it to, this is the sort of game that'll grab you slowly by the gut, almost so you don't notice, and then relentlessly tighten its grip. Before you know it, a ridiculous number of hours will have flown by and you'll be well and truly hooked.
Of course, it helps that this isn't just any old sub game. While the original, award-winning and really rather wonderful Silent Service stuck you in the North Atlantic up against the Nazi menance, this one has you fighting off the Japs in the Pacific theatre. The game lasts from the Pearl Harbour debacle through to the altogether satisfying defeat of the Japanese empire in 1945. There are a number of ways to play - individual battles, individual patrols, practice - to get you into it, but the more experienced submariner will soon look on these as mere exercises. In the more comprehensive War Career option you'll be attempting something rather more difficult - spending a long time at sea and simply managing to stay alive.
Initially, you'll find yourself based in an available American sub pen, trotting off on missions to hunt out enemy convoys and log yourself up a healthy tonnage of shipping. It's up to you to choose a patrol area, then bimble over there are start sinking the suckers. Using the keyboard, you guide your sub through territorial waters until the computer cuts in to inform you that Japs are about. The machine will let you know how close you can get to the villain without being spotted, but after that you're on your own.
The patrol section, it has to be said, is a bit easy, in that all you need do is move a dot across a map of the Pacific until you happen to bump into something, but it makes for a nice intro for submarine game-phobes - at least they can't complain that nothing is happening! There's no notion of navigation in here at all, which is good news - if there were, everyone would start complaining that the whole thing is too realistic, and therefore far too boring.
There's still enough in this section to get you going though. If you find yourself attacked (there's a quick tip or two coming up here) try this: first off, get yourself underwater, down deep and out of sight. Just hide. Once the enemy see you, your chances of survival are sliced by a good 50 percent. A good captain will check out his charts, sneak up on the baddies and then bang off a few torpedoes, then get the hell out of there. Submarine warfare, as you'll soon find out, favours the cautious rather than the valiant.
Wasting merchant shipping is child's play, but when it comes to disposing of 30,000 tons worth of aircraft carrier, the stakes change considerably. One battle against a military convoy can take hours of cat and mouse tactics before you even get a shot in, and this - stepping out of the all-enveloping game and into the real world for a minute - is where a hard-nosed buying decision cuts in. If the notion of taking three hours to kill one sprite turns you off completely then SSII is not going to find its way into your games collection. Ignore the high mark at the bottom of the page - this simply isn't your sort of game. For those of you who do fancy a hard-nosed challenge though, Silent Service II is worth £35 of anyone's cash. I found the killing to be enthralling, yes, but it was all the stalking, hiding and escaping that made it so.
It's a highly emotionally charged sort of game, you see. The Japanese Navy in WWII was all-too-capable of taking out unwary submariners with little trouble, so once you hear those sonar pings bouncing off your boat (submarines are always 'boats', never 'ships', the hefty and informative manual tells us) you'll use every nasty, devious trick available to avoid having to start the game all over again.
To repeat my basic point yet again then, if you can stomach the initial slowness, Silent Service II potentially offers as many hours of gameplay as anything you'll ever see. As with most MicroProse games, this is historically accurate (to a worrying fanatical degree) and will actually teach you quite a lot while you're playing it (though it's not information you'll find much use for in normal civilian life). Also, to the publisher's credit, everything is very well presented and slick, the aforementioned manual worthy of a place on any bookshelf, while the handy keyboard guide proves, er, handy. All this adds up to a heavy-duty but thoroughly enjoyable military simulation that seems to have struck a cool balance between realism and excitement. I love it - but that doesn't necessarily mean that you will.
Uppers: Engrossing and accurate simulation that could well take over your life for a few weeks. Well presented (lovely manual!), historically accurate (at least, it claims to be and who am I to know any better?) to a worrying degree, and perfectly capable of getting hooks of steel into you if you give it half a chance.
Downers: Well, it's a sub game - the slowest, initially most boring-looking sort of simulation - and some people hate them. If you're not into military strategy, this has little chance of changing your mind.
Silent Service II's target audience will not be disappointed. If you've been waiting for this, buy it.