“Are you here for business or pleasure?” a voice barked at me on a scorching hot Tuesday morning in Austin. It was early August, and I was standing outside my hotel, scrambling to find my prescription sunglasses to protect my delicate northerner eyes.
Once I finished scrambling and had completed my attempt at nonchalantly leaning against the hotel’s granite facade, I looked back at my new friend: he was a leathery, tanned man with an open collar and a goatee, maybe in his late 50s, who wound up explaining the business he’d built turning shipping containers into public housing. That’s why he was in Austin, he said, and the first class service on the way to Austin had been a joke. Eventually I explained I was here, at the blasting height of the Texas summer, to learn about submarines.
Wargaming is adding submarines to World of Warships, and the big question on my mind while I was at this event was will war gamers necessarily care? World of Warships is, more than anything else, a free-to-play shooter dressed up in period naval costume. The addition of submarines isn’t going to make this game more of a sim than it ever has been, right?
Well, right. It isn’t. But it does make it a significantly more interesting game and opens up many strategic possibilities.
Here’s how subs work: As with the limited time steampunk event last Halloween, the submarines coming to World of Warships can cruise at three depths. On the surface, they behave like small destroyers armed only with torpedoes. Hit the C key, and you descend to periscope depth. This makes your boat tougher to spot, but it begins consuming oxygen, and your top speed is capped at half of what you can do on the surface. Tap C again, and you submerge completely, rendering yourself undetectable – and unhittable – to all but purpose-built sub-hunters (which we’ll get to later). While submerged, you lose vision on everything except what’s lit up by your hydrophone, which casts a creepy, green pulse of “light” that illuminates the seafloor and the hulls of nearby ships.
Submarines are the most fragile class of craft in World of Warships, and so my usual approach of placing an autopilot marker in an objective circle at the opening of a match and then sailing in with guns ablaze wasn’t viable when we began our two-hour hands on demo in Wargaming’s test lab. The better strategy, it turns out, is to prowl around the periphery of the fracas, looking for stragglers. I’d spend as much time on the surface as possible, drop to periscope depth when I spotted enemies, and then try to approach from the opposite direction they were firing in. Subs are in their natural element at periscope depth: after firing a pair of torpedoes, you can send a sonar pulse forward. If you aim just right, you can have it ping the fore or aft of your target’s hull, and the torpedoes will adjust course to deliver their explosive payloads.
This worked fairly well, but I was playing with fellow members of the press who, like me, were getting their hands on submarines for the first time. And even so, I still found that I had to play much more cautiously than I normally do in Warships. While subs can make themselves effectively invisible to most other ships, players in destroyers are tasked with sub-hunting. If an enemy submarine has been detected, destroyers will see a circle appear on the ocean surface, giving a general idea of where the sub is lurking. If they sail to that location, a smaller circle will appear in a new location, giving destroyers a kind of mini-game of sub-hunting to play, zeroing in on the location. Once the destroyer reaches the last, smallest circle, it will automatically unleash a barrage of depth charges, which are almost guaranteed to kill the sub. From the sub’s perspective, the best thing to do once a destroyer is on your trail is to head back toward friendly forces and hope they take out your pursuer or the destroyer calls off the hunt.
The way submarines have been implemented in Warships is still subject to change. Wargaming is going to be following a lengthy testing schedule before they show up in the main servers, and when they do it’ll be in their own separate battle mode. But we had enough time to experiment with them and talk with the developers who have been hard at work building them to get a pretty good overall sense of what they’re adding to the game. As I mentioned above, World of Warships isn’t a sim and it’s not meant to be, but there’s a certain amount of authentic feel that Wargaming wants to capture with its ship combat game, and that extends to submarines.
James D. Hornfischer, the author of five books covering WWII naval action – most recently The Fleet at Flood Tide (2016, Bantam) – was on hand during our visit to Wargaming. He’s serious about his naval history, but it turns out he’s a big fan of World of Warships as well. He spoke for a while about the stress of running a submarine in the World War II era, how the craft of ‘submarinership’ began the war in its infancy and developed into a full-fledged navy fighting force over the course of a few scant years. After discussing the multitude of hazards and miseries that submariners endured during the war, Hornfischer talked a bit about how his own writing process involves frequent breaks for World of Warships.
“My wife will come in and ask, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be writing?'” Hornfischer said. “And I’ll say, yeah.”
But those breaks, he said, give him a chance to take in the drama of Warships‘ fastidiously-modeled vessels, and the thrill of landing long-range shots on an enemy’s hull. He said that while the game itself makes no attempt to be historically accurate in its portrayal of war or any particular battle – Warships is decidedly arcadey – there’s something about seeing the massive ships in combat that he finds evocative.
And so too with the new submarines. This isn’t Cold Waters or Command: The Silent Service after all. Instead, Wargaming is developing a set of mechanics that fit within its approachable game that evoke rather than simulate the experience of running a mid-century submersible. The three depth settings feel confining at first, but they allow subs to click with the rest of the game in an intelligent and interesting way – something the team has been working on with carriers since their formal introduction earlier this year.
Initially, Wargaming will be introducing nine subs to the game, beginning with the US, Germany, and the USSR getting three each. Japanese subs will follow later. Factions gain access to the first sub at Tier VI, and a second model at Tier VIII, and a third at Tier X. For the US, those are the USS Cachalot at VI, the Salmon at VIII, and the Balao at X. Germany will see the U-69 at VI, the U-190 at VIII, and the U-2501 at X. Russia gets the S-1 at VI, the L-20 at VIII, and the K1 at Tier X.
Play-testing will begin with a Super Test phase in the coming weeks, Wargaming says, followed by a chance for all players to try submarines during the upcoming Fall PvP event. Closed tests will gradually expand until they decide subs are ready for the live client, with tuning done along the way to make sure everything keeps working as more players find new ways to break things.
I left Austin pleasantly surprised with what I’d seen. While Warships‘ forthcoming submarines aren’t going to be what diehard sim fiends are looking for by any stretch, they are going to add some meaningful strategy to an already deceptively tactical game. They’re fragile and lethal, and in the hands of skilled players I can see them becoming a real nightmare on World of Warships‘ open waters.