A recent addition to the long list of ship simulation titles is Ship Simulator: Maritime Search and Rescue, a simulator that puts you at the helm of a few German Maritime Search and Rescue vessels.
Released in mid-2014 (remember, we here at Mudspike aren’t firsterer, we are betterer), Ship Simulator: Maritime Search and Rescue sat in my Steam wish list for a year or so before the price point fell enough for me to be enticed by it. The basic premise of the game is that you are a relatively new captain on one of two German rescue ships: the Hermann Marwede or the Harro Koebke based on the North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts respectively.
Before we get too far into this review, let me take a minute to make a comment. There are some games that have a price point at which your investment of time becomes worth it, because your time is worth something. SS:MSAR is probably near the bottom end of the spectrum for this threshold, although it is admittedly variable according to the type of sims and games you play. As a largely civil flight sim, truck sim, sub sim kind of guy, this title was probably slightly less disappointing for me than for someone looking for a bit more action in their games. The fact that I had to write this paragraph does foreshadow that there are some pretty bad aspects to this sim. As we will see.
There are some. Like, nine if you are being generous by including the audio options. You can set your graphics quality, resolution, language, and mouse sensitivity – but that’s it. So if you have a controller, you just have to hope that whatever the default bindings are will work for you. I played the game with an XBox Windows controller, and it works, but barely. You cannot assign any commands to anything, and you have to accept that you’ll be using the keyboard for most things.I was hoping I’d be able to use my split throttle HOTAS for differential power to the left and right engines to include reverse. Nope. Can’t do it. It is a horrible, horrible oversight or laziness not to include the option to map controls.
The game offers a tutorial that introduces you to the ̶p̶r̶o̶b̶l̶e̶m̶s features of the game. The entire game is kind of story mode driven in that you move through missions sequentially and different characters pop-in and out giving you advice. The voice acting and general dialog is pretty corny in spots, but that actually doesn’t really bother me, that’s what games do. The fact that the game is story driven is actually very nice, something I’ve thought some of our flight sims could benefit more from. Cut scenes introduce the missions, and instantly you can tell the 3D and environmental graphics are actually quite good. The views include the usual suspects: chase, float by, first person, external pan/zoom, etc. Moving around the boat is easy via the WASD keys, but the interior of the boats aren’t super detailed, nor can you explore the entire ship, just things like the bridge, break room, and some external decks.
As mentioned, this type of game/sim usually appeals to a specific type of game playing individual. In the case of SS:MSAR, ship and boating enthusiasts would probably fit the demographic that would purchase this game. The disappointment for us starts as soon as you step into the bridge view. The displays are blank, the controls can’t be clicked. There is no radar, no moving map, no nothing. It is as though your ship is running with AC/DC power disconnected since everything is dark. Not a good sign.
Most of your time will be spent in the external view, which has a user interface (that can’t be removed..grrr for no clean screenshots!) surrounding the screen from which you can see things such as water depth, ground speed, course, wind, sea state and direction. In the upper left corner is a microphone icon which you can use to call your dispatch and communicate with other vessels that are part of the mission. The upper right has a view menu. The bottom left has a rudder position indicator, graphical depth gauge, and inset moving map. The bottom right shows the position of the wheel, the three engine controls, and the bow thruster. Sounds pretty complex and appealing right? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
99 Problems and the Graphics Ain’t One
So even before moving the ship, expanding the local area map shows some obvious problems for this simulator that takes place in a maritime environment. The chart has no labels. No names, no geographic labels. For God’s sake – no charted depth readings. The ports are not named, the islands are not named. The only icons are your ship, your assigned area of operations (green box), your home base, and the target ship if you are on a SAR mission. So when the nice dispatcher radios you with directions, you get a green box that you know to go to, but when she mentions geographic features, you have no way to cross reference what she is talking about.
The tutorial is straightforward and introduces you to the mechanics of operating the ship. But initial impressions, confirmed quickly by the follow-on missions, show there is no depth (pun intended) to the ship driving model. Keep in mind, this is not a VStep Ship Simulator title, the publishing house responsible for Ship Simulator 2008 and Ship Simulator Extremes, so don’t get fooled by the title. I found it absolutely incredible that sea states only affect the pitching and rolling of the deck – there is no wind drift, there is no current. You can literally park yourself in the middle of the harbor with 25 knots of wind, and the boat will not move. It makes docking, approaching ships, and all maneuvering completely non-challenging. As well, there is no damage incurred for running into anything, even at full speed. Yes, you can run aground onto the beach and get stuck, but if you run aground at sea, you won’t take damage or sink. The complete lack of the requirement to use advanced boat handling skills will pretty much sink this title for ship enthusiasts.
The graphics of the islands and port areas are actually quite good, as is the all important depiction of waves, wakes, and sea states. The froth, waves, surface texture, and even the sky textures when things get stormy are exceptionally moody and set the right tone. Some of the later missions have you beating into very heavy seas with some nice swells that the boat pitches through. It’s just a darn shame that once you pull up on the scene of your rescue, barely any ship handling is required other than getting in range to throw tow lines or bring your firefighting cannons to bear. The one big missing item is people on the islands, it is almost as though a neutron bomb went off over Germany since there aren’t any people visible except for the ones involved in your mission. Lighting changes with brilliant sunsets to gloomy, rainy days that have a nice raindrop effect on the camera lens. It’s almost like the development studio put a lot of work into the graphics and a fair amount of work into the missions, but just decided not to model advanced handling physics.
There are sequences of missions set up sort of like campaigns for both the North Sea and Baltic Sea that run in phases. Each mission has around five sub-missions that tell a story and have fairly good continuity. For instance, you may go help a ship in distress, pump it out, and tow it to a mooring buoy before being called away to another rescue. Later, another mission might have you go and finally tow the ship you moored back to port, so there is a good feeling of being involved in a real sequence of events. The missions include things like searching for persons overboard, assisting flooding ships, putting out fires, escorting, and a few others. The missions can be a bit tedious, but enthusiasts that can get past the complete lack of the need for advanced ship handling will probably enjoy the missions. You know who you (we) are – train sim enthusiasts and the like. Some of the missions are harder than others. For instance, there is one mission where you are sent to aid a fishing vessel and you must train your firefighting hoses on the ship while you escort it back. The pitching of the deck and the requirement to maintain pace with the ship while simultaneously keeping your water streams spraying on the ship to keep it cool are a pretty good challenge. If actual wind drift and current had been implemented, as well as damage penalties for hitting objects, the missions would really be quite challenging.
Some of the missions will require you come alongside to deliver items such as pumps to try to keep a boat afloat. There are some nice mechanics to the game such as assuming the first person view to throw lines to other boats, then you move to a cleat, or if you are alongside a dock you can point to a bollard to tie up. Towing physics are OK, but there isn’t any focus on proper towing technique or special considerations.
There is a bit of interaction with the dispatcher and other vessels in that you can make various selections of what you want to say over the radio to them. The choices don’t seem to ultimately affect the direction the mission goes, but the ability to ask questions in the sequence you want in order to obtain information is nice.
Another neat feature is the ability to launch a small daughter boat (the Verena and Notarius) from your larger vessel. This is a requirement for some missions and there is a nice first person perspective from both the helm and the side of the boat for plucking swimmers from the water. Unfortunately, the boat handling of the smaller rescue vessel is pretty poor, with a tendency to skid around at low speed as though it were on ice instead of plowing through water. The cut scene of the boat loading and unloading is nice, but there is no skill involved to approaching the loading ramp for retrieval.
Fortunately, for some of the longer missions, there is an option to run the sim at 4x speed. Some of the longer sub-missions can last up to an hour, even with time accel on, so there is a lot of gameplay when you multiply the two geographic areas (North Sea & Baltic Sea) x the missions x the sub-missions. A lot of the gameplay is repetitive, but the story does tend to keep you interested in seeing what is coming next. In keeping with the frustrating lack of wind drift and/or current, there are some other nautical missteps that are kind of aggravating for a sailor like myself. The sailboats sit around tied up to the dock with their sails raised, and on the missions such as the one where you must escort a sailboat back to port, it sails at impossible angles to the wind (like dead into it). Again, not a big deal, but for ship/maritime type enthusiasts, these things are glaring.
So it’s really hard to recommend this title because of some of the flaws I’ve mentioned, and that pains me because clearly a LOT of work went into this sim/game. Like I said, at the right price-point, it might be something you’d like to give a whirl because it does have really nice graphics, wave physics, and the missions are well constructed and complete. If you can overlook the lack of controller assignment capability, the lack of a damage model, and the non-existent wind and current modeling, there is some gameplay value here. With a bit more development, this game could have been made shipshape, instead, it is sort of….well, dead in the water.
Chris “BeachAV8R” Frishmuth
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