Game Systems Handheld Entertainment Nintendo DS/DSi/3DS

Steel Diver (3DS)

The Nintendo 3DS has been out here in the United States for just over a week at the time of writing, so I finally feel comfortable reviewing the unit and some of its games.
Of all the launch title games, one alone stood out to me as the “must have” title on launch day – and that was Steel Diver; a first party submarine simulation game.

Oddly enough, we first saw Steel Diver years ago as a possible proof of concept game demo on the Nintendo DS.  Since then, the game has been fleshed out, “Nintendoized” and of course put into 3D.

Pre-launch feelings about the game seemed quite black and white;  those like me couldn’t wait to get my hands on it – while the rest of the folks wanted nothing to do with it.

Post-launch feelings seemed to confirm the game fit more into the latter category – with many people feeling very disappointed and let down by the title (especially with the $40 price tag).

So how did the game fare with me?

Let’s start off by discussing exactly what Steel Diver is – since I believe many people had incorrect expectations of the title leading to disappointment.

Steel Diver is a three-part title.  There is an action game (periscope hunt), a simulation game (the mission based side scroller) and a tactical turn-based style game (a cat and mouse sub hunt).  In defense of those unhappy with the title, it IS an odd combination.  I think most people believed it to be an action game (most side scroller shooter games are) and to have two of the three modes being more strategy – well, that surely pissed some folks off.

The periscope hunt game is visually stunning and a great little score attack style game.  As you would expect, the view in out the periscope and you shoot down enemy ships with your torpedoes.  The periscope is controlled through motion – via the gyroscope/accelerometer in the 3DS.  It gives the game a very authentic feel, much like some of the arcade submarine games (or an actual submarine for those like myself who have actually BEEN on one).  As with most Nintendo score attack style games, the mode is definitely addictive and has the “just one more time” quality to it.  The water effects are simply awesome (especially during the night mode of the game) and the 3D works exactly the way it should – without you even realizing it.

The sub hunt style turn-based game is a fun little distraction.  The first mistake is thinking that it’s just Battleship (it’s not) while the second mistake is thinking it is a two player only game (it’s not).  Each player puts his ships into a secret formation on the hex grid.  Each player uses his sub to hunt down the other ships – using sonar and a bit of luck.  Once you find ships with your sub, you close in for the kill.  Ships attacked by the sub have no real means of defense and you cannot evade or otherwise lend action to the scene.  This is the most unfortunate part of the game – since being able to do some sort of evasion or anti-torpedo evolution would have made those scenes a lot more fun.  Ships located right above the sub are allowed to drop depth charges at one of three depths – and the sub is allowed one chance to change depths before the charge drops.  This allows a 1-in-3 chance of damaging the enemy sub if your ships were previously under attack.  This is all luck, but still fun.  To win, you have to destroy all the enemy ships or kill the enemy sub – and you have 100 turns to do it.  This game 100% should have been playable online with your friends – and that was a wasted opportunity on Nintendo’s part (you can, of course, play this game locally).

Graphically speaking, this mode of play is appealing – despite the serious overuse of cut scenes between moves.  The 3D ranges from “stunning” to “average” (I love the depth charge sequence).  Because the map itself is a 2D entity, it doesn’t lend itself as well to the 3D motif, but it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment.

This leaves us with the most misunderstood part of the game – the side scrolling missions.

This game mode is a strategic simulation game.  Submarines do not travel at 200mph with unlimited torpedoes and stop-on-a-dime/turn-on-a-nickel controls.  As a simulation, you are going to be dealing with the submarine’s slow lumbering pace and the unique skills required to think ahead to get the submarine to behave the way you want.

This is similar to comparing a fast arcade action flight game like Afterburner and contrasting it to say, Microsoft Flight Simulator;  they are two different games that cater to two different audiences.  The missions mode is more the latter than the former.

Anyone that knows anything about submarines (I spent over 5 years on one myself) knows that submarines are not joystick controlled bathtub toys, but a complex system dealing with rudder controls, propeller speeds and ballast based depth control.  All three of these are represented pretty accurately in Steel Diver – and each one has their own control mechanism on the touch screen.

A lot of people take issue with the controls NOT being mapped to the d-pad and/or buttons but in the really real world, this makes sense.

On a real submarine, you use a throttle control that you put into position and it stays there until you want a change (propeller speed).  You control depth via how much water/air you have in the ballast tanks (along with some basic rudder control).  Both of these controls are done via drag-and-stop sliders with center points that indicate a zeroed out setting (no speed, no depth control).

The rudder is controlled with a steering wheel style control that is also rotate-and-stop (again, much like a real sub) with the ability to tap-and-hold to re-center the stick.

These three controls (along with a button for anti-torpedo air release) make up the entire control system for the submarine.  Putting a sub’s throttle in “back 1/3” from “all ahead flank” does NOT make the sub stop on a dime and start moving backwards.  Depth and rudder changes operate in a similar way.  This requires foresight and in some cases, repeated experience with the mission maps you are navigating to understand exactly how to pilot the submarine to complete the mission successfully (again, much like a real submarine captain).

In both periscope hunt and the missions mode, damage can occur on your sub, causing water leaks which require you “tap” repeatedly to repair.  Hey, be damn lucky they don’t make you band the pipes like they do on a real sub. 🙂

I will say that if you did not know what you were in for – or strategic simulation just isn’t your thing – I can COMPLETELY understand NOT liking the missions mode of Steel Diver – which effectively removes at least a third of the appeal of the title – making it a more expensive proposition.

So, in summary – what we have here is a trifecta of gaming;  three very different games (action, strategic simulation and turn based) in one box – with average to amazing use of 3D.  There is some replayability here along with some time to put into the missions mode where you may have to play some maps more than once to get the kind of score you are looking for.

As a launch title, I believe it does the job, which is showing off 3D technology and offering experiences for both simple and complex type game play.  Where it falls short is in the proper conveyance of the game play in mission mode (where I think a lot of people got pissed) and the lack of online multiplay (which I believe every single launch title should have included – so that’s not Steel Diver’s fault alone).

This is not a game I would recommend for everyone.  Granted there is SOMETHING for everyone in the box, but not everything in the box is for everyone – which will drastically reduce the value of the game to many folks; certainly not commanding the launch day price of $40 to all gamers.

With many folks being “disappointed” with the game, surely a used copy at a much more reasonable $32.99 will be available at Gamestop by the time you read this – allowing a risk-free “rental” of the title to allow you to properly evaluate on your own.

As a reviewer, starting with this review, I’m no longer judging a game’s value by how much it costs.  There are several reasons for this – but two come to mind.

Death and taxes are considered guarantees in life – but I also submit that “falling game prices” are also guaranteed.  With minor exceptions, EVERY game goes down in price within 3-6 months (if not sooner). The game itself, however, doesn’t change when the price does.

Second, everyone’s needs are different.  Some people will buy ANY game with “Halo” in the name – regardless of price and/or quality – and they will smile when they pay $70 for the pleasure of doing so.  Other folks won’t pay more than $20 for any game – no matter how great it is.  My point: price is relative to the person.  The value of a game cannot and should no be determined by price.  Bottom line?  Everyone would like games to be cheaper – no matter how much they cost; if they are $40, you wish they were $30 … if they are $30, you wish they were $15 … if they are $1, you wish they were free.

That being said, I PERSONALLY believe $40 in general is a bit pricey for a handheld game – but when you’re an early adopter of any technology,  you’re going to pay a premium – and you know that before you go in.

I like Steel Diver.  I enjoy all three modes of play and I find the use of tech fun and refreshing.  It is not a game I’d be embarrassed to show friends and family and it has something for everyone in the box.  I highly recommend a “rental” (either a Gamestop used purchase or an actual rental) because it isn’t a game for everyone and you need to make sure it meets your needs before plunking down the cash.  For those that enjoy these types of games, you will not be disappointed.

About Shane Monroe

Shane R. Monroe has been doing technical and social commentary writing for over 20 years. Google+

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