688 Attack Sub

688 Attack Sub
3.5
Game Name: 688 Attack Sub
Platforms: Genesis/Mega Drive
Publisher(s): Sega
Developer(s): Electronic Arts
Genre(s): Submarine Simulation
Release Date: 1991

688 Attack Sub is a ported PC simulation allowing you to control a nuclear submarine and its key components during both peacetime, and a simulated war with the Russkies. You can choose from a total of 10 missions of increasing difficulty; varying from hiding from and evading enemy subs, to straight-out attacking them and other aquatic vessels, to bombing Moscow into the Stone Age with some Tomahawk cruise missiles and dodging the retaliation.

On the left, ol' Radar Charlie enjoys a smoke inside a pressurized bubble of recycled air.

I’m no Navy Cap’n, but this is probably the most realistic submarine warfare game you could hope to get for the Genesis. Obscenely technical nuances exist that are apparently authentic to sub combat; stuff only Tom Clancy thinks about. For example, moving under a thermal layer in the ocean distorts and reflects sonar pings, masking your submarine. No way! The rotating of your propeller blades can create partial vacuums in certain situations that make a lot of noise and give away your position. Who knew? Radar can actually pick up a periscope sticking out of the water if you’re close enough. For real? And launched torpedoes are connected by thin wires to the ship that fired them, allowing a small window for last-minute target changes or emergency self-destructs. Get right outta town! But it’s all here… and the primary reason you must get a manual before you even put the game in the console.

Yes, a grand variety of neat bells and whistles of sub combat are here, making earlier console sub sims like Silent Service seem like arcade games by comparison. Yet the game takes no time at all to explain any of these concepts to you. You’re going to have to come in knowing just what the hell you’re doing before you can even get far enough to learn through trial and error. The manual will also help explain the game’s enigmatic control boards. Like other sims before it, 688 is played entirely through the submarine’s different control stations – sonar, navigation, engines, weapons, etc. These boards contain only the most basic controls, but still constitute a lot of pretty levers and cryptic buttons, labeled with only shorthand descriptions of what they do. The primary map display, for example, is controlled by a 9-button keypad marked only with single letters. They make sense once you know what the letters stand for, but even just punching buttons and seeing what happens will produce changes too subtle, or otherwise leave you confused if you don’t have the manual.

Graphics are fairly simple, since they’re all close-up screens of control panels. The one exception is a broad portrait of your sub’s bridge that you can use to navigate the various control boards, if you so choose (shortcuts offer a faster and more efficient option). The graphics aren’t photo-realistic by any stretch, but are perfectly up to par for this assignment. One notable point is the overhead maps, which are color-shaded to show depths. They are blended very well to give exact ideas of depths, so you shouldn’t be scraping bottom. If you don’t trust the map though, the other notable point is an awesome 3-D wireframe model of the underwater surface around you, rendered in real time. It’s got a good field of vision and is amazingly useful for accurate, pseudo-first-person steering.

Since the game is a PC-port, the controls are based on the mouse. This means you’ve got to move an arrow around the screen with the direction keys and “click” with the A button. It’s not as bad as it sounds, but some people just can’t stand this method, and as such will probably want to stay away from the console game. As said before, you can navigate the stations by clicking on the designated area on the crew picture, or you can hold down the B button and press any of the 8 directions on the direction keys to jump to a station (each station has its own icon that is displayed when you press the corresponding direction, so you know what you’re selecting). It’s a scheme that works well, and certainly helps the game move along quickly in tense situations. The sound works equally well – mostly of a lot of chugging of motors, sonar pings, the usual bag. The one exception is a digital voice you can turn on or off that will announce the status messages displayed at the bottom of the screen. The voice is clear, but doesn’t radically help you. It mostly just relays confirmation of orders you just gave: “heading to periscope depth”, “torpedo launched”, etc. You can pretty much take it or leave it and it won’t matter.

The missions are challenging enough, and call upon all the submarine tricks you’re meant to know to outsmart your enemy. The AI is well-versed in tactics as well, and is good at crossing thermal layers, throwing you off, sneaking behind you, or running and regrouping when you have the upper hand. You’ll be up against worthy opponents. Another neat touch is that you can play most missions from either side (technically making almost 20 total missions).

For example, in one mission you can play as either the American 688 trying to avoid detection, or the Soviet Alfa trying to hunt it down. The Soviet sub has slightly less modern technology than its US counterparts, but it’s a close enough match, and you’ll control both subs the same way. The panels on the Alfa are different though, and here’s where logic loses to “realism” – the Soviet panels are in faux Russian Cyrillic. This means you have no damn idea what buttons do what, and literally must take a mission or two to run some trial and error field testing. Sure it’s a neat little simulation touch, but think about it: if you’re supposed to be a Russian captain on a Russian sub, wouldn’t you be able to read Russian?

Overall, the game certainly delivers what it promises. Casual gamers need not apply as there’s too much to learn about the game if you’re not planning a serious time investment. Those who want to stick it out for the long run will find a number of little strategy bits to reward them as the game goes on – a good example is the sonar computer which will analyze the returning sound of contacts and display a unique bar graph pattern. Memorize or copy down the patterns and you get a free notice of exactly what ship and type you’re chasing, far earlier than the range it takes the computer to auto-identify targets (and will also help filter out the harmless marine life that sonar picks up, or help in quickly identifying torpedoes). Simply put, 688 is a reasonably serious simulation of sub warfare, especially for 90s console systems. If that’s what you’re interested in, then it’s worth a look.

The Good

Not everything about sub warfare, but a pretty deep idea. Good AI and sub mechanics.

The Bad

Steep learning curve. Manual a non-negotiable requirement.

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