Mix FTL with a hardcore submarine sim and you get the new Steam hit, Uboat

Deep Water Studio’s Uboat, a novel World War II-themed submarine game, has been locked among the top-selling games on Steam since it was released just over a week ago. The hardcore submarine sim blends the third-person management genre — a la FTL or Dwarf Fortress — with first-person action. But the experience swings wildly from a dramatic game of cat and mouse to a comedy of errors thanks to its bugs and a thin tutorial. This is an early access game, after all, so get ready for a series of troubled patrols.

My first tour of duty with the German Kriegsmarine in Uboat’s brief tutorial started out as a simple salvage mission. Before long I was tailing a British aircraft carrier in the North Atlantic, lining up a firing solution with a full brace of torpedoes, each one roughly a third the length of my own warship. But flooding the tubes — filling them with water in order to push them out of the sub and toward the enemy — took far longer than I anticipated.

After three tries I eventually managed to get the red firing button to light up. I was finally able to set them loose. Of course, that’s when the prow of my submarine literally bounced off the hull of the British warship.

Lost in the fog, the enemy hadn’t seen me until I was directly on top of them. And, since the game hadn’t helped me to stop or slow the engines, I was still going full speed the whole time I was tinkering with the tubes. So my stealthy attack run turned into a comical collision.

The interior of U-96 can be explored in first- and third-person. The details have been lovingly rendered. I had flashbacks to grade school field trips visiting U-505 at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.
Deep Water Studio/PlayWay

That’s when the gun pit along the port side of the carrier opened up on me. There was no escape.

Disheartened, I hit the fire button anyway. All four torpedoes leapt from their tubes, but they weren’t able to travel far enough out to arm their explosives. So they just pinged harmlessly off the hull of the carrier, careened off at right angles, and started sinking. I followed them shortly thereafter, torn apart at close range by the carrier’s measly deck guns.

But this is early access, I thought. Have faith, I thought. Embrace the suck. So I started off a new game — Uboat comes with two modes of play currently, including the wan tutorial described above and a sandbox mode — and headed out on another patrol.

During idle periods of long-distance travel there’s a surprising amount of activity on board, and players are responsible for directing much of it. Here the game turns into a Sims-like experience, with the commanding officer setting the pace with regard to individual assignments. Micromanagement is key, with options to allow each individual crew member time to sleep in the bunk. Keep them on watch for too long and their capabilities begin to fade.

Keeping morale high is another balancing act. Come down too hard on your sailors and they won’t be mentally fit when you need them. Ignore their laziness and they’ll stay in bed when you need them on station.

Once contact with the enemy is made, the game flashes over into something more like a proper wargame. Inside the sub is a hive of activity, with officers observing the enemy through periscopes and engineers working at damaged equipment. Players are able to press lowly sailors into service at a given station to speed up certain tasks, but manpower and resources are limited. Uboat does a decent job of making it clear what you need to do once something breaks, while also giving you plenty of rope to hang yourself.

The player can take control of virtually every station on the ship. Man the guns to shoot down attacking aircraft, or use the targeting scope to measure the speed and range of enemy warships using period-accurate instrumentation.
Deep Water Studio/PlayWay

And that’s where the real difficulty is right now for the team at Deep Water Studios. Making a digital replica of a working German submarine is a daunting challenge, but showing players how to fight with a German submarine is a different challenge entirely. Thankfully, a recent patch mercifully added English voiceovers, so at least I know what my crew members are talking about. But otherwise, it’s all been a process of trial and error.

German submarines were notoriously fragile. They depended on stealth and wolfpack tactics to be effective. As the game itself says, life as a submariner was deadly. Only one in 10 survived the war. Unfortunately, in its current state, Uboat fails to teach players how to run silent and sneak up on the enemy. It also doesn’t have clear hooks for collaborating with allied AI-controlled subs nearby.

So, on that second patrol I was eventually spotted by a British naval group including two sub-hunting destroyers. I dove as far as I could and shut down all my engines, watching helplessly on the tactical map as the destroyers circled directly above my position.

Eventually, the two big ships collided and stuck together, one massive vessel dragging the other sideways by the nose. Hours ticked by. My oxygen supply began to run low. Rather than surface and allow them to destroy me, I simply restarted the game.

On my third mission, I tried to keep a low profile. While I succeeded at sea, I eventually wandered too close to the shoreline. That’s where I was intercepted by a massive British seaplane on the way back from my assigned sector. Luckily, I was able to shoot it down with a deck-mounted anti-aircraft gun before it did significant damage. As a reward I watched as the crippled aircraft hit the water at an oblique angle, then bounced around on the surface like a rubber duck before winking out of existence. I sailed over to where the wreckage should be and found nothing.

Uboat also includes a sophisticated mapping table, with a compass and drawing tools. Players can map out their own missions, and then monitor their progress in real-time.
Deep Water Studio/PlayWay

But, through my efforts I had earned a bit of experience. Crews in Uboat can level up, and the ship itself earns money that can be used to purchase supplies and make improvements. So I headed back to port to cash in my winnings. Unfortunately, as I pulled into safe harbor, my ship suddenly stopped responding. The rudders flipped about, but the ship simply wouldn’t steer.

Changing from the world map to the close-in third-person perspective, I found that my submarine had somehow managed to beach itself about eight kilometers inland. I’d gotten the 770-ton warship hung up on a tree. Switching back to the world map, the icon for my submarine suddenly began to rise into the air, hovering giddily in orbit over the north of France.

That’s when I had to walk away.

People are clearly having fun with Uboat. I found one YouTube video with over a 100,000 views where someone manages to get a nice attack run in against a helpless group of merchant vessels. Good for them.

And good for the team at Deep Water Studio. They went from modest Kickstarter success all the way to the top of Steam. They’re keeping the game concept narrow, focusing on a single submarine and telling its story in as much detail as they can manage. But the game is very clearly early access, based on the bugs I encountered. I’m interested in learning about how to conduct operations with the U-96, but I’m just not in a place where I can dedicate time and energy to brushing up on my 1940s era naval tactics. It would be nice if the game was able to help me out with that.

I’m stepping away from Uboat for now. I can tell that there’s a brilliant experience lurking in its depths. Here’s hoping that this early success is a sign of big improvements to come.

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