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by Sean Engemann
It's no secret that the Civilization collection is the undisputed hallmark of games bearing the name of creator Sid Meier. However, several of his other series have left an imprint on select audiences, such as the Pirates! and Railroad Tycoon titles. His work in the 1980s, under his co-founded development company MicroProse, had a heavy focus on historic warfare and simulations. Most of his published work at the time took gamers into the cockpits of fighter planes, but he did allow players to enter the naval academy with Silent Service. The game had a heavy focus on planned execution and knowing how to read the numbers, making it an engaging classic for any submarine captain at heart.
The title pays tribute to the American submarine force in the Pacific during World War II, which was codenamed Silent Service. After the events of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. naval force had the daunting task of repelling and preventing further attacks from the Japanese. In both Silent Service and its eventual sequel, you took control of a single submarine and embarked on patrol and strike missions, some of which came straight out of the historical playbook.
By today's standards, the graphics and sound of the original Silent Service are downright primitive. Even in 1985, many games outshined Sid Meier's naval title in the looks department. And while the second game of the series was a significant improvement, using 256 colors, that sort of authenticity was never the main crux of the development. Instead, the game tried to integrate as many critical elements of submarine combat as possible, while still keeping its gameplay user-friendly enough that players wouldn't have to read a thousand-page technical manual in order to dive into the action. The steady gameplay balance became the true hallmark of Silent Service and was the framework for all future submarine simulation games, such as the Silent Hunter series, which is still producing entries.
Although condensed and schematically inaccurate, you alone controlled all the critical stations of the sub. Starting from the bridge, you could access the navigation controls, the periscope, check gauges, get a damage report, and go topside to use your binoculars. During each mission, you'd find yourself constantly juggling between the stations, especially when you were able to find a good battle rhythm and your own tactics. You had to keep an ear on the sonar and an eye on your heading, striving to stay undetected by the enemy while sneaking to within torpedo range.
Trying to obtain a positional advantage while enemy ships were bearing down on you and firing torpedoes kept your fingers exercised. Onlookers would most likely find this quite confusing, considering the amount hotkeys you were required to memorize. Once you found your cadence though, you'd find yourself wanting to continually take on just one more mission to see what tricks the enemy would attempt next.
The only major issue I had when recently revisiting the game was the poor refresh rate, sometimes with a good few seconds between button press and its registration on the gauges. This forced players to anticipate rather than react to new circumstances, making the game even more challenging.
One impressive feature rarely seen from games of the time was the amount of customization, both in the choices of submarines and their unique attributes, to mission and difficulty modifiers. From the aggressive enemies, limited repairs, dud torpedoes, and more, there were enough tweaking options to make Silent Service a rare entry on the replayability charts of the 1980s.
It may be over twenty years old, but the depth of gameplay in such a simple presentation makes Silent Service worthy of a revisit. Though Silent Service used archaic 2D technology, it required your brain to use three-dimensional thinking. To this day, it stands as a testament to the virtually lost art of pure strategy in video games, making it one of the best World War games out there.
CCC Contributing Writer