Having surfaced alongside the North American launch of the Nintendo 3DS, those in Europe keen to descend into the murky depths of the ocean with Steel Diver have had to wait until this week to get their hands on the side-scrolling submarine warfare sim.
Whilst such a game, whose majority revolves around the player commandeering three differing submarine vessels and navigating them through a series of hazard-filled courses, doesn’t really seem to require a central premise, Nintendo has seen fit to provide one.
The year is reportedly 19XX and an undisclosed power-hungry rogue nation has invaded its neighbouring countries, which in turn threatens the stability of the entire world. Therefore, in aiming to preserve peace, a secret submarine fleet has been formed, chosen from the best of the world’s navies – the Steel Divers.
Steel Diver splits itself into three distinctly varied underwater portions: Missions, Periscope Strike and Steel Commander. The former is where the bulk of the content lies, with players able to first make their way through a training course to get used to the heavily used touchscreen controls. Two virtual levers are used for forward and reverse propulsion as well as surfacing or increasing underwater depth, a wheel allows you to alter the angle of the submarine and, lastly, additional virtual buttons are used to launch torpedoes and utilise your masker to hide you from guided missiles.
Apologies if that sounded confusing, but regrettably it is. Your initial attempts at playing the game will more than likely see you careering off into the surrounding environment, unwittingly drifting towards mines and even ramming enemy submarines – all causing your submarine’s health bar to dwindle in the process. That isn’t to an inaccurate control scheme, however, but more it is complicated in design, causing the game to be far slower-paced than I imagine the majority will be used to. Steel Diver rewards patience and perseverance, yet contradicts you by placing you under a time limit at every turn. Unfortunately, this soon becomes an evident, underlying weakness.
The Missions section of the game sees you navigating your way through seven Campaign levels, of which the last two won’t unlock until you complete the first five will all three submarines. Accompanying this are a further eight Time Trial courses posing you a challenge to complete each as fast as possible, as expected. Through both, you’ll find yourself dodging environmental hazards such as underwater volcanoes, mines and enemy vessels including submarines and ships that drop explosive barrels into the water – on that note, I thought the Steel Divers were a secret submarine fleet?!
As you get used to the touchscreen controls, you’ll soon enough start to enjoy navigating your submarine of choice through the treacherous underwater caverns, neutralising enemies by firing a volley of torpedoes along the way. However, what soon becomes an annoyance is how quickly the difficulty unfairly ramps up against you, and at times you’ll be left frustrated that you aren’t able to move your vessel out of harm’s way. You’ll have mines blocking your path, submarines firing at you, planes firing missiles into the water and a ship chucking explosive depth charges at you… all at once.
In places, later on, there’s just too much to deal with. You’ll begin to slowly propel yourself along the course, with your health flickering at its lowest point, finding yourself cursing at your Nintendo 3DS freely on occasion. You can surface to slowly restore your health, but with a time limit slapped on each level you’ll rarely find an opportunity to do so if you want to set a record time.
Such sentiment is heightened by a number of irritating boss battles, each requiring the player to continually adjust their trajectory to target clearly obvious weak points – all whilst being knocked around underwater by a series of attacks that are regularly hard to avoid. They’re an unnecessary addition to the game, that whilst offering diversity mar the level of enjoyment that it serves to provide.
Adding a further level of replayability, you can also pit yourself against Ghost Data of your previous record or of that set by the developer. Unsurprisingly, the latter proves to be too excessive a challenge, and will often leave you blinking when you note that the Ghost has finished the course when you’re still drifting half way along it yourself.
Steel Diver also serves up two additional modes, the first of which is Periscope Strike. This essentially encompasses a mini-game that you will have presumably by this point already witnessed through the Missions mode. The unique selling point is that it incorporates the gyro sensor of the Nintendo 3DS to turn the periscope, seeing the necessity to spin yourself 360° as you seek out enemy warships.
In Missions mode it acts as a bonus round, providing the opportunity to sink enemy warships to gain decals that can be used to grant your submarine various bonuses (such as taking less damage from collisions), whereas in its own mode you do it simply for fun. The issue? There are only three levels… each able to be beaten within a matter of minutes. It demonstrates an impressive use of the handheld’s integral technology, there just isn’t enough content to plough through. The aptly titled ‘Enemy Ships in a Storm’ level is visually astounding though, and well worth checking out.
Lastly, there is also a Steel Commander mode. Here you’re pitted against another opponent, be it AI or a human player via Download Play, in a turn-based strategy match that sees you commandeering a fleet of ships as you attempt to take out the enemy submarine before losing your own. You’ll have to utilise the sonar capabilities of your own submarine to spot your opponent’s before using your escort ships to move in for the kill.
Frustratingly, the mode plays out at a dull, snail’s pace. Whenever your submarine comes across an enemy, you’ll switch into Periscope Strike – Nintendo evidently trying to continually impress you with it. Steel Commander would’ve benefited from being granted its own individuality, rather than being caught up with elements already seen by the player within the other modes.
Steel Diver certainly isn’t a bad game, but one that ultimately falls short of Nintendo’s usually impeccable standards. Unbalanced gameplay and a distinct lack of content are fundamental areas in which it falls down, meaning that it fails to justify the full retail price that Nintendo 3DS owners will be expected to pay upon release. Those looking for a unique naval challenge can do no wrong, but you may be left wanting more.