As western audience’s first foray into Nintendo’s realm of free-to-play experimentation, Steel Diver: Sub Wars proves an unlikely candidate to find itself wading into such unknown waters.
Beginning life as an E3 2004 technical demo that was used to help portray the decisions behind the Nintendo DS’s dual-screen design, the project was submerged until it reappeared on the handheld’s successor some seven years later as Steel Diver.
Whilst the experience didn’t quite justify the price of admission, there was enough originality behind the gameplay concept to draw out further inspiration for a successor. And here we have it, Japanese developer Vitei once again enlisted to continue their naval duty.
It’s a somewhat radical departure too. No longer is the game positioned in a 2D side-scrolling perspective, instead firmly placing you in a tactical first-person view at the centre of your vessel. Gone is the previous Mission, Periscope Strike and Steel Commander structure, now simply distinguished between a solo campaign and multiplayer modes. Whilst a dramatic turn of phrase, Steel Diver: Sub Wars resurfaces born anew, and it’s all the better for it.
The Premium Version is inevitably where most content can be found, but that doesn’t mean that those putting the Free Version through its paces aren’t provided with enough to keep them busy. Two submarines, two single-player missions and multiple crew members await your rescue, not forgetting the fact that you also have full access to both local and online multiplayer modes.
Spend £8.99 to upgrade you to the Premium Version, and this greatly expands to 18 submarines with access to all of the solo campaign in which you’ll face Super Battleships and radar bases. Players can also earn star medals based on their performance, eventually rewarding them with more subs and camouflage patterns, whilst also granted access to the shipyard store where you can purchase five extra submarines that are each based on historical models.
Missions for those with the Free Version revolve around making your way through underwater rings as fast as you possibly can or sinking a convoy whilst under threat from bombers flying throughout the vicinity. Each mission has three individual levels of increasing difficulty, with earned medals being required to progress through them. But again, it is those locked away within the premium upgrade that prove more thrilling, tasking you with transmitting coded messages to call in airstrikes, and, as mentioned earlier, looking to sink the metal monstrosity that is the Super Battleship.
Submarines themselves are greatly varied, each with their own individual stats across parameters such as health, surface speed, submerged speed, turn rate, and crew capacity. Your starting Garfish being a particular all-rounder, although the later premium unlocks finding themselves more geared toward certain situations – whether that be close attacks, or more evasive.
These continue to be controlled by an assortment of levers, wheels and buttons that populate the 3DS’s touchscreen, making the experience feel all the more authentic as your hulking, metallic submarine slowly responds to your input. With bubbles flowing past the screen and fish schools speeding through the water, players rely on sonar and their periscope to help spot advancing enemies, the incoming white blips always keeping you on your guard.
It is online that Steel Diver: Sub Wars truly elevates itself, four-on-four team deathmatches seeing you square off against opponents worldwide or in the same region as you. Morse code also makes a humorous appearance, allowing you to tap out messages to send to those in your lobby which is a neat and unexpected touch.
Your submarine’s other abilities come to the fore in multiplayer, masking temporarily cloaking your vessel to evade incoming homing missiles or to hide from an eagerly advancing foe. There is a slow, weighty plod to the entire experience that will require more patience than your average multiplayer title these days. But Steel Diver: Sub Wars feels all the more refreshing for it, especially when you learn that remaining still means that you don’t appear on enemy sonar. Surprise attacks excite like no other.
There are gripes, however. Balancing issues come into play in the online aquatic arena, those splashing their cash to unlock the full game able to equip themselves with superior vessels that can make freemium fodder feel more than inadequate. Whereas being unable to fill a lobby full of your friends is a disappointment, meaning that you’ll more often than not be outmanoeuvring randomers.
But Steel Diver: Sub Wars proves its resilience, and, equally, Nintendo’s willingness to listen to the criticism directed toward the game’s predecessor. With their creativity now channelled in a more consolidated way, the results are thrilling and worthy of your time. You simply can’t afford not to take it for a dive.