Reviews: Steel Diver

(Sub Wars review) Nintendo's first foray into free-to-play is very original

I don't like the free-to-play business model, and I'm not too big on first-person shooters unless there's something really unique about them (such as Left 4 Dead, Payday and Borderlands).

And here comes Nintendo with a free-to-play first-person shooter.

It's rare that Nintendo creates a new franchise these days, and Steel Diver is still rather fresh, having been created in 2011 and not having a true sequel. Sub Wars is the type of sequel that's really more a totally different experience with some things in common with the predecessor.

Like before, you move your sub by adjusting sliders, and the movement is based on inertia rather than being instantaneous. This means that rather than zipping around at high speed, you instead feel like you're actually moving a heavy vehicle with its own weight and physics. It takes time for the sub to dive, to surface, and to turn, though it's undoubtedly far more nimble than any submarine in real life. Torpedoes take a while to reach their target, so it's not "point and shoot" but instead, you have to take into account the speed of your torpedo and where the player is likely to be when it would reach its target. Players could slow down, reverse course, dive or surface, or turn. However, the slow speed of acceleration for these actions, combined with the slow speed of a torpedo, means that combat is a lot more tactical. Throw in the "masker" which allows you to become invisible for short bursts of time and shake off homing torpedoes, and even more strategies are opened up.

Being developed by Nintendo, this game naturally features some of that Nintendo humor and charm we've come to know. While most of the combat arenas take place in areas you might expect, such as ruins, an underwater cave, a base, and a large lake surrounded by mountains, there are a few "silly" arenas, such as a massive fish tank or swimming pool, or even Japanese hot springs.

So, how about the "free-to-play" aspect? The base game is free, but you are unable to obtain better submarines unless you upgrade to the paid version, which is a one-time fee. You don't have to pay for consumable resources, and there is no waiting. This isn't "pay to win" or "free to wait". Instead, it's basically shareware. I'm impressed. Precious honesty is rare in this business model.

The type of experimentation Nintendo used to do

Remember Ice Climber, Balloon Fight, Wrecking Crew, Startropics, and other games that for the most part, didn't get sequels and become franchises? There was a time when Nintendo wasn't a sequel and spinoff factory, and tried many new ideas.

Steel Diver is one of their most original ideas in a long time, and it has a certain NES-like mentality to it, for both better and worse.

The game is refreshingly plotless. Just choose a mission, ignore or skip the brief meaningless briefing that scrolls by, and jump onboard. Your goal is to reach the end of the level, by maneuvering your submarine by use of levers on the touch screen. You accelerate and decelerate forwards and backwards, tilt up or down, and surface or dive, all at different speeds depending on how far you moved the lever or rotated the dial.

Rather than simply pushing up, down, left and right to move directly, the movement feels like you're controlling an actual vehicle with real weight. As such, you have to be careful of your movement and compensate if you accelerated too much in any direction. If you zip at full speed and are about to hit a wall, moving the lever to neutral won't stop your movement on a dime, but switching it to reverse will help it reverse course more quickly, making it easier to come to a stop. This principle of momentum is what makes the game what it is - a sort of arcade-style 2D submarine simulation.

There's also a bonus stage after each level, where you look through a periscope and try to shoot torpedoes at ships. You have to take distance and speed into account, as the torpedoes move at a specific speed, and you want your target to be at the right spot when the torpedo is there so it can hit it. This mode can also be played separately.

The one mode I haven't tried yet is the strategic Battleship-esque game.

While the game is refreshingly pick-up-and-play, and very original, it's also let down by its NES-style design. See, these gameplay modes are all there is. 7 levels of the simulation mode. 3 levels of periscope strike. It's what you'd expect from an NES game, not a modern one.

That complaint aside, I have to hand it to Nintendo for creating something experimental, original, and rather enjoyable if it happens to be your thing.