Ship Simulator 2006
First things first, Ship Simulator 2006 is just as its name suggests, a re-creation of life at sea in nearly every conceivable way. When you hop into the control deck of a giant tanker for example, it really does take thirty seconds or so before you even begin to see the vessel's huge mass budge an inch from its starting point and a further couple of minutes before any sense of speed is conveyed. And if you want to make a U-turn - well, we'd better not go there. If for any reason you might be fooled into thinking this game is some sort of Pirates of the Caribbean-style hijacking of the high seas then you'll be sorely disappointed. However, Ship Simulator's initial visage of mind-numbing nerdiness is soon replaced by an overwhelming feeling of relaxation, calmness and control.
The bulk of Ship Simulator 2006 consists of the 40 main missions that challenge you to take the helm of eight different ship types and complete a set of objectives with each. The craft on offer range in diversity from water taxis and tugboats to the most famous shipwreck of all time, the Titanic, each vessel inhibited with a distinct style of control that will test your patience and maneuvering to the limit. The missions themselves differ in their characteristics depending on which vessel you are using. So you might be picking up and dropping off passengers from a relatively small boat such as a yacht one minute, while loading and unloading massive containers filled with cargo from a tanker a moment later. Other objectives include a simple (or not so simple as is often the case) task of powering your vessel from one checkpoint to the next or even taking part in search and rescue missions for show-off individuals who consequently find themselves treading water, desperately fending off the possibility of drowning. Only your shipping skills will determine whether they live to face the inevitable shame poured onto them in front of their friends who are waiting safely on the shore, or sink to a salty death on the sea bed.
Although the method of powering your engine and steering is easy to grasp, actually being in total control of your craft is the most demanding aim of Ship Simulator. Each boat has its basic forward, backwards, left and right steering options, while some of the larger ships can be pivoted on the spot to make acute turning angles more manageable. It all sounds simple enough until you put theory into practice, since you quickly learn that once a large ship's engine is gunning along on all cylinders it, thanks to the molecular construction of water, never allows you to come to a direct stop when you want it to. This problem manifests itself in a number of ways, though mostly in the fact that monetary mission bonuses are not awarded to you if damage is caused to either your ship or those of anyone else. Therefore, traversing a busy docklands full of other boats becomes a painfully slow task of patience and awareness where one knot too fast or too slow can see you smashing into a passing ship or being clipped from behind by someone who you failed to notice. The A.I-controlled ships have preset paths from which they never deviate, so any accidents are always your fault - even if you were bobbing up and down innocently in your little speedboat, minding your own business until a gargantuan cargo ship came along and wiped you out with the vigour of a force ten gale.
Adding to the realism and difficulty attributed to your tasks, is the inclusion of a dramatic weather system. So when the sun is shining and visibility is high, your travel woes are eased not only because you can see where you are going more clearly, but also because the waters are calm. On the other hand, if there be a storm a-brewing or a dirty great mist descends upon you and your surroundings, your movements need to be a lot more carefully calculated. Nastier weather conditions also affect the choppiness and flow of the seas, rivers and canals, having a noticeable effect on your ability to moor your craft at the end of each mission. To 'park' successfully you need to be close enough to the mooring point and to be moving towards it at a snail's pace, which is a teeth-grindingly difficult task when the elements are against you. Narrow paths and shallow water also exist to hinder your advances, but a patient approach and a steady hand on the wheel and throttle more often than not prevails.
The most striking graphical addition to Ship Simulator 2006 - and not surprisingly - is its water effects. As mentioned, not only does our ol' friend H2O flow convincingly, it also realistically responds to the game's variable climate conditions; on fine days the ship's reflection shimmers alongside the traveling vessel as does the blurry image of the surrounding environment, whether it be buildings, cranes, a hazy blue sky or the ragged rock face of an idyllic island paradise. The boats themselves are also aesthetically pleasing re-creations of their real-life counterparts, complete with strikingly rich colours, billowing smoke and independently-moving motors that leave a bubbling trail of water in their wake.
A panoramic camera allows you to sweep around to view your ship from every angle whilst also allowing you to zoom in to survey the innards of your vehicle as much as to spy into the distance through binoculars. It is when you zoom in that you notice the inanimate little inhabitants of Ship Simulator are one of the only elements that let the side down graphically. The facial expressions of the passengers in the back of your river taxi certainly make them look like they're enjoying themselves, but further inspection reveals absolute stiffness in all parts of their body, like primitive crash test dummies. The other is a lack of realistic damage. No matter how many times you collide with obstacles or other vessels, your ship will remain perfectly in tact despite your damage costs rocketing - not an ultra realistic simulation in that respect, then. On the aural side of things, there's no music at all, just the splish-splashing of the water and the atmospheric hum or screeching power of your chosen vessel's engine.
Ship Simulator 2006 is less a game and more like unpaid employment as you ferry people and cargo around and about some of the world's biggest harbours and exotic locations. However, what might initially seem like a real prospective borefest actually turns into a kind of innocent, compelling and surprisingly gratifying experience. When you've followed the radar carefully, assuring the safety of your passengers and moored perfectly, you'll want to smile inanely and give yourself a pat on the back, especially when what seemed like five minutes was actually clocked at half an hour or more by the game's stopwatch. If you've got the patience and bravery to try something completely different, then Ship Simulator 2006 with its level editor and Internet-based score swapping system might just be the excuse to release your inner geek and buy a captain's cap to wear whilst playing. As for this reviewer, he's convinced, and off to rummage in the attic for his old model railways.