Although news about a free-to-play addition to Nintendo’s fairly new Steel Diver property had been circulating for a while, at best I was cautious about this prospect due to the mixed reception that the original game received. During the recent Nintendo Direct I was not only surprised to hear that such a follow-up was arriving on the Nintendo 3DS (as many had expected it to be released on the Wii U), but that the franchise has gone through quite a considerable bit of a re-imagining. Usually, fans of video games are left wary when they hear that a game series is going through such a fundamental redesign and in some instances, this caution is well deserved but in the case of Steel Diver: Sub Wars, this was a change the franchise needed and it is definitely for the better.
The first thing that is worth mentioning is that while the original Steel Diver title was available as a retail cartridge, not only is Sub Wars a digital exclusive but it also the first time Nintendo have released a game for free outside of a special promotion. This method of distribution is new for the well-renowned video game publisher and while it is no doubt inspired by the rise of smartphone gaming where an initial app download will be free, but that app will be filled with micro-transactions ,as with their recent venture into downloadable-content, Nintendo have fortunately shown some restraint by essentially treating this like an extended demo. The free version of the game features two Single Player missions and a limited number of submarines, but by paying a one-time-only fee of £8.99, an upgrade to the premium version unlocks more missions, more submarines and the option to buy five premium submarines for a mere £0.89 each. If you want to buy all of the bonuses, that makes the total cost of the game £13.44.
Going back to the game itself, unlike the original game, Steel Diver: Sub Wars doesn’t feature a side-on perspective. Instead, this new addition to the series is played entirely in the first person allowing players to truly get a sense of the depth of the seas they will be waging wars in. When you boot up the game, it is notable that the multi-player option is listed before the single player which an obvious hint from Nintendo about what the main attraction of this game is meant to be. In the free version, we are only given two single player levels which can be completed in 3 difficulties. One of these levels has you navigating your submarine through a series of hoops, while the other has you destroying enemies. In the premium version, the type of missions can also range from inputting Morse Code messages as quickly as you can to direct missiles or simply sinking enemies of various size and numbers. Considering that the paid content only adds an additional five, there is quite a large variety in the type of missions, although I do think £8.99 is a hefty price to pay for a five extra missions and 16 extra submarines. Also, the file size for the Premium Edition is only an additional 2 blocks, which indicates to me that the entire game is downloaded with the free version and the fee is basically just a key to unlock content we’ve already downloaded. Considering that the base application cost nothing though, this is something that I will let slide.
You control your submarine using the X button to accelerate and the B button to reverse, with the circle pad controlling your depth and direction, with additional sliders on the touch screen providing the same results. The A button is used to fire missiles, while L fires special homing missiles that can only be fired once you have successfully locked. The touch screen also features a radar at the centre; tapping it will send out a pulse that will locate nearby vessels, as well as a Morse Code chart, allowing you to input messages using the Y button. I found these controls rather difficult to get used to at first, but they soon fit nicely. Although there are times where I still instinctively move the circle pad down instead of pressing B to reverse, so I tend to hit things on the ocean floor more often than I should! In terms of gameplay, levels can be more tedious than they could be as a result of the low movement speed of submarines. Graphically, the game is passable at best in that it doesn’t really stand out, although the effect of water coming down the screen as you hit the water’s surface is really cool (the picture really doesn’t do it justice). I do also like how the flow of the water does appear to have some influence, which you will notice if you keep a close eye on a fired missile. During missions, you can also rescue stranded crew members who when equipped to your vessel, can grant extra abilities which adds to the costumisation options available, which includes the ability to unlock various paint-job patterns for your submarines which can be customised with colours of your choosing (I tend to always go for red with small hints of white because I think it looks cool).
Where this game really comes alive though is in its multiplayer. As I mentioned earlier, this is the primary option when loading up the game and is really the game’s main selling point as even the free version has access to the local wireless and Wi-Fi multiplayer modes. Both modes have eight players divided into two teams who battle it out in tank wars – everyone only has one life and when they are defeated, you are either given the option to watch the rest of the battle play out, or forfeit any experience you would have gained to leave. That’s right, I said experience – as you play more matches, you gain experience points which allow you to level up, with the reward (other than bragging rights) being that you unlock more powerful submarines. One thing I love about this game is that instead of doing what a lot of online games do and implementing voice chat, Steel Diver: Sub Wars takes a more realistic approach with Morse Code. You can press an icon on the touch screen to bring up a chart that I mentioned earlier, which tells you the number of dots and dashes you need to input with the Y button before sending a message out to your team, or in the random Morse Code chat room. There is one glaring flaw with the online mode though – while with local wireless you can be picky with who you play with, the online matches are always random – you can’t choose to play with users on your friend list. For such a fundamental feature to be left out is simply, mind boggling. One plus of the online though is the wacky level designs, which includes hot springs and swimming pools!
In conclusion, Steel Diver: Sub Wars is a triumphant first step in Nintendo’s exploration of the free-to-play model and this a model I would definitely like to see more of (I think Animal Crossing is a prime candidate for this, don’t you?). Sub Wars is a perfect example of a re-imaging done right, leaving the message that a bit of reinvention can go a long way which is certainly symbolic of the Nintendo in 2014. It is by no means a perfect game and it could have perhaps benefited from being a bit meatier, but with a multiplayer experience on par with full retail titles for zero percent of the price, it really is a must-download for every 3DS owner.