When we first went hands-on
with Steel Diver at Nintendo's Amsterdam 3DS preview event, we were
enthused, to say the least, with what we saw. Split into two separate playable
sections, which saw you first piloting a submarine through underwater passages,
dodging rocks, mines, and enemy ships as you went, it was a lot of fun to play
- and the second section, where your top screen became a periscope, and saw you
physically rotating your 3DS to fire at ships on the surface was an amazing
demonstration of the console's new feature. "With its innovative gameplay,
and somewhat serene, relaxing atmosphere, Steel Diver could be a sleeper hit
no-one saw coming." we enthused, "It's certainly sold us."
So when we got Steel Diver through to review, we were understandably excited. This was our game of the show, and we couldn't wait to see how they'd glued it all together to make an incredible game. On loading the game, however, we were greeted by the same three options on the menu screen - "Missions", "Periscope Strike", and "Steel Commander", which seemed more than a little bit odd. We'd hoped the various elements we'd played at the Amsterdam event would have been glued into a more coherent form, but instead, it seemed the game would offer the same chop-and-change gameplay as before. We weren't quite worried yet, though - after all, this is a full price game, that bloodthirsty retailers are selling for £40 - things would definitely be a lot more fleshed out than the demo we played. Wouldn't they? We clicked on "Missions", and waited with baited breath.
The answer worried us slightly. Seven levels. Steel Diver, not including the training mode, has seven levels. There are no extra levels you unlock when you finish the first batch - the main part of the game, the backbone, is seven levels long, each of which have a time limit of less than fifteen minutes. We don't even want to work out what the cost equates to per level (OK, ok, we caved in - around a fiver per level at RRP). That's the sort of length you'd expect from a 99c iPhone game, not a full priced retail game. It’s not like the developers didn’t realise this was pitiful either – they obviously did, because in order to unlock the last two levels, you have to finish every level with every submarine, which only serves to make you incredibly bored of playing the same level over and over again.
The thing is, when you sit down and play it, you just end up feeling more frustrated by the length, because what's here is really
quite good. Putting you inside the sinking metal cocoon that is a submarine,
it's up to you to navigate your way through all sorts of underwater courses,
judging obstacles both man-made and natural. Whether it's an exploding
underwater volcano dropping rocks down on you, or an enemy submarine lurking in
the background, you'll need to have your wits about you as you negotiate the
There's a choice of three submarines you can control, and each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. While the smallest, the Manatee, can't take much damage, it can fire torpedoes vertically instead, which is actually more useful than having to tilt your submarine. The other two submarines, the less interestingly named BlueShark and Serpent offer tougher armour, and more torpedoes, at the expense of manoeuvrability, but the fact they can withstand more damage often offsets the problems that come with crashing into the ocean floor.
It’s a strange game, because there’s never a clear indication of what you’re meant to be doing. You’ll regularly come across ships on the surface, but are you meant to take them out, or simply drive past them? It’s usually a lot harder to attack them and actually manage to hit them thanks to trying to tilt your submarine, so we often ended up simply going past the enemies, which made us feel a little bit guilty about effectively skipping half of the challenge.
The levels have a fair amount of variety to them, which goes some way to making up for the distinct lack of them. Whether you’re subbing through the jungle, shooting at platforms to encourage an ancient Mayan statue head to roll down and crash through a platform below, opening access into a new cave, or infiltrating an enemy base, hitting the masker button every few seconds, to cloak your submarine and throw tracking torpedoes off your scent, the levels never fail to be interesting – but there’s simply not enough of them.
There is a little bit more to Steel Diver than just the mission mode, though – the Time Trials offer a few more levels to play through, and take place on specially designed courses, which, while barren in terms of design, at least offer a few more levels to play through. Even then though, there’s aren’t thirty, twenty, or even ten – instead, there’s a pretty pathetic eight levels here to cut through, which will probably take around fifteen minutes to complete – more if you try to complete them all in every submarine available.
The problem here is that you have to collect a ridiculous
amount of each emblem (up to ten) to actually activate their respective power –
and as you can only collect a maximum of four of five per round – and that’s if
you hit with each shot – your chances of collecting enough to activate any of
the powers are pretty slim, especially as there are 31 to collect. We’ve played
through every level, and have finished each of them with all three submarines,
and we only have two emblems where we’ve collected enough to activate their
powers. It’s another cheap way to give the game extra replay value, as the last
level’s so hard, the emblem that reduces the damage you take from torpedoes
would be a god send – but to get that, you’ll have to grind your way through
the first few levels until you’ve collected the emblems you need.
In all, though, Steel Diver feels like a game that’s been pieced together far too quickly – like a smorgasbord of ideas that have been thrown together without thinking about how they could all go together and actually work as a game – not just a collection of modes. Why can’t I stop and put my periscope up when I choose to, to attack the enemy ships? And while the levels are all fantastically inventive, and even start to introduce some element of puzzle solving at times, why aren’t there more of them? Including seven levels in a game that costs £40 is simply indefensible – especially while Nintendo preach about the value of their handheld games compared to App Store titles that cost 99c. This is a game who’s main mode could feasibly be finished in an hour and a half, had the developers not made the decision to force you to play each of the levels again and again until you unlock the last two. That’s not good value for money – and that sinks a game that could have been something special. As £40, Steel Diver’s nothing short of a rip off. For £20, feel free to add another point or two on to the score.