3DS hands-on: Steel Diver gives us a sinking feeling – and we like it

Down where it’s wetter *is* where it’s better, apparently. Our thoughts on Nintendo’s startlingly gripping aquatic adventure.

By Edwin Evans-Thirlwell, February 10, 2011

There’s been considerable noise and fuss over the rather, shall we say, “comfortable” state of currently announced Nintendo 3DS software. Too many familiar faces, goes the refrain, not enough compelling new blood. This is an unjust complaint for three reasons. One, launch wave titles are backward-looking affairs almost by definition – the last thing most right-thinking publishers want to do is try out something new on commercially untried hardware. Two, the day we turn our noses up at the combination of Super Street Fighter IV, a workable analogue stick and medium-length train journeys is the day this here United Kingdom tips over into the Atlantic Ocean.

But most importantly of all, the people whining about the prevalence of old names on the handheld are turning a blind eye to Steel Diver, perhaps the tastiest 3DS exclusive in the offing. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to Steel Diver, to be fair. Screenshots suggest a somewhat characterless underwater shooter, all muddy blues and coppery browns and cute but generic cartoon submarines. There are enemy tubs, nobbly mines and tetchy, tentacled molluscs to blow up or avoid while exploring ripple-haunted aquatic landscapes, each stocked with Saturday morning cartoon props like carved Aztec statues and wrecked pirate galleons.

The fact of the matter is, the old adage about needing to play something before you pass judgement is more than usually true of this naval oddity, an ancient DS tech demo that blew through to the big-time at E3 2010. For one thing, the much-vaunted, much-questioned 3D effect brings the presentation into its own. Background objects are more precisely defined against the all-pervading murk, the shimmer of surface radiance accentuates the curve of your hull, and the water itself acquires a beguiling sense of volume and heft. It’s still no eye-popper, but that’s to Nintendo’s advantage in some ways: Steel Diver won’t tax your lenses like certain other 3DS titles. The thrill of visual projection here is gentler, more accommodating, enhancing rather than overriding the experience of play.

Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto likens the game to a pocket aquarium. With high explosives in it.

And that’s crucial, because Steel Diver has plenty of other ways to tax you. Submarines are steered not with the D-pad but by moving various sliders and wheels on the touch screen, mocked up to resemble a nautical dashboard. To accelerate, for instance, you press and drag the engine slider into the positive. Or, to raise the sub’s nose, roll the steering wheel forty-five degrees anti-clockwise.

It’s a ponderous, unintuitive system, and were this your average air or space-based schmup I’d be so much torn drifting metal by now, but nothing happens quickly on (or under) the high seas. You could catch the Eurostar to Calais in the time it takes a torpedo to find its target, and fit in a sexy weekend at Paris before the accumulated pounding sends your vessel to the bottom. Top speeds are reached only reluctantly, even aboard the smallest and nimblest of the three playable subs, and the dreamily unhurried physics system will have you scraping sparks from every boulder till you learn to reverse-thrust several beats ahead of when you’d like to stop.

Accordingly, the idea isn’t to dart in and out of engagements by the seat of your diving suit, but to plan out manoeuvres carefully by way of the sonar map on your dash. That’s not to say you won’t have to think on the hoof at times – in one of the missions we tackled, destroyers battered us with depth charges while sneaky subs threw torpedoes our way from marginally off-screen. Air is health, and you can replenish it simply by going topside (if you dare), but critical damage will make your submarine leak. Fortunately, the swift application of a stylus point is all it takes to inch a punctured craft back into the green.

The feel is less, in the end, that of a shoot ‘em up as of something akin to that old momentum-managing favourite Lunar Lander. Inertia and water resistance are both your allies and your nemeses as you struggle to out-cap’n other cap’ns, unloading torpedoes not at where they are but where they will be by the hoped-for second of impact. It’s thoughtful action with a splash of strategy, straying just near enough to simulation to challenge, while retaining enough insta-fixy twitch value that you wouldn’t mind whipping it out on the bus.

Left hand down a bit. (Any Navy Lark listeners in the house?)

We were unable to try the periscope shooting gallery mode during our hands-on, not so much for want of time as for being unabashedly embroiled in the main game, but acquaintances have sung its praises. Using the 3DS gyrometer to move the scope, players must blow nearby ships out of the water. It sounds like a nice, relatively brainless break from the carnage beneath the waves, give or take a few niggling concerns about the marriage of motion sensitivity and autostereoscopic 3D.

I can’t imagine Steel Diver topping pre-order charts – for all the whinging about derivative software portfolios, consumers can be relied on to play things safe – but in its own, quirky way the game stands head and shoulders over everything I’ve seen on 3DS so far. True-blue originals are rare enough even on long-established platforms, and this one has the makings of a classic.

Hope it shows up over ‘ere then – Steel Diver has yet to be confirmed for European release. The Yanks get it alongside the 3DS on 27th March.

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