How many depth charges does it take to sink a U-boat? When I’m at the helm, the answer is ‘all of them’. It was my first encounter from aboard the plucky corvette HMS Penstemon. I had a convoy to protect, and I knew there was a hunter out there somewhere in the depths. Wolfpack, a new entry covering the Battle for the Atlantic from John Tiller Software, does a good job of tossing you into the deep end armed with just enough information to get you going. It took a little bit of floating about before my sonar picked up the approximate presence of a U-boat. Now came the scary part. I had to approach the U-boat without eating a torpedo, which would not only send my crew to the bottom but leave my precious convoy exposed.
It was stressful work but getting into a position where I couldn’t be easily eliminated was only half the battle. I then needed to keep the U-boat pinned and, hopefully, sink it with my depth charges. What began with the careful release of one or two in time with my sonar pings turned into a rapid-fire deluge, my poor corvette crew fling charges port and starboard while dribbling a constant stream behind us. None too professional, sure, but in the end the little sneak was heavily damaged, my convoy protected, and my corvette empty of the 60 odd depth charges it started with. I would have to learn some restraint if we were to survive the rest of the journey.
We’re going in for the kill. This is the superior ‘alternate’ interface that makes weapon data easily available.
That I could even play as the allied convoy is one of Wolfpack’s greatest strengths. Usually U-boat games focus on the submarines themselves to the exclusion of those generally in the periscope’s crosshairs. Painstakingly hunting across the water knowing that the enemy lurks nearby is a thrilling experience. It’s not every day you can turn the mouse into the cat. Not that Wolfpack shies away from the cats, or rather, the wolves. Wolfpack offers access to a variety of U-boats, sometimes alone, sometimes in great packs, in a variety of scenarios that stretch from the opening of hostilities to a cheeky final attack on May 7th 1945 by U-2336 that ‘didn’t get the memo’ that all U-boats were to surrender on the 4th.
Wolfpack comes with 50 scenarios and 2 campaigns, plus a powerful editor that is already being used by the community to create new scenarios. The majority of the included ones can be played from either the Allied or German perspective. It’s quite entertaining to begin a scenario trying to torpedo cargo ships before switching to the other side to see if you could do better than the AI. There are also some interesting scenarios peppered throughout the more expected games of cat and mouse, like the night assault on Convoy ONS-5, one of the largest wolfpack attacks, or a submarine duel in the Gibraltar strait in which a U-boat stumbled upon the Dutch O-21.
We’ve got them now. Engaging in a torpedo duel can get frantic. One wrong move and it’s all over.
The gameplay is fairly straightforward if one is familiar with the classic JTS game structure. Wolfpack follows in the footsteps of its predecessors in the Naval Campaigns series. Players take a bird’s eye view of the water and control the speed and direction of individual ships, or groups of ships through a flagship, while trying to find, outmaneuver, and eventually sink the enemy. A variable runtime means players can pause to assess, set individual ships on the right path, or assign missions to aircraft. Surface guns are handled automatically but torpedoes and depth charges are manual. It’s a simple system once you get the hang of it. The majority of your focus will be on using the intelligence tools at your command to properly maneuver for the attack. As a U-boat commander, you’ll be adjusting your vessel’s depth, its use of its periscope, and when finally attack. As the allied player, you’ll be managing the sailing of your escorts, handling aircraft, and manually dropping (a lot!) of depth charges.
The tutorial does a good job of settling new players into the basics. I had never played a naval game from JTS before but I found myself quickly coming to grips with the basic controls. By the standard of JTS games, Wolfpack is not complicated and the getting started scenario eases you into movement and fighting without much trouble, though there is a certain lack of tactical advice once you’re through it. The tutorial documentation leaves you with a frighteningly vague, ‘aim the torpedo where you think they’ll be’ as their lesson on marksmanship. But it really does start to come naturally after a while, just be ready to make some mistakes. I managed to sink my first U-boat by getting it run over by the ship it was attacking while I was looking at weapon systems. Really.
The U-boat campaign follows a single ship on its patrols in the Atlantic. You’ll have to husband your torpedoes for this one.
That is not a fault of the menus though. JTS is getting better with their interface. Wolfpack allows for a seamless in game switch between the classic interface and a new ‘alternate’ interface that places some information in a much more accessible place. The option to switch back and forth on the fly is actually awesome. I found myself switching to the alternate interface to conduct my attacks but returning to the classic for all of the map information management. The game is definitely playable in either. I still have some words concerning the overall experience of getting Wolfpack going though.
JTS is still old school in this regard. I knew there were campaigns included but had to go digging in the game’s file folder, finding something called ‘nc_start’ and running it to get the campaign menu to open. It also took me a solid 5 minutes to realize that I had to actually close the program with the X in the top right of the application to advance the campaign. That really shouldn’t be the way things are structured these days.
Aircraft add an interesting dimension to Wolfpack. Plotting missions alongside your sailing works well and is an added danger while playing as the U-boat.
The visuals and audio are also about what you’d expect from a JTS game. The ship and aircraft images are well done. The map and alternative interface are clean and easy to read, and the accompanying audio of explosions, sirens, sonar pings, and water noises are fine. I actually find these sound effects much less annoying than other recent JTS games. They add to the atmosphere in an appreciable way. This is definitely not a work of art though, and you’ll be spending most of your time looking at small dots on a blue background.
Overall I’m happy with Wolfpack. It does exactly what it says it will do in a clean, playable, and detailed way. The decision to include the Allied side and a substantial Anti-Submarine Warfare component really elevates the experience, and Wolfpack would not have shined as much without it. It is important to note that Wolfpack really only does what it says on the tin, so if you’re hoping for surface engagements you’ll have to look elsewhere. But, if you’re interested in the Battle of the Atlantic, hunting or protecting convoys, or even just the thrill of landing a good manually aimed torpedo, this game will see you well.