Fans who have been starved for either submarine games or shooters are in for a real treat. Neither genre has been especially plentiful in the last few years, so when a game comes along that combines the best of both worlds, its a rare opportunity that needs to be savored. Being most famous for diabolically difficult shooters such as the cult classic R-Type series, developer Irem now brings its own brand of finger-blistering action 20,000 leagues under the sea.
In the distant future, the icecaps melt and most of the Earth is summarily covered in water. Cities sink beneath the waves, and civilization has to adapt or die. In order to gain an edge on their opposition, countries supercharge their undersea warfare techniques. In the middle of this chaos, a small force of freedom-loving people develop a super-sub called the "Chronos" in order to take on a large empire that threatens to dominate whats left of the world.
After starting the game, the Chronos handles quite well once you get past the awkward controller layouts. There are three preset controller configurations, but none of them completely satisfy. The left analog stick controls direction and pitch with the right handling lookaround duties. Thrust and depth management are handled by finessing all four of the shoulder buttons, and your armaments are cued by the face buttons. Your sub can equip a variety of weapons ranging from various types of torpedoes to a small nuclear warhead. Other aspects of the Chronos (besides the firepower) are customizable as well, including your choice of engine, armor, paint job and the very welcome option between third- or first-person perspectives.
The first thing that really made Sub Rebellion stand out for me was that it actually embraces the notion of being underwater instead of merely placing the same kind of aerial-based formula below the whitecaps. By strongly embracing the deep blue concept, it develops a feel and flavor that is quite distinct from almost any other shooter Ive played.
For example, all movement underwater is slow and deliberate, with a half-second delay between the time you decide to blow your ballast and the time your craft actually rises. The feeling of traveling through a slower, more viscous medium is apparent and well communicated. Another clear sign that the developers realize the essence of submarine combat is their use of all three dimensions. Enemies can be in front, behind, above or below at any depth or simply holding their position. This requires a radically different approach to hunting prey compared to something up in the stratosphere like Ace Combat. Ignoring the games environmental characteristics and playing it like a terrestrial or flight-based perspective will lead to a quick and watery demise.
Not content with the action remaining submerged, Sub Rebellion also features missions that emphasize surfacing to navigate shallows, eliminate gun emplacements, or down enemy aircraft. When above the water, antiaircraft guns pop out of the deck and your torpedo button switches to launching missiles or napalm. Going from detonating enemies on the ocean floor to dropping liquid fire on shore-mounted turrets, the action remains frenetic and challenging.
However, the true piece de résistance is something rarely incorporated into other bubblehead games: a working, useful sonar. Upon tapping a button, an auditory ping emanates from your vessel and overlays the visible surroundings with colored wireframes. Hidden grottos are revealed along with the locations of buried treasure and the position and bearing of hostiles. Taking advantage of this feature and firing a volley of torpedoes into someone who thinks they have the drop on you is a great feeling. Its hard to fully convey what an effective tool the sonar is, but once you try it for yourself, its hard not to have a smile on your face.
With many small touches elevating an already rock-solid design, theres not a lot to complain about here. Of course, if I werent able to nitpick, I wouldnt be able to call myself a critic.
Id have to say that the thing which bothered me the most playing Sub Rebellion was that in order to earn the many upgrades of weapons and technology, its necessary to scour the ocean floor for relics and metals. Theyre easily spotted via the sonar, but I found that the slow, methodical pace necessary for locating treasure was at odds with the fast-paced destruction that comes from simply completing the missions. Putting up with being a glorified metal detector was a necessary evil since new gear is necessary for surviving later levels, but it really took away the heart-pumping excitement of dodging depth charges and slipping through rough waters on the edge of your seat.
Getting back to the gripe I mentioned earlier in the review, the way the games designers laid out the button functions left a little something to be desired. The main problem was that the forward thrust was always mapped to one of the shoulder buttons, and in a title like Sub Rebellion, staying still invites a hull full of brine. Keeping constant pressure on the top of the controller led to a tired and achy index finger. I always appreciate the option to reassign buttons as I see fit, and I was somewhat disappointed it wasnt possible here. In this day and age, I see that option as a courtesy towards the audience that should come standard in all games.
In the big scheme of things those are pretty small bones to pick, and shouldnt deter anyone from getting their feet wet with Sub Rebellion. If youre the type of player that enjoys naval themes or even if you just like a lot of guns-blazing, shoot-em-up action, the game is destined to be a bona fide sleeper hit. Dont miss the boat.