Electronic Arts published 688 Attack Sub for the PC in 1989 and it was a game I longed for at the time due to my fascination with the early Tom Clancy novels “The Hunt for Red October” and “Red Storm Rising”. The film adaptation of the former was released in 1990 and this coincided with the release of an Amiga port of 688 Attack Sub. Naturally, it didn’t take long for some pocket money to be spent to add this game to my collection.
You captain either a 688-class attack sub (the lead boat being the USS Los Angeles) of the US Navy or a Soviet Navy Alfa-class attack sub. There are ten missions in total, 10 in a 688-class (9 in the USS Los Angeles, one in the USS Dallas) with 6 playable in an Alfa. 6 of the missions can also be played head to head via modem but I couldn’t test that for this review and whilst I still have the Amiga manual (fortuitously for copy protection purposes), in order to play the game today, I am relying upon the PC original.
Graphically, this isn’t a bad title for the period, with a clean interface and plenty of space for the various controls. Two things to comment upon here though. The periscope view is by far the prettiest visual in the game but using it is most missions is practically impossible – you’ll be dead very, very quickly. And when I say pretty, I mean blocky and almost unrecognisable shapes in grey, but it’s better than just looking at the map. You do have an underwater terrain view to add some variety but to be honest, the map is more realistic if the periscope is unavailable. In either periscope or terrain view mode, the screen update speed is rather slow and won’t add much to the excitement. The second point is that when playing as the Alfa captain, the Cyrillic inspired writing is, for me at least, hard to read and prolonged play tended to bring on a headache. The 256 colour VGA graphics are bright but I do suggest staying away from the EGA option – nice for a comparison but not to play with. The less said about the CGA/Hercules options, the better. The later Amiga and Megadrive/Genesis ports naturally used the more limited colour palettes permitted by those formats but the style and detail remained. And that’s pretty much it, aside from some digitised images of key crew members when important information needs to be imparted and the intensely annoying red shaking effect experienced when your sub is hit.
Sound wise, it’s very bare bones, with a bit of a theme and then sound effects which are functional. Keep the volume low mind, as the effects are rather harsh on the ears.
Gameplay then, and this is where 688 scores highly with me. The initial training mission is basically a chance to get used to commanding the sub and navigating the various screens, admiring the “detailed” ships if you wish. From there, even on the basic difficulty level (the Advanced level is far harder), each mission will take a fair bit of trial and error to complete successfully. That is not to say that it is unfair, far from it, and each time I failed, I already had half a clue as to what I had done wrong. Some of the more complex missions can last an hour or two, even with the game’s built in time compression and I found it easy to lose myself in a mission. There is atmosphere a plenty here and I was surprised how engrossing I found this game to be after so long had passed since last playing it.
It must be said that this is not a “serious” simulation. The manual notes that weapon ranges have been artificially shortened and it is certainly true that, unlike the later SSN-21, it doesn’t feel like you have to be a time-served sonar operator to understand what you are doing. The manual is a thing of wonder though, filled with explanations of how then-modern submarines worked, tactics and strategies, and technical information at a level suitable for the game. This is a great manual and you’ll know more about sonar detection through thermoclines and the proper use of baffles than you ever thought possible. The mission briefings are well written too and truly this is a joy to read before you even think of playing the game.
688 Attack Sub stands up really well for a 30 year old title and, if you want to give it a spin, I’d recommend the PC original first, followed by the Amiga port, then the Megadrive/Genesis version, if only for the fact that a mouse and keyboard make this game much easier to play – you’ll get used to the keyboard short cuts very quickly. This has, for me, been a long overdue review of one of my favourite games from when I was a teenager. Dated though the presentation and world setting are, the gameplay remains as fresh as ever.
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Engrossing gameplay and highly atmospheric, 688 Attack Sub stands out even after 30 years.