Sims in general are uncommon on the PC these days, and finding a naval sim, let alone a good one, is about as likely as winning the lottery. That's why Enigma: Rising Tide is such a pleasant surprise. Actually, the game isn't exactly a sim, but rather an "alternate-history WWII massively multiplayer first-person vehicular naval combat game," in the words of developer Tesseraction Games. That's quite an awkward mouthful, and the bit about "massively multiplayer" isn't quite correct, but the description does give you an idea of what Enigma is all about. Combining an accessible simulation with some shooter and RPG elements and loads of exciting action, Enigma is a game for people who'd rather watch Das Boot than wade through a dry-as-dust volume of official naval history. It's a game that intelligently simulates the drama of World War II tactical naval combat instead of simulating naval minutiae.
At first glance, Enigma looks like a World War II game. In fact, the very name of the game calls to mind the famous Enigma code machines used by Germany during WWII. Enigma is also filled with ships based on or inspired by actual American, German, British, and Japanese designs. In reality, Enigma is an alternate history game with a very strong WWII flavor. Gameplay begins in 1937, with three major factions waging war across the globe. Enigma imagines a world where Germany won World War I, took control of most of continental Europe, and brought England to its knees through unrestricted submarine warfare. The United States, with its powerful economy, is trying to expand its influence around the world, with bases from Singapore to Morocco to Ireland. The League of Free Nations is a union formed by Japan and the British Royal Navy in exile. From bases in Japan, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, and other key locales, the League fights both the Germans and the Americans in the Atlantic and Pacific.
Along with a few dozen individual training and combat missions that you can tackle in any order, you get to take part in both surface- and submarine-based campaigns for each of Enigma's three factions. You start out commanding a single vessel and gradually rise through the ranks, taking on more dangerous missions while eventually getting to issue basic commands to fellow vessels while still directly controlling your own ship. Enigma does a fine job of immersing you in your role as captain and bringing the gameworld to life. Before each mission you read your latest orders and your captain's log entries; the latter give you some insight into shipboard life, how the crew is feeling about world events and your latest assignments, and so forth. In a neat touch, you also see simulated newspaper front pages, where the headlines flesh out the gameworld, letting you know, for example, that Truman is America's president in the '30s, instead of Roosevelt. Occasionally you'll also see a very brief little cutscene of your ship cutting across the ocean. It's a shame, though, that Enigma doesn't include full-length cinematic cutscenes, perhaps done up as black-and-white newsreels, to further flesh out the story and immerse you more deeply in it.
While some WWII grognards might be disappointed that Enigma doesn't cover real history, the gameworld is interesting, and combat is still combat, even if it doesn't re-create actual battles. Fortunately, combat is something Enigma does very well. This is essentially a tactical-scale game, where you directly control only one ship and where you rarely have to go far to find action. You won't have to deal with supply issues or engage in any long-distance patrols where you have to search for virtual weeks to find the enemy. Almost as soon as you start a mission, you'll find enemies to engage, and you'll encounter a decent variety of them: merchant freighters, tankers, torpedo planes, and various combat vessels.
You'll get to command subs, corvettes, destroyers, and torpedo boats of various types, all with basic stats taken from real-world counterparts. Enigma streamlines controlling all these different vessels. When commanding a sub, for instance, you don't need to worry about deciding which type of torpedo to load or entering data into the torpedo firing computer. You simply get a target in your sights, eyeball the deflection, and fire away. Along similar lines, when you dive, you don't directly control the diving planes or regulate the dive or trim tanks. You simply select the desired depth, and after your crew rigs the boat for diving, you begin your descent. You just have to hope you're not taking fire during the tense 20 seconds when you can't fire your deck guns before submerging.
Other simplifications abound in Enigma. Damage modeling doesn't take into account hit location or ship systems; instead you get a simple hull health bar that shows how much damage you've sustained. Your tactical display is an amalgam of all data from hydrophones, sonar, crew lookouts, and transmissions from allied ships. While vessels handle differently and bear different armaments, they all have the same basic HUD and controls; the only differences are some necessary ones between subs and surface-restricted vessels. All these simplifications make Enigma admirably accessible (though it could still use a fully interactive tutorial). On the other hand, it's too bad there are no options for toggling on more realistic and detailed features for those who'd appreciate added depth and realism.
Either way, Enigma is filled with drama and action. Playing cat and mouse with destroyers as you glide among convoy ships in your sub during a thunderstorm or fighting off planes with your corvette's antiaircraft guns can be a blast. Since Enigma puts all the important command decisions in your hands and also lets you man individual gun turrets from a first-person view, you're always in the thick of things. And even though many things in Enigma are simplified, the game isn't simplistic. You'll need to make lots of quick tactical decisions as you maneuver to bring your guns or torpedoes to bear, decide when it's safe to surface your sub to recharge its batteries and replenish its air supply, and so forth. Engagements are nail-biters: You'll sneakily evade destroyers in your sub as their depth charges explode around you, barely dodge an incoming torpedo as you manically swing your corvette about, and get caught up in the chaos of surface battles where planes roar overhead, guns thunder, and smoke pours from wounded vessels.
For an independent game, Enigma's audio and visuals do a fine job of conveying all this action. The rolling seas and rocking ships are especially well done, and varied weather conditions add visual and tactical variety to the battles (though the sun never seems to shine particularly brightly, even in clear conditions). All the gun turrets are animated, and you can clearly see the telltale bubble trails from torpedoes as they streak toward their targets. For that matter, when you're submerged in a sub, you can hear torpedoes whiz by as they barely miss you, which is unnerving in a really entertaining way. Alarm bells and klaxons add to the tension of combat, and the game has a powerful, dynamic orchestral score filled with varied themes that really help set the mood. On the other hand, antiaircraft guns tend to sound underpowered, and there are no voice-overs, just boring text to represent your officers' warnings and updates. (If you have a microphone for your sound card, you can issue vocal commands to them, though, thanks to the integrated speech-recognition software.) While Enigma's presentation isn't cutting edge and the graphics can get a bit choppy, the game succeeds overall in immediately sucking you into the action, which is what ultimately counts.
For all its great strengths, Enigma could still be improved in many ways. Combat mostly focuses on submarine/antisubmarine warfare instead of the full range of WWII naval combat; carriers are conspicuously absent. The AI suffers from some odd bugs, with aircraft crashing into each other or allied ships for no clear reason. The missions tend to be too easy or too hard and don't ramp up in difficulty as smoothly as they should in the campaigns. You also can't save a mission in progress, and there's no time-compression feature, which is frustrating during the longer missions.
Just as importantly, the game lacks major features that should have been obvious inclusions. There's no random mission generator and no scenario design tools. It's true that the existing missions are diverse and never play out exactly the same way twice, but it's a shame you can't generate engagements to your own specifications. There's also no multiplayer in a game that cries out for it. A persistent-world multiplayer component has been promised, but unfortunately you'll have to pay to play. At least purchasers of the game get a free 30-day trial when the multiplayer component goes live.
Even with these problems, it's hard not to enjoy Enigma. Streamlined but not dumbed down, the game captures the exciting feel of WWII naval combat even if it ignores many of the details. Whether you're a WWII or naval combat buff or simply someone who loves a smooth combination of action and tactics, Enigma: Rising Tide can offer a lot of tense challenges and high-seas drama.