Several years ago, in the golden age of PC gaming, there existed a genre that has since almost completely disappeared: the trading game. Represented by such classics as Elite Plus, Privateer, and High Seas Trader, the trading game had an often job-threatening knack for suspending disbelief and for luring players into all-night gaming marathons. Then, almost overnight, they were gone. Fortunately, the situation hasn't been permanent. With its newest title Sub Culture, Criterion Studios has created an innovative new game that does an admirable job of resuscitating the "buy low, sell high" genre.
Whoever said that there are no new stories in the world never got a chance to peruse Sub Culture's plot. You are a member of an ultratiny race that lives on the ocean floor. In the first few minutes of the intro animation your home city is destroyed by a soup can that has been discarded from an overhead vessel. The game opens as you find your way to another port and offer up your services as a freelance sub captain. By buying various commodities (which range anywhere from unrefined copper to seaweed, an illegal drug) you'll earn money that you can use to equip your ship with better weapons and equipment. Once your ship is properly outfitted, you'll be able to accept missions from the four different cities in your underwater world. Some are simple salvage operations (using a giant magnet to help you haul the item back to your base), some are fishing expeditions (where you'll use a sonic fish lure to coerce your prey into a large boat), and others are military in nature. Through the course of your missions you not only earn money and respect, but you also learn more about the world you live in and its two warring tribes. Those who are the most skilled will find a way to help everyone get along and will make the ocean floor safer for all.
Sub Culture is fun to play. You can pilot your craft from a first-person point of view or opt for an external camera, and you can switch back and forth at any time. The missions boast enough variety that you never get the feel of doing the same thing over and over again, and they help the story move along smoothly. Since the game has an open trading engine, you can also take your time accomplishing different actions. If you don't feel like you have the firepower to get something done, you can simply trade for a while and wait until you have enough money to buy the armament you need. The game's look (when used with a compatible 3Dfx board) is unbeatable, flawlessly detailing an underwater world, complete with lens flares and smoke trails. The game's graphics are so stunning in fact, that you'll often find yourself piloting around just sightseeing, your original mission forgotten. Finally, the game boasts some of the cleanest force feedback joystick support I've yet seen.
Even with all of its pluses, Sub Culture still has several flaws that keep it from being the instant classic that it could have been. First off, the title won't offer much challenge to players who have even the most basic gaming experience. I played from start to finish in just under 14 hours and never really broke a sweat on any of the missions. The game has three different storylines that you can follow, but each of them offers the basic mission types and none offers up enough difference to really make you want to play the game again and again. Second, after finishing the game, my reward was a brief (about 15 seconds) animation and a rolling of the credits. Not much to look forward to if you're thinking about a second play through. Other minor problems like the title's requirement for a patch download in order to work properly and the fact that there are parts of the game where the plot is furthered by taking away your ability to control your ship are also present.
In the end, Sub Culture is actually one of the most entertaining games I've played in a long time. Sadly though, it's not long enough or challenging enough to allow me to make a wholehearted recommendation. If you get the chance to play at a friend's house, or you've got money to burn, treat yourself to one of the most innovative titles of the year. Otherwise, just cross your fingers and hope Sub Culture inspires a renaissance of trading games.