Kursk Review

The Hunt For Dead October
Developer: Jujubee S.A. Publishers: Jujubee S.A. Platform: Windows, Mac, Linux

Does the first documentary adventure game sink or swim?

Big ships look great. The Bismarck, the Yamato and the Hood are examples of big ships that became crown jewels of their respective navies, and all looked fantastic in the newspapers. Having the biggest and best ship ever is one of the oldest flexes in warfare, as it makes both your naval prowess and your industry look unstoppable.

Shame you can never use them.

Fielding such vital floating propaganda in actual battle is risky. They’re expensive to maintain, they become quick targets for aircraft, and their loss means a dramatic dip in morale. The Yamato almost never left port and was annihilated when it did, the Bismarck sunk the Hood, and the Bismarck met an anti-climactic end. But history has a nasty habit of repeating itself, and people have a nastier habit of not learning anything.

This is where the nuclear-powered submarine K-141 Kursk comes in.

The Kursk in real life, and its in-game depiction

The pride of the post-Soviet Russian navy, the Kursk was said to be unsinkable. It was a massive submarine; it measured to be twice the length of a Boeing 747 passenger jet. Like any other Big Ship, it was fielded in only one real mission in 1999. The sub is best known outside Russia for its sinking a year later.

During the ‘Summer-X’ war exercise, the largest of such since the Soviet Union, one of the Kursk’s (live) torpedoes exploded while inside its tube. Then, a second torpedo exploded – opening a hole in the hull. All 118 crew members died, some remaining inside until their hideaway flooded. It’s the greatest maritime disaster in Russian history.

This is the story that Polish developer Jujubee wants to tell though the medium of games. Kursk is the result.

Kursk is marketed as the first ‘adventure and documentary video game inspired by real events’, and they’re not completely wrong. What’s being attempted here is nothing short of applaudable. Games as a medium are still growing into maturity, and it was only a matter of time before a project on this scale was made to bear fruit.  Liberties with the story are taken (albeit playing into a couple of conspiracy theories), but they don’t quite take away from the historical narrative.

You play as an American spy aboard the submarine as it undergoes the Summer X exercises. You’ll be interacting with the crew and gaining their trust, gathering intelligence, and (eventually) fighting for survival. Again, the suspiciously-minded could get carried away but the historical setting isn’t compromised.

And the setting is presented so gorgeously. It’s not a surprise; Jujubee is composed of former developers from veteran studios like CD Projeckt RED and Traveller’s Tales. There’s a lot of hard work and talent that’s gone into how the game looks. Immersion into a world not even two decades into the past is an easy task, but it’s another thing entirely to make everything look so bloody nice.

The only shortcoming in terms of visuals is the lackluster lip-syncing, but that’s made up for by the great voice acting and sound design. Patches since launch have improved the lip movement, though.

It’s admirable that Jujubee have attempted such an ambitious project…

Authenticity is vital to the game’s visual might

But as good as the game looks and sounds, it can’t make up for how it plays. Kursk’s gameplay is awful to the point of continuous frustration. Movement feels sluggish – whether you’re walking, running or swimming – with changing direction being particularly troublesome. The smallest object can prove to be the largest obstacle; you can only walk around a box so many times before it becomes your arch-enemy.

The most disappointing aspect to the controls, though, has to be the interaction with Kursk’s world. Each object that’s available for interaction has a certain spot that has to be selected. To be allowed to hit that E key to open a door, for example, you have to approach it in just the right way. Any other method of approach, and you’ll be jittering your character around trying to get into that sweet spot. Once you do, you have to watch a small animation. This one isn’t necessarily egregious, I got over it fairly quickly, but it’s another piece of the pissed-off puzzle.

Kursk’s methods of interaction are simply too rigid for the kind of game that Jujubee wants to make. That could be down to the choice of engine; ‘walking simulators’ tend to do better on less intensive engines like Source or Unity. The engine also lends itself to a fatal flaw for those without strong PCs: it’s not very well-optimised. I’ll be the first to admit that my rig isn’t the best, but it’s far from a toaster. Even on the lowest graphics possible, framerates were disappointingly low.

Exterior environments are no slouch, either

It’s admirable that Jujubee have attempted such an ambitious project, but it could have done with some toning down. This is especially true considering that my playtime with Kursk was just under four hours. There’s nothing wrong with a short game, provided that it’s sweet. But Kursk’s wild ambitions have gotten the better of it, and it’s a less polished game because of it.

Final thoughts

Kursk is a great idea, executed mediocrely. The story of the disaster is told very well, with great respect to the zeitgeist of the turn of the millennium. If that’s what you’re after, and you don’t mind dealing with some very janky controls, Kursk could be right up your alley…provided you can pick it up for a smaller price.

Reviewed on Windows | Review code supplied by publisher
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Good

  • Looks and sounds great
  • Historical authenticity

Bad

  • Sluggish controls
  • A bit short
5

Glass Half Full

Aza blames his stunted social skills and general uselessness on a lifetime of video games. Between his ears is a comprehensive Team Fortress 2 encyclopedia. His brain, on the other hand, remains at large.
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