The sinking of the K-141 Kursk on 12th August 2000 was a tragedy which ultimately, nobody has ever been held accountable for. All 118 men aboard the nuclear-powered submarine were killed, but the emergency response to the disaster was slow and chaotic, with the Russian government rejecting the assistance of Britain and Norway until five days later, long after any potential survivors had perished. The official explanation for the disaster was a badly maintained practice torpedo exploded, causing a fire which triggered the submarine’s remaining torpedo warheads to explode with the force equivalent to several tonnes of TNT. Nobody in the Russian Navy, or the makers of the torpedo responsible for the initial explosion, were ever arrested or indicted.
When I first heard there was going to be a game about the Kursk disaster, I thought it in rather poor taste. Only eighteen years have passed since the incident, and most of the families of those lost in the sinking will be still alive. Even now, I’m not sure what a relative of someone who died aboard the Kursk would think of this game. On the one hand it tries to be respectful to the officers and crew, portraying them as a friendly bunch full of camaraderie. On the other hand, your role is that of a spy who is actively working against them and the country they serve. KURSK (for the game title is capitalized) is a weird mishmash of historical fact overlaid with pure fiction. While it possesses many admirable qualities, including the fastidiously detailed recreation of the submarine, KURSK is ultimately too slow and clunky while getting to the thrilling and harrowing finale.
Your role in KURSK is that of an undercover US spy, ostensibly working for the CIA. Your mission is to go aboard the Kursk, a huge nuclear submarine and the pride of the Russian Navy, to find out more information about the advanced supercavitating torpedoes, the VA-111 Shkval. These torpedoes can travel faster than the ordinary designs, because they create a bubble around the torpedo, reducing the drag it has while travelling through the water. The plot is fairly thin, and the main drama is obviously the sinking itself, which occurs about three quarters of the way through the game. Most of the voice-acting is in Russian with English subtitles, with only the main character’s inner-monologue being delivered in English. Voice acting is pretty good, and although I can’t speak Russian I most of the time managed to get the emotional gist of what someone was saying. The section of the game after the explosion is easily the most entertaining (if that is the right word), but sadly the majority of the game before that is tedious and repetitive.
Most of the gameplay of KURSK is straight out of standard adventure games. A member of the crew will give you a task to do, and you’ve got to then navigate around the sub in order to find the relevant items, complete objectives and return to the person who asked you do it. Sadly, this is where KURSK falls down in a major way. Although the sub interiors look incredible, they are highly non-interactive. Crew members stand or sit in pre-defined areas of the ship, and only very rarely will you see someone actually walking around. Although the environmental noises like the shuddering of the engines and the creaks and groans of the submarine are excellent, there is very little in the way of incidental ambient dialogue between the crew, it only triggering when you go up to a person and hit the interact button. You’re given some additional spy activity to accomplish, such as lock picking, taking covert photographs and hacking computers, but because none of the crew of the Kursk ever seem to move of their own accord, I rarely worried about getting caught.
Getting around the sub is regrettably a tiresome chore, owing to the fact that opening every door and going between each watertight compartment requires an unskippable lengthy animation and/or loading screen. You will often be given an objective in Section 5 while you’re in Section 1, which requires traversal through four watertight door loading screens, each with the same animation. Likewise, returning to Section 1 to report your success requires going back through the same loading screens in reverse order. Moving around always feel a bit like you’re a giant on roller-skates, as you can either move at a sluggish walking pace, clomping around with interminable slowness, or else sprint down corridors, hurtling into doors so fast you’d think you’d ricochet off them. There are some side quests here, but they’re all of the same variety of fetch quest, and although there are some interesting mini-games in the form of Game & Watch-like devices and arcade machines, they’re only entertaining for a few minutes on their own.
I cannot at all fault the environments in KURSK, which graphically look spectacular. The quality of the environmental work is up there with Alien: Isolation in terms of attention to detail, with the entire interior of the submarine being mapped out deck by deck, room by room. The Kursk featured such luxuries as a games room, a gym, and even a pool, facts I was not aware of previously. Facial animations and lip syncing are unfortunately quite poor, but they’re often the most difficult thing to get right. Also worthy of praise is the music and sound design, which is fantastic. The score is high-tension when necessary, lush and grand at other moments, reminiscent of many famous Russian composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Performance can be a bit hit and miss, as you’ll require a powerful PC to run the game at high settings, and the framerate chugs occasionally in larger areas.
Coincidentally (and perhaps fortuitously) a film dramatization of the sinking, also called Kursk, was released in September this year, starring Colin Firth. Ultimately, the film manages to tell a more engaging and emotionally powerful story than the game ever does. KURSK tries a lot of different things, but it is only really successful in a few key areas, namely the environments and the music. Walking around the Kursk, with the groaning juddering of the water pressure against the hull as you clamber through yet another watertight door is the most realistic submarine simulation since the days of Silent Hunter. But at the same time, the supposed tension above and beyond this, your role as a spy and the actual time spent trudging back and forth around the decks of the sub mostly feel dull and listless, only reviving a little for the finale. KURSK is an interesting curiosity, but you’ll need a good deal of patience to actually finish it.