As the go-to guy for fishing games, it was inevitable that Fishing: Barents Sea would end up on my radar. While it’s not my usual sort of fishing, what with it being based around boats, longlines and trawling, the prospect of becoming a commercial fisherman did still have some appeal to me. But is it worth trying to extricate fish from the frigid depths and earn some serious money?
The Barents Sea is a chilly bit of water located off the northern coast of Norway and Russia, just south of the Arctic Ocean. Luckily, as some fish quite like the cold water, there is no shortage of things to try and catch – cod, haddock, pollack and redfish, in addition to the mighty king crab to locate and extract.
The game opens with you inheriting your grandfather’s old fishing boat, a rusty tub called Borge. Borge is a small vessel, with only room for you and four sets of longline tackle. As the name suggests, longline tackle consists of a long length of line, with many hooks dotted along its length, which are then baited before being dropped into the sea to see what comes along. You have four choices of bait to put on the hooks, each of which will attract different fish more strongly than others. For instance, krill will attract redfish while shrimp will catch more cod than anything else. Obviously different fish are in demand at different times in different ports, so tailoring your catch (as far as possible) to the market conditions will pay the biggest dividends. Yet as you progress through the Complete Edition of Barents Sea you’ll gain access to bigger and better boats, which will allow you to trawl for fish instead of trying to catch them one at a time. Another advantage of the bigger boats is that you can have minions to do the donkey work – or “crew” as we should call them.
The act of longline fishing is a physical one, and it’s easy to see just how tough the real fishermen out on the ocean waves have it. Trying to find the right area on the map, then laying the gear and cooling your heels for 18 hours for the best results, gives the fish time to find your bait. Luckily, in the game at least, there are handy colour coded rings around your gear, and retrieving the line while the ring is blue sees you get the best results. This retrieval method is fairly easy too; at least once you have manoeuvred the boat into the correct position. A simple button press starts the retrieval, and this then actions a little mini game. As each hook nears the boat, a circle on the screen contracts and you have to try and stop it as close to the centre as possible, with the possibility of bonus fish being awarded depending on how well you do. If you time it just right, your guy will gaff the fish and swing it inboard. However, should your timing be not so great, it’s possible to miss the fish entirely.
And the work has only just begun once the fish are on board, as from there you have to gut them. Having done this a few times in real life, I’m pleased to report that gutting in Fishing: Barents Sea is a bloodless affair, just testing your ability to insert a knife into a fish and basically draw a straight line, following a dotted cut around the belly of the fish. Doing this well will add to the value of the catch.
So far so good then and the actual mechanics of the fishing is fun, as is driving the boat the short distances required at the beginning. However, it’s not long before some annoyances start to arise, most noticeably with the boat driving side of the game. Now, there is a fast travel mechanic to enjoy, and you can set various waypoints and the boat will sail along the course that you plot, much faster than it can do in the real game time, but to illustrate my next point I’m going to need a visual aid, so please refer to the photo below.
The line that you can see on the map represents the bits of the sea that you have sailed. As you can see, I sailed from one port, to another, and then off to a third one in the frigid north as you have to discover the ports to be able to use their services. The line from the left hand port to the green circle at the side, and then on to the northern port took 90 minutes – of real time – to sail. One and a half hours of looking at the back of a fishing boat as it putt-putted its way across the sea. I don’t know about you, but this was massively tedious for me. I went and made a brew, read a book, and flicked back over to see if there was anything on television. Apart from minor course corrections, you don’t need to interact with the game at all for any of that time. If you hadn’t guessed, this is not fun. And it just gets more ridiculous when you want to fast travel to a new area.
See, you can only fast travel to bits of the sea that you have previously sailed across, so you have to try and place the flags for the various waypoints down the thin line of the explored seascape. This wastes not only precious time, but also fuel for the boat, which causes the Norwegian version of the naval AA to come out and tow you back to the first port in the game, charging you for the privilege. This single decision has in effect ruined the game for me, as anything that drives you to read a book to try and pass some time in a game is just bonkers. I’m no expert, but surely in the real world the GPS coordinates of a port are fixed, and the boat should be able to at least sail you to its vicinity? I mean obviously you’d have to watch out for boats and unexpected islands in the way, but still it has to be better than 90 minutes playing the game, while not actually playing the game.
Finding the ports does allow you to access missions, letting you undertake these to improve your standing and earn a little money on the side. Some of these are fun, like delivering cod to a port that is experiencing a shortage, or taking a group of tourists whale watching. Sadly, the travel mechanics creep in here as well, as certain missions forbid you from fast travelling. I saw one mission in the most northerly port, Tufjord, that required me to take fish to Hammerfest, the starting port. Without fast travelling, this would take a minimum of two hours. I just couldn’t face another extended sea journey, so I missed out on currency and a reputation boost.
Graphically and Fishing: Barents Sea Complete Edition looks very good on my Xbox One, with some of the best water effects I’ve seen in a game. The islands that suddenly pop into existence as you get closer are a little jarring, but all in all the pictures here are pretty, with dynamic weather and a believable day/night cycle. Well, I say night, but obviously this far north there isn’t much of a night, with the sky darkening briefly around 2am, but otherwise being pretty fishable at all times. The sound is very minimalistic, with music that reminds me of the ambient sounds of Minecraft; otherwise there is just the sounds of the wind and sea to keep you company. Oh, and that of the boat engines, obviously!
All in all though and Fishing: Barents Sea Complete Edition on Xbox One is an ambitious game that does provide some fun should you wish to go about harvesting the sea. But ultimately it is crippled by a dreadful travel mechanic. I get that this is supposed to be a simulation type game, and if you have the spare time to uncover every corner of the admittedly vast map to enable easy travel then you’ll probably enjoy this. However, for me, the time required to run errands ruins the whole experience of the game, enough to put me off playing. In fact, this is a fishing trip too far, almost literally.