In the year 2000, the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk ran into trouble in the Barents Sea. A series of explosions resulting from faulty torpedoes in the hull tore the ship apart, bringing about the death of the 118 sailors on board. The Russian authorities got heavily criticised for their late response to the disaster and it has since become a highly analysed event, with documentaries and film covering the tragedy. Now there is a “documentary game” attempting to do the same, all while delivering a fictional narrative along the way.
Kursk is played as a first-person adventure whereby you play the role of a fictional American spy who is going aboard the ill-fated submarine to steal secrets and generally get up to no good. You are impersonating a naval Russian officer and the game starts in the middle of the disaster when you are trying to escape your room. Soon it takes you back in time before the vessel sets sail, with you finding yourself in a hotel in Moscow awaiting your orders. The story takes you through the journey to the Kursk, getting on board, and then the build-up to the inevitable outcome.
The game is a strange one narrative-wise; putting a fictional spy story into a real-life disaster doesn’t sit entirely well with me. The writing and dialogue work well enough though and there is a lot of good exposition when interacting with the submarine crew while onboard the Kurst. Extra features like documents you find, or letters home to girlfriends or wives, feel quite poignant and are well-devised. The spy story eventually doesn’t go anywhere though as the disaster is the main focus.
Gameplay-wise and in Kursk you’ll be found walking around the ship picking up objects and examining them. You also get to use some spy equipment like an electronic lock pick that activates a little mini-game puzzle. You can also hack into computers, which then brings forth another mini puzzle. You have to be careful while doing any of these actions because if you get spotted by any of the crew it’s game over and you restart from the nearest checkpoint. There are also loads of little arcade games dotted around the place; stuff that is fun to spend a little bit of time with, like Snake.
The whole game is ambitious and should work but there is something a bit clunky and confused about Kursk. For example, when you walk through the submarine you have to go through many different compartments, moving through door hatches. There is an animation for entering the hatch that takes about six seconds to play out; after the hundredth time, it starts to grate. It means you lose the rhythm and pacing of the game because of these animations interrupting the action.
Most of the gameplay consists of fetch quests or just walking around the submarine meeting a person, or getting an item and taking it somewhere else. There’s a lot of traveling and walking, and when combined with the animation and close quarters of the Kursk the whole thing can get a bit tiresome over its 5 to 6-hour running time.
Visually, there is some lovely attention to detail. The developers have obviously researched the submarine and all its layouts, and it does a great job of providing a sense of claustrophobia as you work the tight, cramped areas. There’s an early scene in a Moscow hotel that looks great too, with a brilliant panoramic view over the city. There is also exceptional attention to detail in the documentation that is found around the sub, with little bits of early millennium tech in the form of PDAs and game consoles. But, the character animations feel a bit lifeless and even though they move and go about their loops, when you look them in the eyes it’s all a bit scary.
Kursk is fully voiced with good performances from the characters in Russian and the lead character being American. The soundtrack is able to create a tight atmosphere and the effects are great, with atmospheric groans and creaks throughout. There is also some licensed music in place, from the classical to Pulp’s Year 2000 track.
Kursk could have been excellent, even though the premise itself is a little unsettling. The exploration and detail of the sub itself is great and feels very original, and there are some nice little gameplay elements found throughout. The movement between the different sub-compartments and the animation it brings does however become very annoying, very quickly, and it is this which destroys the impact of the game in regards to pacing. That said, if you want to try a game that is set twenty thousand leagues under the sea, then Kurst might be worth trying.
Kursk is available this minute on Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S from the Xbox Store