Dive! Dive! Dive! Here's a game to play in the bath! This submarine simulation is a great war game but for serious gamers only. If you're the sort to be put off by a suggestion to read one or two books on submarine warfare, then the game isn't for you either, as this is just what Microprose warns you to do. Silent Service comes with two huge sheets of information to drown you in facts though the actual game is fairly simple. You must navigate your American sub across the Pacific, find a Japanese convoy, single out and sink your target, then beat a hasty retreat.
What gives the game its subtlety is the huge number of game options and variations to choose from. There are four skill levels - ranging from hard to totally impossible on my rating - and there are seven reality options so that you can make each game totally different. These include limited visibility, manoeuvrability of the enemy or dud torpedoes on your sub. Finally, you can choose between three game scenarios - torpedo or gun practise, convoy actions and war patrol.
Multiple screens aid your attacks. Map, visual, sonar and radar locations appear on one, while others give you periscope/binocular views, the conning tower, bridge, instruments and damage control. You can suffer from overkill on the information front, but it does seem like the real thing.
Whether you think Silent Service is subnormal or sublime depends on you. Like a good book, it takes a while to get into, but once you're there you'll be pleased you made the effort.
The instructions that come with this terrifyingly comprehensive submarine sim would probably be sufficient to wallpaper a small basement flat - even after being reduced onto microfilm, as they have been to fit them into the game's titchy cassette box. But fear not. With the aid of my trusty magnifying glass/potato peeler (it came free with 5 litres of multigrade) I've spent the last three weeks analysing them in every detail, and I can safely say there's nothing I don't know about underwater warfare.
A thorough explanation of the game's workings in the inadequate space I've been allotted would be impossible (and incredibly boring) so I won't even try it. Rest assured, however, that if it's got anything to do with submarines it's in there - from conning towers to Christmas trees. (No, really!) And if you're prepared to immerse yourself in it properly, Silent Service is an utterly absorbing game. All that's really missing is a proper submarine atmosphere, but that's easily provided by some pieces of red cellophane, a few holes strategically drilled in the central heating pipes and an obliging friend or relative under orders to shake your chair about at moments of tension.
GOING TO BATTLE
War simulations are becoming ever more popular Tom Courtenay examines some of the best.
War games have come a long way from the time H.G. Wells wrote Little Wars at the turn of the century. He wrote it as a result of trying to regulate the battles on the Kitchen table against his friends involving a handful of pained tin soldiers. These days, war-gamers revel in the complexity and realism of their simulations - ify ou call it playing soldiers they would be very upset. Any game worth its salt will involve tape measures, dice, sets of tables, vast numbers of troops, or even cardboard counters representing regiments or divisions.
So it is scarcely surprising that the home computer was welcomed by the war-gaming lobby with open arms. Two approaches were taken: either the computer could be used to referee a traditional war game fought on a table-top in traditional manner, or the whole thing could be transferred to the computer.
The pioneer of the latter approach was Lothlorien, which began to produce war games written in Basic on the Spectrum. Obviously they look primitive by today's standards but they attempted to be accurate representations of historical events. To the mainstream games enthusiast, they played slowly and you could not kill anything.
The first truly modern game was Nato Commander from Microprose. It takes place in northern Europe and features that almost constant American obsession, the Reds pouring over the border and trying to take over Europe. The game covers the most critical period, between the initial invasion and the U.S. getting huge reinforcements to the front. Thus, the Nato commander is severely outnumbered and is fighting a delaying action, trying to hold on to as much ground as possible, and possibly inflicting significant losses on the Soviets.
However distasteful you may find the scenario, it is a very good game. Success depends on falling back in stages, each rearguard action allowing time for the forces to the rear to dig in, then fall back, and so on. In that way, the steam is taken out of the Soviet advance. Any Soviet forces not in contact with friendly forces may disappear from the map, depending on how many aircraft are flying reconnaissance missions.
Aircraft can also run air superiority or ground attack missions. It is important to keep open supply lines and make the best possible use of terrain. The computer opponent is fairly intelligent, although by following particularly outrageous tactics it might be very confused.
Microprose recently followed this with Decision in the Desert and Crusade in Europe. They are a real tour de force. Covering two famous campaigns in WWII, they are about as near to a board game on a computer as you are likely to see. Almost everything is there, the different strengths and weaknesses of units, use of terrain, supply - in both strategic and tactical senses - fog of war, and a two-player option.
Again, the computer could be a little lacking in the old grey matter, especially when called on to defend, but the two-player option is what the game was about. Both games feature several different scenarios which portray different battles within the campaign. Although the games can be long, the speed of play can be varied to slow things when things become difficult. Orders are made in real time - the battle does not stop while you input orders. Tactics are very subtle. All-out effort rarely works; you will just run out of supplies and exhaust your troops. It is all about probing for weaknesses and then exploiting them quickly. The games are on C64, Atari and Apple.
Microprose recently capped even that success with its chart-topping Silent Service, in the same three formats, with ST, Amstrad and Spectrum versions promised. It is a superb simulation of submarine warfare in the Pacific. Almost without being aware of it, the player is subject to many rules about sighting, detection, firing and hidden movement. It knocks spots off all the board games devoted to the same subject - and you can shoot things.
You command one submarine on patrol in the Pacific. After a convoy is detected, a quick squint through the periscope to see whether its worth the risk - how heavy is the escort? Then check the time. Should you wait until dusk? Check the speed and course of the convoy. What is the best attack course to evade detection? A little on the slow side for the shoot-'em-up fraternity but a superb and exciting simulation which will take some beating.
That is not to say British programmers are not starting to get their acts together. Particularly Robert Smith, who has produced two fine simulations, Arnhem and Desert Rats, published by CCS on the Spectrum and Amstrad.
Another company specialising in this field is PSS. It has attempted to popularise the genre by including an arcade element in most of its games. Unfortunately that tends to mean the realism of the game suffers - precious memory and development time is lavished on a rather tedious shoot-'em-up.
Neither is the company a stranger to controversy. Its titles include Theatre Europe, all about the jolly little subject of a European war escalating into a thermonuclear holocaust. The scenario is much the same as Nato Commander but the addition of a complex air war, the arcade sequences and the thermonuclear option has left in its wake a rather dull land game.
The game falls between four stools. Falklands '82 was another landmark of good taste. It features the Argentinians and the British locked in a struggle to save their respective governments from the wrath of the electorates. The game stayed mainly with the land campaign, and it aroused much anger as it demonstrated the possibility of the British losing - something fairly obvious to anyone of even a semi-rational disposition.
Possibly the company's best game to date is Battle of Midway, about the decisive carrier battle in the central Pacific in the middle of 1942 which effectively ended Japanese chances of winning the war. The player controls the American task forces in an attempt to seek and destroy the Japanese aircraft carriers protecting an invasion of the American base at Midway island.
Although the tactics employed would make most military historians turn pale, it is not a bad game. The player has to find, identify and then shadow the enemy task force as, his strike aircraft close in from his carriers. Naturally, the enemy is trying to do the same, or even get to grips with his surface units. The player must plan his raids, try to evade the enemy, and control the strikes, making sure they find their targets and have sufficient fuel to return to their carriers.
The same system was developed further in the PSS Battle of Britain. It covers the Luftwaffe attempt to destroy the RAF in the summer of 1940. The main pre-occupation of the player is to preserve his fighters, taking on the Germans only if he can do so on favourable terms. There are problems; after each interception the fighters must land, re-fuel and re-arm. The nightmare is that a German raid will catch the fighters on the ground. The campaign is fought through several turns, with the British meeting raiders as their losses permit. It is a long game, of slightly dubious accuracy, but a fascinating struggle.
On the same subject, Their Finest Hour from Hutchinson is a flawed attempt to be a real simulation of the battle. Although highly-detailed, some of the mistakes are almost laughable. First, defensive flak can zip from target to target as if on wheels; ME109s have huge fuel tanks, along with the Spitfires which also have inexhaustible ammunition. Time and again, a squadron can shoot down 200 aircraft and usually the Luftwaffe is defeated on the first day. It is a pity, because it had the makings of a fine game.
The most recent PSS game returns to the Western Desert, Tobruk, on the Amstrad, features an exceptional network option where two Amstrads are connected using the joystick ports so that two players can battle with highly-realistic Fog of War. Neither can see each other's pieces. The game design is a little artificial, with the British having fixed supply dumps and the Germans being able to zip around at will but it is a fine game which is great fun to play.
Most of the games have been set in WWII. If you crave for the age of the horse and the cannon, there is a grave shortage of quality material from that era. The Lothlorien Waterloo and Austerlitz are not bad. Although they lack detail, the games go some way to recreating the Napoleonic era, but if you are looking for dramatic cavalry charges, forget it.
Possibly the best thing Lothlorian has done to date is Jonny Reb, a semi-abstract simulation of tactics in the American Civil War, seen in retrospect as the transition from the Napoleonic to the modern era. As firepower became more formidable, so the only way to stay alive was to take cover. The infantry charge became a rather rare commodity. That is dealt with very well in this game. The Confederate army's job is to try to take a bridge from a small force of troops before a large number of Union reinforcements can arrive.
The tactic is to move up men with covering fire from artillery, then open fire with the infantry. If that does not work, send in the cavalry as a last resort - demoralised troops will tend to run rather than face a cavalry charge. Endless variations of troops and terrain can be tried with a kind of battlefield designer.
The major criticism is that such a complex game has completely inadequate instructions. The terrain is placed there with little explanation of its effects. Despite that, and the usual monumentally thick computer opponent. It is a game which will reward plenty of experimentation.
Computer war games have progressed a long way from their humble origins but they still have some way to go before they reach the level of accuracy and subtlety of most board war games. Perhaps the new generation of 68000-'based machines might just fulfil that potential.
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