Wacht Am Tyne

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Cruel Sea, Cruel Mistress: Silent Hunter III

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I have this morbid fear that this post will descend into outright porn. As bizarre as that may sound, it really is a genuine fear: Silent Hunter III is, dare I say it to the blank stranger that is the Intarweb, the only wargame to have ever got to me to the point of obsession – and we’re talking far beyond 12-hour-binges obsession.

Long story short: It’s (as the title suggests) the third in the Silent Hunter series, which started Back In The Day pitting US boats against the Japanese, then in the sequel it was U-Boats fighting it out in the ETO. SH3 went back to the U-Boat theme, this time with a graphics system that was far richer than the promo material was letting on (the tease), a new dynamic-campaign structure, and overhauled the interface and control systems so that suddenly you found yourself with, in hindsight, only a few more additions to what was there in SH2 but now so intuitive and fluid that it all seemed brand-new. The campaign starts with you selecting a starting-year and a Flotilla (all historically accurate to availability and base-of-ops), and you have at your disposal individual crew members to be boosted with trade qualifications and awards that increase their efficiency and use aboard your boat – which can be one of a few dozen variants through the war, from the dinky Type-IIs, the ubiquitous Type-VIIs and IXs, right up (if you’re lucky) to the Type-XXI, which is as much as a beast in-game as it could have been in reality. The man/machine ‘upgrading’ takes place via the accumulation and spending of ‘Renown’ – a straightforward points-system based on tonnage sunk and not getting shot at in turn, the points from which are then spent on more experienced crew and certain (factually accurate) torpedo types, through to U-Boat equipment and the boats themselves. It sounds a bit arcadey but in practice it does work out quite well; I like to see it as High Command seeing fit to entrust the Gucci gear to someone who knows what they’re doing – symbolised by a big wodge of Renown points – and not the clot who blew off his own rudder with an acoustic torpedo (that’s a true gaming story, and I’m certain he will read this…)

In SH2 (and I assume the original, as I haven’t played it) the main campaign was about three-dozen pre-set missions in a fairly action-packed storyline, cramming in as many historical actions as was possible. For instance, I remember the first mission was to prevent the flight of several Polish capital ships to safety in British anchourage, and later on you’d recreate Prien’s raid into Scapa Flow, take part in Operation Drumbeat, and so on. In SH3 you are given a grid-square to patrol, and that’s it – you have free rein to go as far and as full-on as fuel and torpedoes allow; actually patrolling the grid-square will net you some Renown, but you lose nothing by buggering off on your own little adventure if you know a good convoy-route to prey upon. And convoys are all accurately charted, so by setting off into the Barents in ’42-’43 you can actually find yourself in a true-to-life – and entirely unscripted by the game – assault upon the Arctic Convoys, or your own Scapa Flow raid… or Loch Ewe, or Gibraltar, or New York…

So, it’s a game of seemingly endless inadvertant set-pieces to fall into: I’ve been chased almost Benny Hill-style around the Solent by destroyers; have mauled a convoy in a surface attack and then evaded its escort by crash-diving right under the stricken hull of a sinking tanker, popping up on the other side to slam a salvo into another brace of ships; have duelled with MTBs in the Thames Estuary while shore batteries threw heavy ordnance overhead – and, most astonishingly, have never got bored of the game. In addition, there are additional single-mission scenarios enabling the player to recreate famous set-pieces such as the actual Scapa Flow infiltration, change history and sink HMS Warspite in the Norway campaign, and re-enact the destruction of HMS Barham. There’s also a strong mod community (even after almost four years) that has provided countless additions from Das Boot-themed icons to full-on overhauls of graphics, physics and options.

I’d continue, but I feel that I’ve given enough meat for any naval-warfare enthusiasts with a PC to inquire further. Plus, I’ve worked myself up into a bit of a stir – I’m off to prowl the Azores.

Written by nikkiwilliams

26 November, 2008 at 4:20 pm

John Locke, ABBA and Trench Warfare: Supremacy 1914

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I’ve been playing Supremacy 1914 for the better part of a fortnight, a free Java-based game in which you assume control of one of ten European powers in a pre-WWI setting. The first ‘Oooh’ point to this game is that it runs in literal real-time – that is to say, I’ve been playing for 11 days now and in the game it’s Day 11. This means that there’s not a lot to do once you’ve given your troops their orders, spent your daily intake of taxes and written threatening letters to the major powers of the continent – unless, of course, you end up playing with people who are also frantically refreshing the browser to pounce upon the latest political development, in which case a lot can occur.

I’ve been playing with some people from a forum, so everything was organised beforehand – if you’re going to delve into the servers on your own, you might be waiting ages for players to fill the space on the roster (as the game won’t start unless it has the required numbers), or be stuck with idiots who will use the diplomatic interface to inundate you with requests for “aan alianc” before getting bored with the real-time gameplay and sodding off back to Band of Battlefield Brothers in Armed Assault III.
The diplomacy, with the assumption that you’re playing with people who have a competent grasp of the English language, has so far (as I’ve not had a proper war yet) been the best bit because the players are left to their own devices on this. You can cajole, bribe, threaten and scare the hell out of your neighbours and – if you’re familiar with your co-players – can have quite a bit of fun with it all.

Which is why I am playing entirely in-character as John Locke from Lost, or should I say ‘Pope John of Italy’ (countries were randomly-assigned and the game thinks that the Pope is the Head of State of Italy). Pope John – a former regional manager of a Turin box company (REFERENCE!) – has so far helped his Moroccan trading partners (ruled by Jafar from Aladdin…) stamp out sabotage in Algiers, invaded Belgian-owned Switzerland (I don’t know why Belgium, either) to gain valuable lumber resources to feed Italian rail expansion, made friends with the Swedish leader (yep, Bjorn from ABBA…) by solving their coal crisis, and annoyed Austro-Hungary by accidentally tearing up a Mutual Protection Pact – although I still maintain that I got confused with the interface, rather than it being a thumbed-nose to my neighbour – and is very close to war with them as a result.

As far as the warfare goes, until you can expand your infrastructure and start building serious hardware like artillery and tanks (Note: There is a degree of naval combat, but naval units appear very high up the tech-tree) you’re restricted to infantry units, and the only tactics involved there are “Get enough of them – Run at enemy – Come back tomorrow and see if you’ve won”. Management of your production of materials such as Iron, Lumber and Oil are the key to unlocking the big guns (literally) because of how much material you have to expend to build the province improvements that get you them. If I had known, I’d have probably not sold off all my key goods while trying to make friends with the rest of Europe, but better luck next time – although, with that real-time system, ‘next time’ might even be sometime next year. I’m not joking.

As a wargame, it’s a good, accessible bit of fun with some fairly meaty strategic and tactical potential in the later game (I imagine), and a lot of variable options and opportunities. For instance, I think next time I’ll play in-character as Bennett from Commando. Or Luther Blissett. Or Sanjeev Bhaskar. Thoughts?

Written by nikkiwilliams

18 October, 2008 at 6:12 am

Posted in All, Wargaming

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