By Tim Stone on April 13th, 2012 at 1:00 pm.
While the Flare Path Network’s minuscule viewing figures did seem to suggest the world wasn’t ready for a TV channel devoted to military gaming, philately, and Edwardian erotica, I still believe the rebranding and reorientation was a dreadful mistake. The accountants are far happier now we’re SHiT TV (Sharks, Hitler, and Titanic TV) but Frank, Becky, and the rest of the old guard go around with a look of defeat in their eyes that’s painful to behold. Sometimes I yearn for the days before FP diversified. The days when I could just sit down on a Friday morning and tap out stories about obscure sims and obscurer wargames.
Back then merciless fascists/marine predators barely got a look in, and the only time I recall devoting column inches to that bloody ocean liner was in the centennial week of her sinking.
Bathos And Bathymetry
How are you going to spend Sunday, the 100-year anniversary of a day still talked about with pride in the watering-holes of Xxk, the Icebergian capital? Curled up with a copy of Titanic Survivor, a book written by the only person to survive the sinking of two Olympic-class ships and the grievous wounding of another? Excellent choice! Putting the finishing touches to your matchstick model of the 882ft long leviathan? Well played! Re-enacting her departure from Southampton with the help of Ship Simulator? A splendid idea, but you are aware aren’t you, that the finest PC recreation of the White Star whopper is probably Kyle ‘Hudizzle’ Hudak’s free add-on for Virtual Sailor 7 (An add-on that – as long as you delete one of the default vessels – will work with the demo)?
Me, I’m planning to pay my respects via a sim that’s as flawed as it is fascinating.
Dive To The Titanic is a game with poorly designed bulkheads and too few lifeboats. Chronic mission meanness, and some cranky collision detection means it’s not likely to linger long on your HD. What it might do, however, is set you thinking about the genre’s largely unexplored potential for high-quality history dissemination.
While I’d prefer to Swim With Sharks (Ex-X Factor contestant Gavin Swim gets up-close and personal with Nature’s most efficient killing machines! Repeated Saturday, Sunday, Monday (twice), Tuesday, and Thursday) than watch another ‘The Truth About Titanic’ documentary, listening to stories about the old girl while guiding an ROV through her sepulchral innards is really rather pleasant. DttT’s six dives take you to various infamous Titanic locations including the Marconi room manned by Jack Philips and Harold Bride, and the cabins of Joseph Ismay and Edith Rosenbaum.
As you whirr through the granular gloom, occasionally stopping to snap a photogenic bathtub or purloin – with your robotic claw – a potentially valuable plate or chamberpot (artefacts are auctioned after missions, and revenue spent on equipment upgrades) a topside colleague offers to tell you about the places you’re passing and the people that once walked where you swim. There’s stories too about the theories surrounding the sinking and the various madcap schemes to raise the wreck. The writing isn’t always stellar and the chap doing the regaling isn’t exactly Morgan Freeman but the tales captivate all the same.
After an afternoon spent amongst the murk and the memories I found myself wishing TML had used their unusually atmospheric underwater engine to tell the stories of other unlucky ships. A Dive to the Bismark or a Dive to the Mary Rose, had it come with a less rigid mission structure and a more extensive range of tales and salvageable trinkets, could have been truly mesmerising.
A spot of Titanic trespass also leaves me wondering why the PC gamer’s proven appetite for history, digging, and treasure hoovering, has never resulted in a series of First Person Archaeology games. To wander a scrupulously landscaped 3D battlefield or settlement site, with a knowledgeable guide at your side, a virtual metal detector in your fist, and a rucksack full of clue-sprinkled period maps and documents on your back, could – done right – be dangerously diverting. All the thrill and outdoorsy atmosphere of a good hunting sim. All the evocativeness and potential for emergent storytelling of a fine wargame.
“Found the silver boar badge in Spoils of War IX: Bosworth yet?
“No, but last night I did dig up my first SS spoon in Spoils of War VIII: Bastogne.”
The South African setting of HPS’s latest offering would make an interesting venue for a Spoils of War game. Those shy inheritors of Talonsoft’s hexy legacy, have just published a top-down turn-based interpretation of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift.
I scampered off to try the five-turn demo like a young cowherder who has just stumbled across the main body of Lord Chelmsford’s column.
After an hour of drab Anglo-Zulu Space Invaders, I slunk back to my desktop, convinced that one of the most dramatic events in British military history still hadn’t got the PC wargame it deserves.
To be fair to Jeff Lapkoff, The Drift’s lone creator, I’ve only tried the trial, and many of the factors that made the engagement at ‘Jim’s Place’ such a unique and closely-fought clash, do seem to be modelled. The Brits’ Martini-Henry fire is murderous, the Zulus in CQB fearsome. Building roofs can be set ablaze by the attackers, and the resulting fires will illuminate nearby units. The morale-boosting effect of Bromhead and Chard is pronounced.
The trouble is that all this lovingly researched detail is undermined by indivisible 6-man units, uncommunicative icons, weak audio, and the kind of number-heavy GUI that makes keeping track of troop status a right chore. The Drift can do drama but unless you keep an eye on a lot of titchy unit stats and easy-to-miss reports you won’t have the materials necessary to picture it.
Improbably, a twenty year-old treatment of the same battle manages to offer more in the way of spectacle and atmosphere. Ed Grabowski’s Rorke’s Drift might have had one of the worst movement systems ever devised, and an unrotatable map featuring unnoccupiable buildings, but by representing individual combatants with individual sprites, it evoked the intricate savagery of the 1879 Victoria Cross-fest far better than this newcomer.
I know there’s numerous ways to skin a cat, but when it come to Rorke’s Drift wargames I reckon some features are non-negotiable:
- One man, one sprite (if this means troops have to be moved around in drag-selected clumps on occasion, then so be it).
- Buildings with fully modelled mousehole-able interiors (The hand-to-hand fighting in the hospital needs to be represented in all its desperate glory).
- Authentic weapon sounds and zulu war chants.
- A mode that allows the defender to design his own biscuit box and mealy bag defences.
- A Mount & Blade style first-person option for last-ditch revolver/rifle butt action.
- Intro vid voiced by Michael Caine, in which Gonville Bromhead, now a decrepit Chelsea Pensioner, recollects the events of 22-23 January 1879.
- A money-off coupon for the unmissable Spoils of War XII: Rorke’s Drift.
The Flare Path Foxer
Last week’s ‘Spot the Shreck’ sharpsleuther was Snuffy The Evil. Snuffy’s L3 shot was a fraction low (The rocket was nestling in the top-left corner of L2) but close enough to secure a rare iron FP flair point mit Eichenlaub.
BooleanBob is Mentioned In Dispatches for the wayward but wunderbar “D7. Coming in low to the ground and hungry, like some sort of HEAT dachshund scurrying home on chops night.” and Westland Wizard orranis gets a belated yet richly deserved pair of points for his plucky/perceptive plane spotting back in Foxer #33.