The Flare Path: Breaks The Golden Rule

Back in 2004 a mix-up in a Japanese maternity ward led to one of gaming’s finest armour simulations emerging as a PlayStation 2 exclusive. Hobbled by platform limitations and exiled from its natural audience, Panzer Front Ausf.B failed to flourish. Many potential paramours missed out on its incomparably atmospheric Desert War scraps, its refreshingly Tigerless tank duels. It’s taken modern emulator technology to right the decade-old wrong. Now, thanks to free marvel PCSX2, Panzer Front Ausf.B is where it belongs – on PC and prettier, faster, and more convenient than ever before.

Ausf.B has brilliance in its blood. In the original Panzer Front (1999) and its semi sequel Panzer Front Bis (2001) – both PS1 titles – developers Enterbrain proved they understood WW2 tank combat and weren’t afraid of communicating its harsh realities. First time out Yasushi Ishizu and co. delivered roomy maps, honest ballistics, and diverse, flavoursome scenarios. Tank types were numerous, interior representations absent. Shells sometimes travelled kilometres to reach targets, and regularly found armour angles and thicknesses uncooperative on arrival. With beasts like the Tiger, Panther and Firefly at large on most battlefields, every rounded corner, crested ridge, and negotiated gateway was its own adventure.

For the PS2 sequel, Enterbrain left the sunken lanes of Normandy, the rubble-narrowed streets of Berlin, and the snow-mantled Soviet steppe, and headed South. Apart from a single ‘Fall Gelb’ scenario, Ausf.B is an entirely North African affair. The game doesn’t even attempt to depict the full span of the three-year Desert War. It fixates on a three-month period early in 1941 when the campaign was at its most fluid and tidal – a period before American forces arrived and bruisers like the Tiger, Sherman, and M3 Lee/Grant came ashore.

At first glance this narrowness, in combination with the sparse desert scenery and relatively slim scenario selection, seems like a backward step. Empty horizons and early war popguns leave you yearning for Villers-Bocage and the grim efficiency of the KwK 36 and QF 17-pounder. It’s only when you’ve spent a few days sweltering and swooning under the merciless Cyrenaican sun that you begin to realise you’re in the presence of one of the most interesting and evocative tank games available.

As fond as I am of Panzer Elite, Steel Fury, and T.34 vs Tiger I’m not sure any of them convey the spectacle and atmosphere of WW2 battle as successfully as this console curiosity. In Ausf.B engagements you are seldom alone. You tend to advance in the company of crowds of footsloggers and dozens of AFVs. Scraps stretch for miles, leaving trails of burning vehicles and vacated trenches in their wake. Stukas and Hurricanes harry. Nerve-shredding artillery bombardments creep and maul. Ishizu seems less interested in ensuring we are entertained… in supplying us with a series of carefully modulated challenges… than ear-whispering over and over the message “This is what it was like!”

The unusual approach can be frustrating. ‘DEFEAT’ and ‘VICTORY’ messages appear for no discernible reason. Sometimes you find yourself hopelessly outgunned or totally disoriented. This is a game that doesn’t care if you feel sidelined, insignificant, or hard-done-by. In an industry where balance is so highly valued and difficulty so closely controlled, the swirling chaos feels bracing. It feels appropriate.

Ausf.B’s large, dramatic war canvases bear close inspection too. Easy to miss in the fury of battle are a host of lovingly rendered details that speak volumes about Enterbrain’s work ethic and subject matter passion. Button-up your Pz III and not only does the TC descend and the top hatch slam, the driver’s protective visor slides into position. Traverse the turret so that the main gun collides with the radio antenna, and rather than clipping straight through, the barrel pressure tilts the antenna; splendidly, an animator has taken the trouble to model the ingenious antenna pivot mechanism.

Unique tank names, numbers and unit insignias painted on hulls, type-specific hatches that pop open when crews bail, infantry representations that – though angular and low poly – include ammo and tripod carriers… there’s love and industry everywhere.

Except interiors. As in the first PF, landship innards are implied rather than depicted. Battlefields and battlewagons can be viewed through external cameras, fieldglasses, periscopes, or nation-specific gunsights only. You might not get to see Bert ‘Leafy’ Hedges wrestling with the steering levers in a Matilda or Wolfgang ‘Dimples’ Schaefer ramming another Pzgr. 39 up the spout of his KwK 38, but the damage model is sufficiently granular to recognise when Leafy and Dimples are effected by penetrations or spall. Like tracks, engines, turret mechanisms, and main guns, individual crewmen can be temporarily – or permanently, if you choose to play without summonable repair trucks/halftracks – put out of commission.

Personally, I’m happy to accept the odd realism compromise in combat. While the toggleable range markers, and unlimited ammo, increased engine output, and loading speed options, seriously pollute the game’s carefully cultivated air of authenticity, being the owner of only one pair of hands, eyes, and feet, I find it bally easy to justify an automatic gearbox, an external camera, and the ability to zoom in binoculars view.

One of the sturdiest crutches available to the defeat-dizzy Panzer Frontist is the easy-going Order of Battle. Ausf.B’s scenario menu is deceptive. Though it only contains seven entries (Training, Merdorp – the lone European scrap, Fort Pilastrino, Beda Fomm, Agedabia, Ras El Madauar, and Fort Capuzzo) all scenarios can be played from a plethora of perspectives. Usually you’re free to clamber into the turret/cab of any vehicle in the scenario. Struggling to stay alive in a frail Cruiser Mk IV? Try switching to the ambling anvil that is a Matilda II or changing sides and chancing your arm in a Pz IV. Missions can even be enjoyed/endured from the vantage point of AT guns like the dreaded 88.

Of course, when it comes to longevity, Ausf.B’s true secret weapon is its camo-net covered tank lists. Tucked away in a dark corner of the scenario setup screen is a roster of WW2 AFVs that historically didn’t participate in the bundled battles. Replace default steeds with these bonus machines and 1940 Merdorp can be transformed into a passable 1944 Normandy or 1943 Ukraine; Operation Brevity-era Libya can stand-in for Operation Frühlingswind-era Tunisia. In short, Ausf B. can be bulked out and spiced up in all kinds of entertaining ways.

The store of supplemental steel beasts doesn’t include PF-style ‘paper panzers’, however, old campaigners like the Tiger, T-34, and Sherman are present. Ausf.B is the only tank sim I can think of that, out of the box, lets you hunt Somua S35s with Horch-mounted Flak 30s, and allows Chi-Has and Crusaders to share a battlespace.

P-hour approaches like a speeding APCR round and I still haven’t mentioned the elegant RTS-style command interface available to troop leaders, the AI (competent if a tad predictable), and the occasional framerate slumps that even PCSX2’s turbo function doesn’t seem able to completely eliminate. I can either spend the next thirty seconds clumsily filling in blanks or I can spend it urging you to try an armour sim that reveres realism, communicates truths, and brings military history alive in a way that is quintessentially PC.

 

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The Flare Path Foxer

Newsflash! I’ve sacked Tabitha. Last week’s ‘chains’ foxer lacked ferrousity and, inexcusably, failed to feature M242 Bushmasters or polyethylene terephthalate. Experienced link forger Shiloh was wearing its brush as a necktie less than an hour after it had emerged from its den.

a. Watch chain (Shiloh)
b. Chainmail (All is Well)
c. Snow chains (Gusdownnup, Uglycat)
d. Daisy chain (All is Well)
e. Chain link (phlebas)
f. Chain Bridge (Stugle)
g. Chain Home (Shiloh, Rorschach617)

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The new Tabitha is a retired scarecrow milliner called Frank. Frank’s hobbies include narrowing his eyes, shooting the shit, and whooping in underpasses. In his CV he described himself as ‘resigned’ and ‘happy to get paid in dominoes’ – two qualities I’ve always admired in a foxer setter.

All answers in one comments thread, please.

42 Comments

  1. All is Well says:

    Is the airliner possibly an Armstrong Whitworth A.W.15 Atalanta? I think it is.

    • JB says:

      This site would seem to say “Oui!” link to jn.passieux.free.fr

    • JB says:

      I *think* the missile is a Gabriel anti-ship missile.

      • JB says:

        Ok, I’m confident it is now.

        e: And if it isn’t to do with the band, the road sign was designed by Margaret Calvert. Which may or may not prove to be pertinent to the foxer. (Tried to comment in reply to FurryLipSquid but comment kept getting eaten)

    • Shiloh says:

      The building top right is Strata SE1, in Elephant & Castle. Gor blimey guv’nor.

    • Shiloh says:

      I believe the box wing job top left is a Voisin biplane.

      • phlebas says:

        designed by Gabriel Voisin, in case that’s relevant at all.

    • skink74 says:

      I think the monoplane top-right is a Miles Master Mk1a, but it doesn’t look quite right behind the cockpit, so I could be wrong.

      It’s at this point that Matchstick’s colleague usually comes up with the correct answer.

      • All is Well says:

        I think you’re spot on, though it is a bit confusing as there seem to be quite a lot of difference between variants – some have a radial engine rather than an inline one, for instance, making them quite different-looking. Nice catch!

        Edit: image for reference
        link to richard.ferriere.free.fr

    • Shiloh says:

      Are they all types of cake or bakes? Pommes voisin, angel (Gabriel) cake, strata cake, cherry cake, atalanta cake…?

      • Rorschach617 says:

        Just going to throw this out there, see if it bounces.

        Don Cherry : link to en.wikipedia.org
        Miles Davis : link to en.wikipedia.org
        Rene Voisin : link to en.wikipedia.org
        Atalanta (the opera) : link to en.wikipedia.org, opens with trumpets.
        Archangel Gabriel : Trumpeter of the Apocalypse in some traditions.
        Strata is an album by Matthew Shipp and the Horn Quartet :
        link to en.wikipedia.org

      • Rorschach617 says:

        My last post might not make moderation, so I’ll repeat and shorten it.

        MILES Davis, Don CHERRY, Rene VOISIN and the Angel GABRIEL are all Trumpeters;
        The opera ATALANTA opens with trumpets;
        STRATA is an album by Matthew Shipp and the Horn Quartet.

        • phlebas says:

          The Strata reference could be a trumpeting Elephant (and castle)?
          And Eddie Calvert was a trumpeter, so the “Men at Work” sign works too.

  2. Stugle says:

    Is that gun a Long Tom?

    • Rorschach617 says:

      Looks like Long Tom carriage. Could it be a BL 7.2″ mk6, going by the helmets on the gun crew?

      Scrub that, Long Tom was in the British arsenal as well.

  3. wodin says:

    WOW..and no mentions the actual article yet..from me a big thanks Tim..

    • Fattsanta says:

      I feel the exact same every time I read one of these, I actually dont care for the flare path at all and wish it would be included somewhere else so that I can enjoy conversations with true fans not game show players.

      Edit – The game looks really fantastic, ill consider picking it up as I have a PS2 lying around at the moment.

      • Smion says:

        yeah, fuck off all you fakers! True fans only. Do you even play obscure Japanese PS2 tank sims?

        • All is Well says:

          Obviously, the Foxer is a recurring test to sort out Trve Fans from the casually interested – the rabble, the philistines, the filthy plebeians. Anyone unable to identify an early 19th century loco by its smoke plume is obviously not *actually* interested in the Flare Path’s subject matter and should thus politely (but firmly) be shown the door. Posers.

        • Fattsanta says:

          Im an elitist fanboy obviously. What dont you get, TRUE FANS ONLY

      • jpm224 says:

        I’ve been saying this for a while now. Love the flare path, hate the show-offs that take over the comments for every entry in the series.

        Really wish they would just start posting the foxer as a separate forum thread so people can actually discuss the games (you know, those things this website was made to talk about?).

    • JB says:

      The article is great. I’ve never read one of Tim’s that I haven’t liked. link to rockpapershotgun.com

      But the foxer can be a lot of fun.

    • phlebas says:

      I can’t speak for the others; I generally enjoy the column itself very much but I’ve usually nothing more insightful to say than ‘Hey Tim, good column!”, so I generally don’t bother. The Foxer is more obviously interactive, so I’m more likely to comment on that.

    • jpm224 says:

      I’ve been saying this for a while now. Love the flare path, hate the show-offs that take over the comments for every entry in the series.

      Really wish they would just start posting the foxer as a separate forum thread so people can actually discuss the games (you know, those things this website was made to talk about?).

      • JB says:

        Aah, so taking part in a weekly contest on the website (you know, put here on the site to take part in) makes people a show-off. Gotcha.

        e: I understand your frustration, I do, but show-offs? Ugh. Anyway, fear not, if all goes well we’ll soon have the Foxer safely tucked out of sight, never to offend again.

    • Tim Stone says:

      Kind words! Thanks everyone.

      Moving the foxer to a plush, book-lined, model-festooned side-room is something I’ve considered in the past. If the Hivemind is agreeable, I’ll trial the concept next week.

      • Llewyn says:

        Don’t be alarmed if that leads to a dearth of comments on the Flare Path itself; we’ll still be reading, but Phlebas isn’t the only one without much to contribute other than compliments.

        • All is Well says:

          Precisely this – I’ll probably comment next week, just to show that I’m still very much interested in the Flare Path sans Foxer, but even if I didn’t I’d still be reading, and enjoying, it.

      • TimePointFive says:

        Thank goodness! The Flare Path is what brought me to RPS, but it constantly lacks my favorite thing about the site because of the Foxer, which is witty and intelligent comments furthering my experience of the games you cover. Please make it so!

  4. Pulstar says:

    Is it possible to emulate a mouse to move the turret?

    • Tim Stone says:

      Yes, that’s possible. I play with a gamepad, but keyboard, keyboard & mouse, and joystick are all practical control options.

  5. Hensler says:

    Anybody played Command: Modern Air / Naval Operations? The new Steam keeps recommending it to me AND it looks fantastic, but I’ve never heard of it before.

    • beikul says:

      Not played it myself but I’ve been intrigued since it was reviewed in these very pages a year ago (link to rockpapershotgun.com).

      It does look great but the high price and lack of demo has put me off buying it (yes there are lots of videos showing gameplay but that doesn’t work for me, I need to be able to try something myself to see if I like it).

      It’s just gone live on Steam with a 25% discount (the first time it has been discounted as far as I know), which brings it down to a slightly more reasonable £45 but I’m still hovering over the ‘buy’ button. If they’d put it in at 50% off I would definitely have clicked by now.

      • Hensler says:

        Thanks! I somehow missed that Flare Path when it was published. I’m just going to Wish List it for now, and sleep on it.

  6. Hydrogene says:

    Wow, I would never have expected a PS2 game review in the Flare Path! It’s a shame Panzer Front Ausf.B is so expensive on Ebay… It could be my first tank game.
    What is the perfect WW2 tank game for a casual/sim player like me? Panzer Front Ausf.B?

  7. Apologised says:

    Having played a fair bit of World of Tanks, it feels odd for anyone to consider the Lee a “bruiser”.

    They’re probably the most universally reviled tanks to play as, all the more so considering that the Lee is a key unit that you have to use to get most of the decent american tanks in the next tier.

  8. tigershuffle says:

    Never knew this even existed as skipped PS2 and went original xbox route for my dark side console gaming.

    Will have to try the emulator.

    Has anyone played the new tanks on RO2/Rising Sun ?