The Flare Path: In E-Boat Alley

According to the posters that adorned the walls of the library in my old secondary school, books have the power to “break hearts”, “stop bullets”, “move mountains”, “tear down prison walls” and “produce mild psychotropic effects in the minds of the sleep-deprived and feverish”. Since leaving school I’ve discovered that the written word is also rather good at damaging productivity and improving flawed videogames. Flawed videogames like PT Boats: Knights of the Sea.

Studio4’s multinational Schnellboot sim has been gathering dust on my nauticalia shelf since I mauled it on behalf of PC Gamer UK in early 2010. Cursed with a shoal of shortcomings the most damaging of which was a heartbreakingly linear campaign, it was a game I was in no hurry to revisit. It took a recent encounter with The Battle of the Narrow Seas to rekindle my interest.

Lt Cdr Peter Scott’s 1945 account of Royal Navy coastal craft activity in WW2 is an eye-opening read. Its pages are filled with descriptions of actions in the Channel and North Sea that often feel more like gung-ho Killer Kennedy stories than real events. Every few pages it’s necessary to pause and remind yourself that This Stuff Actually Happened. However daunting the odds, however numerous the 20 mm cannons waiting to swivel in their direction, the remarkable men of the RN Motor Torpedo Boat and Motor Gun Boat flotillas were always keen to get stuck in. Their insatiable appetite for aggro meant Axis convoys and E-boat formations were regularly savaged, and the flimsy craft doing the savaging frequently ended up riddled with holes, and spattered with the blood of plucky/unlucky matelots.

After reading about the havoc wreaked by swashbuckling MTBs and MGBs I confess I had a powerful urge to wreak some of my own. Craving craft a little simmier than Battlestations: Pacific’s Elcos and a little more convenient than SH3’s E-boats I reached for PT Boats: Knights of the Sea. Perhaps five years of mods and user-made missions had removed some barnacles… unlocked some hidden potential.

Early signs weren’t encouraging. I returned from a mod/mission foraging trip with little but unlock advice (adding <all_missions_unlocked val = “1”/> to the start.ini makes all campaign missions available from the get-go) and the impression that a complicated, poorly documented editor had discouraged all but the bravest scenario-smiths. Activating DX10 graphics seemed to produce freezes and anisotropic filtering made smoke clouds vanish at certain angles and ranges. When poorly communicated tutorial instructions caused me to fail one of the introductory missions three times in row, I came awfully close to jumping ship.

But I stuck around and a week of wheel-spinning, shell-spitting, eel-spewing action later, I’m very glad I did. While PT Boats still cries out for a Silent Hunter 3-style dynamic campaign, a skirmish mode, replays, and a dash of mission-based co-op multiplayer, once the padlocks have been prised from the surprisingly well-stuffed scenario lockers and some of the realism compromises have been accepted, its cool critical reception starts feeling a tad unfair. I can’t find the copy of PC Gamer containing my review but I wonder if the text and the score (59% apparently) properly acknowledged the sim’s accessibility and atmosphere. Did I mention the impressive range of crewable boats (21), the solid AI, and the plausible, exciting missions?

The work-shy 2015 Tim Stone quite likes the fact that PT Boats doesn’t come with a key list as long as Southend Pier. Position digits over the WASD keys and have a few more on hand (Where else? Anatomy Ed) for torp unleashing (spacebar), depth charge dropping (b), smoke generation (r), and station shifting (1-4) and you’re pretty much ready for any eventuality. Separate throttles would have made manoeuvring more interesting – especially if accompanied by individual damage models for each engine – but the control simplicity ensures it’s easy to steer while manning a gun position, something you’re likely to find yourself doing often.

A stream of deftly directed cannon rounds can solve a lot of problems in this game, but it rarely compensates for naive tactics. Neglecting the chart screen and the biddable friendly craft present in most skirmishes, is a recipe for failure.

The more I play and the more I read, the more I appreciate the work Studio4’s scenario designers and weapon coders put into capturing the unique flavour and challenges of coastal craft operations. To snatch victory in many of the 75 or so* Gold Edition missions (the Gold Edition includes the Mediterranean and Black Sea content from the South Gambit expansion) it’s necessary to split opposition, lay smokescreens, and master instinctive close-range eel delivery. One of the game’s most gratifying experiences is bursting from a self-sown fog bank, launching a couple of tin fish into the flank of a startled destroyer, then plunging back into the murk with angry tracer nipping at your transom.

*The total is probably nearer 40 if you don’t double-count the missions that can be played from either side.

I’m still practising a particularly tricky technique described in Scott’s book. When torpedoes weren’t available, it wasn’t unknown for a bold MTB/MGB to attempt to slice across an enemy’s path and plop a depth charge directly under its prow. Such attacks required split-second timing. Mistime the manoeuvre and, as I discovered last night, it’s all too easy to wind up the victim in maritime hit-and-run incident.

The Battle of the Narrow Seas is peppered with tales of jury-rigged rudders, fume filled engine compartments, and desperate firefighting. Sadly, PT Boats’ fairly rudimentary damage simulation struggles to recreate details like these (The sim doesn’t do towing and survivor recovery either). Hull integrity, engine condition and fire levels are all separately tracked, and prioritised damage control is possible, but steering issues are rare and flooding is heavily abstracted.

Incoming rounds steadily degrade performance and cull crew, they don’t spawn surprises. I’d love to have seen the devs attempt something a little more colourful and ambitious in this area.

Sea physics could also use some work. Virtual Sailor, the Silent Hunters, the Ship Simulators… they all feature choppier chop and far more swollen swell. PT Boats is at its most convincing when conditions are calm and light levels are low. A less committed outfit would have bathed most of its missions in bright sunshine. Studio4 had the confidence to stay true to their subject matter. Much of the time you hunt at dusk or dawn, or prowl waters silvered by moonlight. If nervous night-time foes occasionally flung star shells or flashed signal lamps in your direction at the start of encounters, the nocturnal ambience would be just about perfect.

£5.50 until Monday, PT Boats Gold is a sim that’s worth rediscovering. If, like me, your memories of it are dominated by campaign disappointment and mission frustration, returning with an unlock cheat and the background information furnished by a sympathetic tome like The Battle of the Narrow Seas can make a world of difference. Any reader that happens to own the March (?) 2010 copy of PC Gamer UK, has my permission to turn to the PT Boats review, cross out that crimson 59% and biro in a cartoon shark giving a thumbs up.

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The Flare Path Foxer

Last week’s foxer was built like a U-boat pen roof. Matchstick, AFKAMC, Rorschach617, Shiloh, phlebas, and AbyssUK Grand Slammed sizeable lumps out of it, but the crucial breakthrough never came. Roman’s curious to see if it can survive a second raid.

a ???
b Pe-8 bomber
c Agar gun
d Flying Dutchman stamp
e ???
f The Naked Brigade poster
g Banknote, Democratic Kampuchea
h Ram tank
i Prince Harry
j S.E.5a B525
k ???

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Foxer Fact #218

Peter Blake’s Sgt. Pepper album cover design borrows heavily from a ‘Gordon of Khartoum’ foxer published in the June 10, 1958 issue of Radio Fun magazine.

All answers in one thread, please.

From this site

48 Comments

  1. FurryLippedSquid says:

    Foxer:

    The delightful chap in a cravat is Brian ‘Sandy’ Lane of No 19 Squadron.

    • AFKAMC says:

      Early model B-17 Flying Fortress bottom left; I found a link to the same picture which says:

      Boeing B-17C, ’49’ of the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron, USAAF, Bellows Field, Hawaii, 7 December 1941
      ’49’ was damaged in a forced landing and the repeatedly strafed at Bellows Airfield.

      So maybe a Pearl Harbour link?

    • Matchstick says:

      Top left, is it the Consolidated PBY Catalina?

      • AFKAMC says:

        Turning the flying boat upside down won’t fool me, Roman!

        It’s a Saunders Roe A.27 London

    • Shiloh says:

      The rifle mechanism lower left looks like it belongs to a Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle.

    • AFKAMC says:

      And the other bomber is a Bristol Bombay:

      link to aviationdumonde.e-monsite.com

    • Stugle says:

      The British battleship on the left, is that HMS Agincourt?

      • AFKAMC says:

        Yes, I think you’re right; see the picture of the postcard in the Wikipedia entry.

        “HMS Agincourt (1913) was a battleship originally built for Brazil as Rio de Janeiro and launched in 1913. She was sold to Turkey as Sultan Osman, but was taken over by the Royal Navy before delivery, on the outbreak of the First World War. She was present at the Battle of Jutland and was sold in 1922.”

      • Stugle says:

        It is – Wikipedia has a picture of the postcard that was used for the FP image.

    • mrpier says:

      The weird mechanism in the middle looks like a heavy duty skeet thrower.

    • Rorschach617 says:

      Found a possible connection. Gin.

      HMS Agincourt, (according to wikipedia) was nicknamed “The Gin Palace” for the quality of its fittings and as a corruption of its name A Gin Court.
      Bristol BOMBAY
      MARTINI-Henry
      Saunders-Roe LONDON

      and isnt there a scene in “African Queen” where Katherine Hepburn throws Bogart’s gin overboard?

      • phlebas says:

        Clay pigeon trap -> gin trap?

      • phlebas says:

        Sandy Lane -> Gin Lane
        link to en.wikipedia.org

      • Shiloh says:

        Yep, works for me – so that leaves the train, the car and the people getting blown up in the background, to fit in?

        • Stugle says:

          Is the car a Plymouth, perchance?

          • Stugle says:

            It might be a 1960s Plymouth Barracuda.

          • Llewyn says:

            It certainly looks like a ’66 Barracuda but the badge is all wrong, which is annoying me. If anything it looks more like a Pontiac badge. On a Plymouth. Argh.

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            Grizzly says:

            Could it be a Cadillac badge?

            link to images.fineartamerica.com

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            Grizzly says:

            Notably, cadillac is also a wine, so it does fit within an alcohol theme?

          • Llewyn says:

            I’m an idiot, it is a Plymouth, but it’s a ’66 Valiant rather than a Barracuda (not that it makes any difference to the gin theme, but it does to sleeping soundly).

            Thanks Grizzly, you’re right that it resembles that Cadillac badge, and your comment prompted something deep down about the Valiant having its own badge design.

        • Rorschach617 says:

          The people being blown up (bottom right) are a detail of the African Queen poster. Just going to assume it is part of the Bogart/Hepburn clue.

        • Dropzone says:

          Train is a Juniper.

      • AFKAMC says:

        If the B-17 clue is that that particular aircraft was at Bellows Field during the Pearl Harbour attack, then apparently there is a brand of gin called BELLOWS.

        • Rorschach617 says:

          That B17-C (no.49 from 88th Recon Squadron), crash landed at Bellow’s field. Did not know Bellow’s Gin existed :)

    • phlebas says:

      Looking again at last week’s Foxer: Is that a game board in the background? It looks like one for Alquerque/Qirkat/Adugo/Bagh-Chal type game but I can’t find the actual image…

      • AFKAMC says:

        Reposting here as I’d started a new thread below, which perhaps wasn’t the best place:

        I’m going to have a stab at last week’s foxer. I’m not confident, but here goes:

        Pe-8 flown by the RED Air Force
        Democratic Kampuchea = Khmer ROUGE
        Naked Brigade = RED Brigades
        Prince Harry has RED hair
        From the Wikipedia entry for agar, “These algae are known as agarophytes and belong to the Rhodophyta (RED algae) phylum.”
        Is top left, behind the Pe-8, from one of the RED Alert games?

        Like I said, I’m not confident!

        • AFKAMC says:

          S.E.5a – the S.E. stood for “Scout, Experimental” = RED Indian scout?????

          OK, I’m going to leave it now :)

        • Rorschach617 says:

          Bugger of a Foxer, isn’t it? :)

          Still, Red is a better link than “superceded things” which was my best guess.

          Pe-8 was superceded by better aircraft
          Agar gun was pretty much ignored in favour of the Gatling
          Ram tanks were not prefered to the Shermans coming out of the factories in vast numbers.
          The Kampuchean banknote was designed but not used as the Khmer Rouge decided to go full Agrarian.
          Shirley Eaton was famous for “Goldfinger”, not “Naked Brigade”
          erm… Harry won’t be King?

          :)

          • AbyssUK says:

            I can’t get the screenshot in the top left driven me mad all week… I know it.. but I just don’t KNOW it!

  2. Artiforg says:

    The poster in the middle there is of Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. Link

  3. BooleanBob says:

    Fine words as always, Tim. Seems to me that this would have been a good opportunity to mention the Flare Path Reading Room for further recommendations of serendipitous sim + story sets?

    • Shiloh says:

      I’d forgotten all about the Reading Room. Tim was kind enough to include a few late entries from yours truly, I think I emailed them over to him and we had a chat via email – very fine man, Tim Stone.

  4. Stugle says:

    I’m very much tempted by your reappraisal, but I’ll probably forego it, seeing how I’ve already blown several months’ worth of ‘budget’ on the Steam sale. I’ll add it to my wishlist, though.

  5. Shiloh says:

    Talking (tangentially) about Silent Hunter – I’ve dug out of my hard disk a heavily-modded SH5 recently, using manual targeting. I’d forgotten quite how much I enjoyed it.

    There’s something really satisfying about plotting a ship’s course and having it appear exactly where you thought it would, shortly before you slam a couple of torps into it fore and aft.

  6. VFRHawk says:

    Hmm, I seem to remember one of the charges levelled at PT Boats when it came out was that you didn’t actually play as a PT boat in many of the scenarios. You had them under your command, but you were in a destroyer or something like it, which detracted from the game a lot. Has that been fixed per chance?

  7. JB says:

    I’d really like a game like PT Boats or Silent Hunter with the possibility of crewing a vessel of some sort with friends, for co-op japery.

  8. Lanfranc says:

    “I’m still practising a particularly tricky technique…”
    “…most convincing when conditions are calm and light levels are low…”
    “…they all feature choppier chop and far more swollen swell.”

    I absolutely appreciate the alliterations added throughout this article.

    • Stugle says:

      And speaking of written flourishes: I enjoyed the description of last week’s still-standing Foxer. I read The Dam Busters when I was a little lad and it has instilled a lingering romantic view of 617 squadron’s exploits in me that still stands, the passing of 25 years and growing understanding of the horrors of war notwithstanding.

  9. AFKAMC says:

    LAST WEEK’S FOXER

    I’m going to have a stab at last week’s foxer. I’m not confident, but here goes:

    Pe-8 flown by the RED Air Force
    Democratic Kampuchea = Khmer ROUGE
    Naked Brigade = RED Brigades
    Prince Harry has RED hair
    From the Wikipedia entry for agar, “These algae are known as agarophytes and belong to the Rhodophyta (RED algae) phylum.”
    Is top left, behind the Pe-8, from one of the RED Alert games?

    Like I said, I’m not confident!

    • Askis says:

      “Is top left, behind the Pe-8, from one of the RED Alert games?”
      Looks more like a First-Person game, someone using some sort of (futuristic?) binoculars, looking at what seems like a mining facility.
      There’s also a minimap with a position indicator in the top right part.
      Can’t figure out what game it is, definitely not C&C: Renegade though…

  10. CookPassBabtridge says:

    Hi Tim, did A2A cheap out and not send you a Comanche for review? It looks niiiiice

  11. Playnoevil says:

    The book is fascinating. Great, almost forgotten part of the war.