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15

The Flare Path: Submarine Dreams

Subsim.com proprietor Neal Stevens and myself stand on opposite sides of the great dreamer-doer divide. When I see a promising in-development sim struggling for funding or heading in a direction I don’t much like, I sigh and pen a few plaintive words for this column. Neal, on the other hand, contacts the devs, and offers to fund development of the game for a year in return for design influence. When the studio accepts his offer, he then up sticks, and moves five thousand miles to be closer to his new business partners.

To understand why one of the most familiar names in the sim community has moved to Sweden to work with Skvader Studios on a U-boat focussed version of the sim formerly known as HMS Marulken (new title TBA) you need to go back to Neal’s childhood (A Battleships-obsessed youngster whose passion for all things submarine was intensified by an early encounter with Herbert Werner’s Iron Coffins and a visit to Seawolf Park in Galveston, Neal was designing multiplayer submarine games long before the advent of the home computer). Quizzing the man himself about his dramatic heading change is probably a good idea too.

RPS: What was it about the HMS Marulken demo/prototype that you found so exciting?

Neal: Without a doubt the co-op multiplay element. I first heard from the Swedish devs Oscar and Einar a year ago in August 2015. They sent a link to a video of their project and I asked them to keep me informed of progress. As you know, on any given day there are countless small teams working on game projects and most never get completed. In this case, I heard from them again last May; they sent me a link to the demo and I gave it a try.

I was impressed by several things: the completeness of the build (you could pretty much do all the things a finished game would allow) the quality of the work (the graphics were quite good and you could tell they knew how to create models and environmental effects) plus the fire control features and radio/sonar stations were very well designed and functional. It was obvious that a lot of thought had gone into how the game would be played. Unlike most previous subsims, where you click “P” and your sub is taken to periscope depth and remains there without any deviation, in HMS Marulken depth changes involve lots of lever manipulation – ballast tanks must be flooded or emptied. The Torpedo Data Computer was another example. All the important parts had been modelled (range finding, heading, speed, and AOB inputs) and worked very well.

Once I got a few Subsim members in a co-op game I was sold. Yes, single player games are still fun but the teamwork and group expertise needed to play the demo left me wanting more. The Swedish devs had a Kickstarter goal and although they had gotten over half-way, they were running out of time. So, I made a proposal that Subsim would financially support game development for a year and assist them. Oscar and Einar are the brains and the talent of the operation, Subsim is just providing the Ramon noodles.

RPS: What Silent Hunter-series weaknesses and omissions do you intend to address in ‘Project X’?

Neal: I can’t say there are many omissions in the Silent Hunter series. SH3 and SH4 are extraordinarily well-made games that do much and do it well. Seriously, the Romanian devs are virtuoso artists and programmers. What we are looking to focus on is a subsim that gives the player an opportunity to play in a different way. First and foremost, the new game will feature co-op multiplay just like the Marulken demo. Unlike the SH series, our game will highlight the teamwork necessary to operate a submarine.

There will be four roles available, the Captain, the Exec/Navigator, the Chief and the Sonar/Radio officer. To successfully dive the boat, set up a fire control solution, decode orders from BdU etc. cooperation between the four members of the crew will be essential. When the boat is submerged, the Captain will rely on the Sonar player to update him on the sound contacts and their bearings. Where other (single player) sub sims use bearing lines that are automatically updated on the chart, we will task the Sonar guy with tracking contacts and relaying that information by voice to the Captain, who will then make course, speed and depth decisions and relay them to the Chief – the player who actually operates the dive planes and helm. The Exec will be responsible for updating the chart, which the Captain can refer to.

Here’s another example. Let’s say the Captain and Exec are on the bridge, searching for smoke or masts on the horizon. Suddenly a Liberator drops out of the clouds in an attack dive! The Captain or Exec will need to hit the alarm button on the bridge, which will sound a crash dive alarm audible to all four players. The Chief knows it is up to him to flood the main ballast tanks and the negative tank immediately, and set the dive planes to full dive and ring the telegraph to ‘Ahead Flank’ (all these actions will be executed via manual valve wheels and controls). Meanwhile, the Captain and Exec players must drop down the hatch and close it behind them, or the boat will be lost due to flooding. If the Exec does not close the hatch, or if the Chief fails to blow negative in time “catching the dive”, game over!

Attacking an enemy ship at periscope depth will require similar levels of cooperation. The Captain will be observing the target and relaying the AOB, speed, range and bearing to the Exec, who will be entering this into the TDC, while the Sonar guy keeps an ear out for approaching escorts. And the Chief, he will be watching the shallow depth indicator like a hawk and making subtle adjustments on the dive plane controls, because unlike other sub games, it is going to take some effort and skill to keep periscope depth without dipping the scope beneath the waves or broaching the boat and giving away your position. This is the level of interaction and teamwork we think will make our game stand-out from all previous submarine sims.

RPS: Do you plan to cater for solo players?

Neal: Our goal is to make the game playable and enjoyable for single players, when they are unable to meet up with their mates for a co-op session. We are still discussing the interface and protocols to do this, and at this point we are on a path that should work for a single player and still retain the tone of the co-op game. Ultimately, the single player set up should allow captains to practice and sink ships solo.

RPS: Why did you feel it was necessary to move to Sweden?

Neal: I told my friends in Texas that I moved to Sweden because of the Presidential election (they have three months to ensure our next President is not Trump or Clinton, otherwise I may stay here).

Okay, seriously. They say “Don’t quit your day job” but sometimes you have to focus all your energy on the task at hand. I felt it was important to be on site and work with the dev team and demonstrate a level of commitment beyond simply writing a check. These are two great guys and this gives me a chance to forge a stronger team than one could achieve via Skype and e-mail. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to enjoy many great games… and now I have a chance to contribute directly to the enjoyment of submarine gamers. I’ve waited 20 years for a project like this and I’m all in.

RPS: Best of luck and thank you for your time.

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Your P.A. tells me you’ve get an hour spare this evening between Yoga Class and Falling Asleep In Front Of The TV After One Too Many Ciders. A spot of Red Army-repelling via the Order of Battle: Winter War demo would, I reckon, fill that hour beautifully.

A recent change of business model means that anyone who downloads the free OoB: WW2 base game now gets the first battle in all DLC campaigns free too. Wheeled out yesterday, Winter War, the series’ first ETO add-on, recreates episodes from the Continuation War and the Lapland War as well as the titular conflict. Although the accompanying press blurb – “Never before have the Winter War and the Continuation War been recreated in such detail” – appears to have been written by someone unaware of Squad Battles, it can’t be denied that Aristocrats are venturing into rarely hexplored territory with this release.

The demo mission is dominated by basic Finnish infantry units, but save and spend requisition points carefully and you could finish the 20-turn defensive scrap in possession of ski troops, a handy AT gun, or even your very own Blenheim bomber. Assuming Panzer Corps and its plague of adjuncts haven’t killed your interest in simple Panzer General-style wargaming stone-dead, Winter War’s taster tussle can’t fail to entertain.

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If you can read the word ‘Grayling’ without picturing a square, bullet-nibbled building on the eastern edge of a North African olive grove, you obviously haven’t been following the Flare Path’s latest experiment in co-op Combat Mission.

Every day for the past four weeks volunteer ‘Comment Commanders’ have been issuing orders to a small force of Combat Mission: Afrika Korps New Zealanders while a cold calculating AI did the same for a larger, tankier force of Italians. The battle ended victoriously for the humans on Monday night after 40 turns of tension, tough choices and hard fighting.

Considering that a couple of the most active order issuers had never Combat Missioned before, and the format leant itself to chaos, the Allied effort was remarkably professional and well coordinated.

Things looked bleak for the Kiwis at several points during the clash. Every Victory Location on the map was snatched or seriously threatened by the Italians at some time; early on the commenters lost both a Bren Gun carrier and a Crusader tank to an unidentified armour harmer, and later their remaining tank, a Stuart called Stuart, had a very near-death experience. However, sound combined arms tactics, exemplary infantry usage, and a willingness to temporarily surrender the untenable, eventually paid dividends.

For me, the Battle of the Perfectly Rectangular Olive Grove (Available here under the name Bitter Olives if you fancy a solo playthrough) was filled with reminders. The scenario had been thrown together quickly but that didn’t prevent first generation Combat Mission’s unscripted, VL-motivated AI from serving up a lively and challenging scrap. As the bullets whipped through the olive grove I can’t say I noticed that the trees were shorthand rather than discrete LoS/LoF-impacting entities, or found my sense of immersion eroded by the abstracted infantry squad representations. CMx1’s treatment of artillery/mortar fire might be crude, but I’d forgotten how pleasing one of its side effects – accidental arson – could be (The NZ mortar team inadvertently started a couple of brush fires).

Above all I was reminded of CMx1’s natural charm. Beyond Overlord, Barbarossa to Berlin, and Afrika Korps – the original trio – feel friendlier, less fiddly, less onerous, than the titles that replaced them. I enjoy Battle For Normandy, Red Thunder, and Final Blitzkrieg, and admire their realism advances, but a month in close proximity to CMAK has convinced me that, given a choice, I’d rather play their more primitive/playable predecessors.

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If Warfare Sims’ new line of topical DLC for Command Modern Air/Naval Operations is to flourish, their scenario smiths will need to pick up the pace.

Epidode 1 of the £2.41/$2.99 ‘Command Live’ series is inspired by an event – the shooting down of a Russian Su-24 over Turkey – that occurred eight months ago. While the potential for a military bust-up between Turkey and Russian remains real, recent diplomatic steps means relations between Moscow and Ankara are nowhere near as strained as they were in November. Think of a Turkey-centred wargame scenario today, and chances are coupists will spring to mind before Russians.

Hopefully future episodes will feel more in tune with current affairs. Hopefully too, they’ll come without the scripting bugs that appear to have blighted ‘Old Grudges Never Die’ for some users.

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This way to the foxer

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