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The Flare Path: In E-Boat Alley

Rediscovering PT Boats: Knights of the Sea

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 ???


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.

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