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(c) 2000 James Burrows

Review by
Philippa Irving


Welcome to Game of the Week! Each week there will be a new featured game on this page. The game may be good, average or diabolically bad, it really doesn't matter! Just look at the pics, read the text and enjoy the nostalgia! :-) Game of the Week! is open to contributions so if you would like to contribute a game article for this page you're more than welcome to! Every article we receive will be considered!
1987 Strategic Simulations Inc.
Programmed by John R. Gray
Most text of the present article comes from the review published in the thirtieth issue of the British C64 magazine ZZAP!64 (street date: September 10th, 1987).


Weary and battle-stained messengers tramped across the war-torn wastes of North Oxford, ploughing through the battle lines of Japanese tourists and French school parties to bring despatches announcing my finals results. Yes -- I got a second like everyone else. Now I've retreated from the centre of the city, the bit where all the nice buildings and the tourists are, to be a great writer and starve in a garret. I've started my next novel and I've all sorts of ambitious plans to write for television, so watch out for my name on the screen!

Now to work . . . the conflict between Presentation and Content in wargames is an interesting one, because war and strategy games are the only kind of computer software which can tolerate any separation between them. And it does seem to be a conflict; I have become uncharitably suspicious of games which load up looking polished and sporting design gimmicks, as one of this month's games. Blitzkrieg, does. I'm beginning to wonder whether it's a question of attitude on the part of the game designers. 'Real-Ale' wargame writers signify their intention to present a serious piece of complex strategic gameplay by swathing it in a clumsy order frame, which just barely escapes hampering the playability, and dressing it in such unappealing graphics that none but those who take these things suitably seriously would ever be attracted to play their game. Commercial software houses, on the other hand, imagine that even when playing a wargame, what the average buyer really wants is another something 'em up, so they produce a piece of software to the high standards common in the arcade genre, which turns out to be a glossy but ineffective imitation of a real wargame. This may well be an over-simplification, but I'm thinking of Battlecruiser and Blitzkrieg as relative examples of each approach.

In other genres, technical advances have always been welcomed as actual steps forward. The impact of presentation in an arcade game is always very strong, and can genuinely affect the value of the game. There was a time about two years ago, when I first came to computer gaming, when the programming and presentation advances over the proceeding 18 months had been amazing. Spectrum game collectors could look at previously acclaimed programs like Manic Miner and then at the recent masterpieces like Knight Lore, Alien 8 and Lords of Midnight and rejoice. Every new issue of CRASH and the late lamented PCG seemed to contain a blockbusting review of major breakthrough, and truly these were wondrous times to be alive in.

These breakthroughs boiled down to programming and presentation. Knight Lore was not intrinsically a better game than Manic Miner (and some people would argue strongly to the contrary!), except that it created a novel illusion of three dimensional solidity which most people then found added a great deal to their enjoyment The total aesthetic appeal of the program was greater. Nobody complained that the revolutionary graphics and the slick programming made it commercial and glib, though later Ultimate productions certainly had plenty of abuse of this nature heaped upon them.

Strategy and wargames are not the same as arcade games because the base of their play is different, as I've tried to explain in past reviews. Wargames in particular do not generally attempt to create their own fantasy world -- except in special Instances -- they are interfaced with reality, and expect the player to consider them very much as a means to the end of simulation, whether of a battle or a war machine. It is because they are less self-contained that they can get away with shoddy presentation, but still they reduce their aesthetic appeal and so, for no reason, they reduce their impact.

Commodore disk-based games in particular have no excuse, for they are not hampered by very great memory restrictions. Perhaps we're past the era of real technical programming advances, and perhaps it's unrealistic to hope for something of the sort to arrive in the form of a wargame. Wargame writers seem to be great traditionalists. But it's not too much to ask for a neat screen display, an attractive character set, clear and (if possible) imaginative-looking unit counters, and some orders system which doesn't take half an hour to manipulate. Music is not necessary.


SSI, 14.99 cass, 19.99 disk

Machine simulations are, when you think about it, at one extreme of the wargaming scale. Some games allow you to move armies across continents over a period of months, some ask you to direct divisions in a single battle, and a few let you position individual men in combat. Simulation games however put you directly behind the gunsight, and let you press the buttons -- they represent a cross between the action of arcade gaming and the ideas of strategy gaming.

B-24 Flight Simulator and Combat Simulator, as it's more or less called (hardly a memorable title I trust you'll agree), puts itself firmly in the wargaming camp. A more appropriate title would be something like 'Mission Over Ploesti'. Although the operation of the gameplay involves flying a B-24 bomber at a level of some mechanical detail, the focus is firmly fixed on the object of the flight and most of the excellent documentation concentrates on the target rather than the machine. This is an unusual emphasis for a flight simulator, but it turns out to be what makes B-24 more playable and absorbing than flight simulators usually are. It achieves this by cutting out what is normally considered to be an essential element in this sub-genre, the computer-generated impression of flight itself.

During the Second World War, the town of Ploesti in Rumania provided Hitler with most of his oil for the Axis War effort. It was reckoned that if the numerous oil refineries around Ploesti could be bombed into non-productive oblivion then Hitler's war machine would creak to a rusty stop. Accordingly, both the British and American air-forces launched a series of bombing raids on Ploesti, which was once known as the 'while town of black gold'. After 339 bombers had been shot down over there during the 25 attacks, it was called 'the bombers' graveyard' by Allied air crews. The campaign game allows the player to fly the 19 missions attempted by the (presumably American) 460th Bomb Group, which was based at Spinazolla near the East coast of Italy. Essentially the player is fighting history: the aim is to get the production of oil refineries down lower than the historical figure after the B-24s had finished their attack. Doing better than the original crews means that you will shorten the Second World War.

Thoughtfully, the game also provides the player with an easy introductory mission; bombing another town, Mostar, which is right on the west coast of Yugoslavia, and is therefore easy to reach from Spinazolla. There is also a particularly difficult individual mission to Bucharest, which is so far from base that it requires efficient flying to make it there and back without carrying so much fuel that there's no room for a sufficient number of bombs.

The screen display does not show the interior of a cockpit, as one would usually expect of a flight simulator. Instead, the B-24 is viewed from above as an extremely basic aeroplane shape, flying over a pleasantly drawn and detailed landscape. The first 'screen' shows the landing strip, viewed at close range, but as soon as the plane lifts off, the player finds himself looking down at the ten-mile square surrounding the airbase from in indeterminate height. Although, of course, the aeroplane can move up and down tens of thousands of feet, there is no visual representation of three-dimensional movement . . . and therefore no sensation of flying at all. And although the stick drawing aeroplane does point itself in the right general direction when the player changes its bearing, it does so very inexactly. Information about the plane's precise location is gained from the numbers on the instrument panel, which yet again makes no attempt at visual realism. There are no blurred dials or unhelpful lights in this flight simulator. All instruments give their readings in neatly arranged numerical form, and the main difficulty in learning how to fly the plane is remembering which of these numbers are important.

All this may be seen as a drawback for those looking for a flight simulator -- but for those looking for a game, I think the compromises are worth it for the sake of clarity. The actual mechanism of the B-24 is authentically simulated and the plane reacts noticeably to carrying extra weight, to wind speeds, and to limping along with three of its engines out and one of its wings on fire.

The relevant parts of Italy, Yugoslavia and Rumania are divided into ten-by-ten mile squares, filled either with mountains, land, sea or hill. These terrain types are important insofar as it's best to fly at a sufficient altitude to avoid crashing into them. One screenful represents one square on the glossy card map provided, so if your instruments are taken out in combat it's possible to navigate 'by hand'. Normally, pressing a key will bring up a navigator's report, telling you precisely where you are, with co-ordinate's exact to two decimal places.

When playing the campaign game, the player has to choose a mission to any one of the 12 refineries situated around Ploesti. Daily production figures are displayed on the campaign screen, and as they are taken out their production will drop. Having chosen the target, the aim is then to get to Ploesti -- balancing the amount of fuel taken with a sufficient number of bombs.

Before you can head off Ploesti-wards, you have to assemble your squadron. This involves circling above the airfield at the right height, keeping up the correct speed; if any bombers drop out, that will be one less for the mission. There's also a fighter escort to pick up at a specified location, to protect the bombers from 'bogeys' on the journey out. Near the target, if you get there in time, you pick up a bombing escort. To bomb successfully you have to be exactly on the right course -- something which requires a lot of fine manoeuvring. A strong wind can make it very difficult to attain and maintain any course at all. Bomb sights, which come into operation once you open the bomb doors, enable you to fine-tune your position and send the bombs away almost exactly over the target.


It's concentrating on the mission that gives this game atmosphere, and the superb documentation -- there's a separate book full of information about Ploesti, including an extract from a B-24 pilot's autobiography -- enhances the sense of involvement which is invited by the straightforward gameplay. A minor complaint is the irritating drone of the plane's engines which keeps going throughout the flight, though when you stall or run out of fuel, the silence that ensues is suitably ominous -- and you can always turn it down. The difficulty level is adjusted by altering a set of parameters such as engine reliability and whether you want any weather or not, so the challenge is extensive.

Maybe it would get boring eventually flying back and forth to Ploesti if you really played the game to death, but you have the option of bombing Bucharest for target practice, and the fact is that this flight simulator, unlike many, encourages persistence and playing until the early hours.



Presentation 75%

Quite a 'solid' appearance and thankfully no disk access pauses, but the program seems sluggish to respond to the joystick and keypresses.

Graphics 70%
The landscape is pleasant, with aerially-visible features like roads convincingly marked -- but the plane itself has about three frames of animation.

Rules 95%
The documentation is a major feature, containing a large amount of information about Ploesti and the missions that were sent out over it.

Authenticity 93%
Despite the lack of 'real' flight simulation graphics, it's easy to get absorbed in the historical atmosphere. Also, the plane's dynamic reactions to flight conditions are very credible.

Playability 89%
Once you've got the hang of it, it's difficult to stop.

Overall 90%
A convincing and absorbing game, which may well appeal to those who don't usually like conventional flight simulators.



Htmlized by Dimitris Kiminas (9 Oct 2005)
Only the first from the above screenshots existed in the original review.

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