Posts Tagged ‘ simulation

Driving Game

Cleanly! Scores of hours logged at Spa, Magny-Cours, Zandvoort and a dozen other Euro-American racing cathedrals, and all in the service of doing everything cleanly. Passing cleanly on the inside of a straightaway, or neatly nipping through the inside of a corner and slamming the door shut on the guy caught outside.

The Line is clean and perfect, and if I hit all my marks then my driving will be smooth and beautiful. My tires whine a bit as I accelerate through the Parabolica at Monza, but they don’t shriek and the the car doesn’t try to bust loose. My control is perfect, and that is the entire point of the game.

But God, the concentration and practice required. Sometimes I want to play a racing game and I look at my wheel sitting beneath my desk, and at GTR 2 atop my bookcase, and I just can’t go through that. It’s eight at night, there’s an icy draft seeping in through the windows of my apartment, and I just completed a long day of revising the same article until it was good enough to send back to my editor. Who will want more changes, and I’ve already gone from Draft A through Draft L. I want to play a racing game, but my sims want perfect reflexes and sharp senses, and I’m too used up to try and pilot a GT3 around Valencia. The torque alone is more than I can bear right now.

Yet GRID is so messy, like all arcade racers. All the cars slip and slide with greased tires across glass tracks. A simple 90 degree right-hander turns into a crescendo of shrieking rubber, roaring engines, and crunching metal and glass as cars smash each other into walls. I try a clean pass, outbrake my opponent going into a corner, take the line on the exit… and pound my wheel in frustration as he shoves me straight into the tire barrier. We were second and third, but now the entire field is driving past as as I try to extract myself from the the scrum.

We hit the barriers at 85 mph and my windshield is cracked and starred so badly that I can hardly see the track. Replays of the race will show that the front of my car now describes a check mark. It was straight line before. But my crew chief is on the radio telling me that I’ve “got some damage, but nothing too serious.” I reverse into my opponent, slewing him around as he tries to get back into the race, then roar off in pursuit of the long-gone field. The car still handles like it just rolled out of the factory.

Arcade racing games, like the ones that Codemasters produce, merely take real-world racing as their theme. TOCA and GRID are, to borrow a term from Tom Chick, Car-RPGS (caRPGs). You hop behind the wheel and work your way from driving sedans to super grand tourers, buying new cars and kit and unlocking new challenges along the way. Progress is constant, and all your training is on-the-job. Races are combat, where you put bruising hits on the opposition and use guardrails to help you negotiate sharp corners. The great skill in a caRPG is not driving, but in playing automotive pinball through the field until you accumulate enough prize money to move up to the next tier of challenges.

As an aside, arcade racing games also make sure to include lots of tedious bullshit to appeal to the entitled mouth-breathers who thought Gone in 60 Seconds and The Fast and the Furious were the Godfather and Easy Rider of their generation. If GRID is making a selling point out of the fact that you can drive the 24 Hours, or wrestle an old TVR around Donington Park, why is it making me master the pointless unfun of drifting? What could possibly make them think I’d care about such a thing? Let me be clear: drift racing is to real racing as tequila is to good liquor. There are people who are passionately devoted to it, but they a small, crazy subgroup that most of us would rather ignore.

But once I adjust to GRID’s icky collisions and near-gripless cars, I do find myself enjoying the cheerful madness of the racing action and its wise inclusion of a “flashback” that lets me undo catastrophic mishaps. Taking a Mustang sideways into a corner, punching the throttle at the apex and wrestling with the savage force of its fishtailing is exactly the kind of thing I want from an arcade game. I begin to enjoy the take-no-prisoners savagery of the races, especially when you nudge someone else into a wall at top speed and cause a massive pile-up in the rear-view mirror. I love the sudden quiet and solitude that follows the moment you just crashed the entire field somewhere in a chicane behind you.

Still, what I really want is a game that occupies the sweet spot between the mad chaos of a GRID or Need for Speed and the taut immersion of a SimBin game. A game that places a premium on smart, clean driving but doesn’t demand the monk-like devotion that characterizes a racing season in RACE or GTR 2. I love great racing and good driving, but sometimes I don’t want to be my own race engineer, or approach a play session the way Lewis Hamilton must approach a race weekend at Silverstone. Rather than taking a slug of GTR 2 with a GRID chaser, I’d like something that blends their strengths. Something that still keeps the racing clean, but not immaculate.

Captain, Pride Will Be the Death of You

Patrol, March-April 1940 – Off the Yorkshire Coast

The greatest danger I face in Silent Hunter III is overconfidence. After a few months of raiding British and Norwegian shipping without having to worry about destroyer escorts or air cover, I have developed bad habits.

I bring my U-boat to the surface without bothering to do a periscope check, because there is never anyone nearby. I start surface cruising while the sun is still setting rather than waiting for nightfall. I push my luck well past dawn, enjoying the higher speeds my Type VIIB U-boat can achieve compared to its glacial pace below the surface and its crummy batteries.

I have shot it out with a flight of Hurricane fighter-bombers rather than dive to safety. The other morning I launched torpedoes at a British cargo ship while a destroyer closed in from behind. It’s not like the Royal Navy is suddenly going to become competent.

Most missions in Silent Hunter III are not this exciting or rewarding. At this stage of the war, there is not enough shipping traffic across the Atlantic to make deep-ocean patrols very productive. Furthermore, blue water commerce raiding is conducted almost exclusively with torpedo attacks. The seas in the Mid-Atlantic range from rough to terrifying, so I can never use my 88mm deck gun. This is the downside of the way the U-boat is designed. It has such a shallow draft, and rides so low across the surface, that it gets tossed around like a bath toy in stormy seas. Unless the ocean is smooth as glass, crew members can’t safely walk out to the gun platform on the bow of the boat.

This used to drive me crazy, because there were times I would look at the gentle waves rocking my ship and think, “What kind of wimps couldn’t walk fifteen feet across the deck in this?” I’ve mellowed, however, since I took a ferry across Lake Michigan last month and encountered significant chop. I was standing below the bridge on the ferry’s upper deck when I got slammed in the face by a wave that somehow vaulted the 20 feet from the waterline to my face. Then I tried to walk back across the slick and pitching deck while being pelted by more shockingly cold waves. I was almost on my hands and knees by the time I made it inside the cabin. Now I understand, and you couldn’t get me onto the deck of a heaving U-boat at gunpoint

Still, it’s annoying to be forced to rely on torpedoes. They’re unreliable even when they hit the target, and hitting the target is far from easy. Plus, my Type VII only has room for about ten of them. Since it’s rare to sink a ship with anything less than two torpedoes, and they fail 30% of the time, I’m probably not going to get more than three kills with them.

Fortunately, my most recent mission assigned me to calm coastal waters off the northeastern coast of England, which allowed me to use the deck gun. Better still, it put me on the trade lanes between Scandinavia and England, near the bay leading out of the Firth of Forth. Once I arrived on site, my patrol turned into the beach scene from Jaws.

No sooner had I sent one freighter to the bottom than I stumbled across another one. From sundown to sunrise, every night was a killing spree. Once I’d finished my assigned patrol, I started angling closer and closer toward the Firth of Forth. The Royal Navy seemed to vector more destroyers into that sector as the body count increased, but they couldn’t detect me even when we were within a couple kilometers.

My ammunition for the deck gun started to run low and I tried a more frugal routine. I would strike first with a torpedo, then finish them off with shots from the 88.

My first attempt at running this kind of attack, however, is when the computer decided to screw me.

I was stalking a medium sized merchantman in the middle of the night. He had no idea I was nearby as I moved to close on him. However, he was moving fast and would soon leave my ideal “attack window.”

Because  torpedoes are so dodgy in this game, you really want your shots to approach the target from close to perpendicular.  A torpedo that strikes the hull at less than a 45 angle is very likely to glance off.

So I was going to launch from medium range and finish him off with the 88. Since it was a rather large cargo ship, I decided to launch a pair of torpedoes with a one degree spread between them. At this range, that should have both of them striking the fore and aft of the target. With luck, they might kill it.

What I didn’t realize is that they were two different models of torpedo: the first was the steam-powered torpedo with variable speed settings. I adjused it to medium speed, since I didn’t want it running out of power before reaching the target. The slowest setting has a very long range, but I have found that the longer the time to target, the lower the chance that you will actually hit.

Unfortunately, the second torpedo was the electric model, which has one speed: slow.  It pretty much walks from your U-boat, stops at a diner along the way, has breakfast and two coffee refills, then finishes its leisurely commute to whatever the hell you’re trying to kill.

I am not a fan.

Not checking to make sure the torpedoes matched was my fault. However, what the computer did wrong was calculate a firing solution as if the torpedoes were identical.

So when I fired at 5000 m, one of the torpedoes was a miss straight away. I watched it fall behind the first torpedo, until over a kilometer opened up between them. However, the first torpedo was still on track to hit.

This is when I sent my gun crew topside and the computer screwed me over for a second time. Because I was busy making course adjustments, crew reassignments, and tracking my torpedo’s progress, I detailed my watch officer to oversee the gun. I’d relieve him once I was finished with my other tasks.

We were at 3500 m and the torpedo was still 90 seconds from impact, when he started blasting away as fast as the crew could reload. I quickly ordered him to cease fire, but the damage was done. Through my range-finder I could see the merchantman freak. He throttled up and jammed the rudder to port. My torpedo’s firing solution was completely blown, and it passed behind the target.

The reason my watch officer opened fire is because, three days earlier, I had given him the order to fire at will. Silent Hunter III remembers what your last orders were to the watch officer, and considers those orders to be standing. So when he took position, he had the order, “Fire at will” even though it made no sense to do so.

The merchie was making an impressive run for it, so I fired another fast torpedo in the hopes of hobbling him. It was a beautiful shot and caught him squarely in the middle of a starboard zag… but the torpedo bounced off the hull.

Three torpedoes. Not a single hit.

I popped a pair of starburst shells into the night sky above the merchant. They blazed to life on either side of him, turning his patch of ocean brighter than daytime and letting me watch my shot-fall. I took over the deck gun and opened fire.

It refused to die.

I hammered it for over ten minutes before it finally gave up the ghost. Between my idiot watch officer’s moment of glory and my own gunnery, this attack had cost me about 20 high-explosive rounds for my gun. This represented about a quarter of my high-explosive ammo.

Just like that, my picture perfect patrol had taken a sharp turn for the worse. Suddenly I was low on every kind of ship-killing ammunition, because of bad luck and some insane decision from my AI crewmen.

Even though I scored quite a few more kills over the remainder of the patrol, I had to become much more miserly in how I attacked. My cause was not helped by the fact that I only scored about four torpedo hits on my entire patrol. I headed home having sunk about 9000 tons less than I should have.

At this stage of the game, I’m pretty much playing for high-scores. My next sortie, I’m going to try and break the 35,000 tons that I sank on this patrol. It’s frustrating, however, to be so hindered by misfiring torpedoes and boneheaded mistakes. I always get back to the sub pens at Kiel, look at my patrol report, and immediately start thinking about how many more ships I could have killed if only things had worked.

Then I promise myself things will go better next time, and I head back out. In early 1940, ammunition is the only thing slowing me down.

A New History of Brandenburg

There’s a question about sports games that comes up every so often. Should a sports game attempt to be a simulation, or should it be a game about a sport?

Obviously, the answer depends on what you happen to want, but the implications of either answer are interesting to consider. If you’re just playing a game that takes football as its theme, you can take your pitiful home team to the Superbowl with an explosive running game, spectacular passing attack, and a bruising defense that leaves nothing but broken bodies in its wake. Even a Detroit Lions fan can bring the Lombardi Trophy to Motown. I suspect this is one of the reasons so many gamers of my generation have fond memories of Tecmo Bowl.

On the other hand, a game like that has very little to do with NFL football. You might be able to take an idealized version of the Lions to the championship, but you can’t play with the real article. It may not be possible for any game to make you feel like Tony Dungy or Peyton Manning, but at least a good simulation can bring that experience a little closer. Of course, it also brings the feeling of an 0-16 season a little closer, but that’s the price you pay for realism.

I mention all this because the same question applies to historical war and strategy games. There have always been those who overvalue realism and underappreciate just how a chimerical concept that is when you’re talking about modeling historical realities. So many factors are effectively unquantifiable, and it only gets more difficult the greater the game’s scale.

I remember, years and years ago, there was a minor controversy over The Operational Art of War because somebody discovered that if you put 100 jeeps up against a German Tiger tank, the game calculated that the jeeps would win. A subset of wargamers tore into the game because this outcome was clearly preposterous, and it called the entire game system into question.

The Operational Art of War was a system designed to accommodate regimental-level operations all the way up to the army group level, in clashes that could involve millions of men and thousands of tanks and aircraft. The 100 jeeps vs. a Tiger issue was a quirky micro calculation that worked as part of a system that produced convincing macro-level outcomes. But a lot of wargamers were incensed that TOAW abstracted anything. They wanted it to be accurate down to the last rifle squad.

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Europa Universalis III, and for awhile I had my own “But you’re getting it wroooong!” temper tantrum. I decided to play a game as Brandenburg (the Hohenzollern electorate that would eventually become Prussia) starting in the early 1600s.This would put me in charge of a very small state on the eve of the Thirty Years’ War, and my goal was to recreate the rise of Prussia to Great Power status by the game’s conclusion in 1820.

One of the reasons I’ve been so curious about the Europa Universalis series was that I’ve always heard it’s “Civilization with a college degree.” In other words, where Civilization is a strategy game that simply takes human history as its theme, EU is a game that takes history as its ruleset.

Predictably, I was disappointed. For one thing, the Thirty Years’ War failed to occur, which introduced an incredible number of distortions into my game. The Habsburgs sailed smoothly through the 17th century and Reformed Protestantism never really made it off the ground in northern Europe. This in turn meant that none of the opportunities afforded Brandenburg in real life ever came my way. I sat around in a tiny four-province electorate, waiting for something to happen.

The biggest omission in Europa Universalis III seemed to the lack of subinfeudation. Subinfeudation is what gave the Middle Ages through the Early Modern era so much of their character, and not having it in the game made it impossible to faithfully recreate the period. It also made peaceful expansion nearly impossible.

Subinfeudation is a corrective applied to traditional understandings of the feudal system, which generally portray it as a pyramidal hierarchy. The problem is that the system never operated that cleanly. Noble individuals tended to wear many different titles that had different implications, because the noble houses of Europe were interwoven across political boundaries. The most famous example of subinfeudation would have to be the English kings after the Norman conquest. As the master of England, the king was a sovereign power of Europe. However, the king of England was also the Duke of Normandy, a title that granted him land in the north of France but which also made him nominally a French vassal. Now imagine that perpetuated at every level of the nobility, across Europe.

The reason I’m making such a big deal out of this is because subinfeudation was also one of the most common ways for a lord to expand his realm. The reason Prussia became Prussia and not Brandenburg is that the Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg managed to marry their way into a claim on the Polish dominion of Preusse. They used this same method to acquire most of their territory prior to the 17th century. It didn’t require troops, and it didn’t require voluntary submission. If they were recognized as the proper ruling family of another territory, and a major power didn’t block the deal, then they were able to expand without a shot being fired.

EU3 doesn’t really allow you to go this route. It’s possible, but extremely unlikely, to make another state your vassal and then have it voluntarily submit to annexation, but it is totally impossible to win a dynastic claim on a territory in another state. The game doesn’t even model that kind of thing. So where Prussia managed to almost double in size through family connections, my only hope was to conquer through force. Given that I was a small player on the European stage, that wasn’t particularly likely. So I was stuck ruling a country that practically ran itself, and spent the rest of my time remaining inconspicuous. This was not really what I had signed up for.

Here is where EU3 began to get brilliant, however. If my initial experience was one of disappointment and frustration, as my state was relegated to a footnote in the history of the 17th century, it was also transformative. Like my historical counterparts, I was forced to banish dreams of territorial expansion and conquest. I couldn’t gain an inch of soil on my own strength, because my army was too small, my state too poor and underpopulated, and my connections too weak. So I began to think in character.

I became a watchful opportunist. I demobilized most of my army to build up my finances, retaining just enough troops to maintain order. I still operated with an eye toward history, so I began breaking down the power of the nobility and concentrating the power within the royal person. The result was a state that grew steadily more efficient and wealthy while my army improved its competence. Meanwhile, I relentlessly curried favor with my neighbors, becoming fast allies with the Poles and the Russians.

When opportunities finally opened up, I was ready to pounce.

Pomerania, immediately to my north, ran afoul of the Poles and came under attack. Poland requested that I honor our alliance, and I happily obliged by attacking the western half of Pomerania. Pomerania’s only ally in this war, the tiny state of Meissen to my south, declared war on me and invaded Potsdam with its tiny army.  Because I was not the aggressor in either war, larger powers stayed on the sidelines as I wiped out small Meissen electorate and seized half of Pomerania. While Poland ultimately settled for an indemnity payment from Pomerania, I had managed to increase the size of my territory by a third.

While my game didn’t really resemble the historical record, it was behaving much as history behaved. The great powers steered clear of one another where possible, most wars ended with very minor adjustments to the status quo, and the small powers were slowly picked off. EU3 was not reproducing history exactly, but it was reproducing many of the major and minor events that added up to shape history. As a player, I was finding myself obsessed with minor objectives and details while the maelstrom swirled around tiny Brandburg. Within my limited horizons, I was finding as much satisfaction as I’ve had subjugating entire continents in Civilization or Total War.