Thursday, January 14, 2010

PT Boats: Knights of the Sea Review

PT Boats: Knights of the Sea, developed by Akella and published by
The Good: Mix of first person action and tactical strategy, nice graphics with detailed ships, lengthy campaign, unique focus
The Not So Good: Repetitive linear campaign, lackluster AI, lacks random engagements and scenario editing, neither a deep simulation nor an exciting action title, pointless to directly control ships, tedious tutorials, can't save mid-mission
What say you? This World War II naval simulation has little replay value, lacks a competent opponent, and doesn’t strike a good balance between simulation and action: 4/8

World War II has been simulated so many times in PC gaming that’s it’s simply too much work to link to every review I’ve done on the subject (plus, I am tired). One aspect that usually goes on the backburner is naval combat, as the kids seem to be more interested in land-based infantry warfare where you can shoot people in the face. Indeed, even the naval theater of World War II is typically simulated from a grand scale in games like War in the Pacific. We have had our share of close-quarters naval combat, from the hardcore simulation Dangerous Waters to the more action-oriented Battlestations: Midway. PT Boats: Knights of the Sea highlights a forgotten part of World War II naval combat: the torpedo boat. Others can control those big, powerful ships with extremely large guns, but we shall control the fast and elusive PT boats and take them all down. Take that! How does PT Boats separate itself from other naval games?

I like the graphics of PT Boats. The ships are quite detailed, looking startlingly real down to the smallest detail. They are complete with neat (though repetitive) sinking animations and explosions. The game engine also displays some nice waves (always an important aspect of a naval simulation where all you see is water) and smoke and weather effects. The poorest aspect is the sailor animations: watching seamen jump overboard looks robotic and silly against an otherwise effective graphical presentation. PT Boats: Knights of the Sea competes nicely against any other naval game. The sound design is less impressive, with passable music and appropriate sound effects for all of the mayhem that ensues. The voice acting has apparently been re-recorded for this English language release, but it is still hackneyed and not very good. It might have even had been better to retain the original voice work since then we could just chalk the shortcomings up to the Russian language barrier. Still, PT Boats: Knights of the Sea is a looker due to its pleasing graphics.

PT Boats: Knights of the Sea features (surprise!) PT boats, the fast-moving torpedo boats of World War II. This alone is a unique focus of a naval game; typically you are given the keys to the largest, most expensive ships available. The single player campaign consists of five missions in each of five chapters, and you can play the same scenario from both sides of the conflict. This is a pretty good amount of content, except that the scenarios are linear and heavily scripted, in addition to having the same objective (engage the enemy while escorting larger ships) over and over again. The matches are also arbitrarily drawn-out, pitting the ships far apart for no reason other than to waste your time. This is really apparent during the game's tutorials, where you are quite literally sitting there for minutes at a time staring at your boat doing nothing but moving forward. At least the game features time acceleration to speed up the process somewhat. The extended mission times are made worse by the lack of a mid-mission save system. Have to go do something? Too bad, all progress is lost. Boo/hiss. The only options given towards customizing the experience have to do with the game's difficulty: enemy accuracy, damage, and realism (damage of radar or crew, infinite ammunition, reloading times) and be tweaked to make for a more challenging game. Sadly, PT Boats does not have any skirmish options for quick battles against the AI, which drastically reduces the long-term appeal of the game. PT Boats does have multiplayer, featuring very traditional deathmatch, team deathmatch, and humans versus AI modes of play on five maps, but the game lacks cooperative options, not that there was anyone online to play with or against anyway.

PT Boats is controlled in two modes: a more action-oriented first person mode and the RTS-like tactical mode. If you want a more direct approach to command, then the first person mode is right for you! Movement is done through the now classic WASD keys; since boats are controlled through engine throttle rates (full, half, one-third), you thankfully do not need to hold down the W key to continue forward. In addition to simply controlling the movement, you can also commandeer any of the light weapons, using the mouse to aim and mouse buttons to shoot and zoom. There is no toggle option for zooming, however, so you do need to keep the right mouse button depressed in order to have any semblance of accuracy. Manually using torpedoes is slightly more complicated, as you need to first spot the ship using the binoculars (using the “4” key) and then aim your ship towards the target in the torpedo view (also, confusingly, using the “4” key) and press fire. Orders can be issued to other ships using Alt+C (obviously) and then one of the F-keys for follow, attack, guard, and report commands. Unfortunately, ships automatically attack and the AI is typically more accurate then you ever could be, so the usefulness of the first person mode is greatly reduced, essentially to nil.

Since you will normally be given control of multiple ships, most of your time in PT Boats will be spend in the tactical mode, which is presented in the same fashion as a typical strategy game. You can box select any of your units or select them from an icon list of all ships: useful. The game uses contextual right-clicks for movement, guarding, and attacking, depending on what exactly you are clicking on. Ships can also be organized into formations: lines, circles, columns, or a custom arrangement of your making. The game clearly shows sighting ranges for easy scouting, and there are no outstanding shortcomings in terms of the game’s interface in this aspect of PT Boats.

Most of the time, you will be controlling torpedo boats, but other ships will be placed under your command: cruisers, destroyers, raiders, transports, mine-sweepers, sea hunters, submarines, and assorted aircraft. The main crux of PT Boats involves getting boats into range and then blasting away. Damage is very simplistic and linear: more hits equals more damage until a threashold is reached. You can individually damage the radio, radar, engine, and crew if you have those options selected, but it’s still not an advanced model by any stretch of the imagination. This is also exemplified by the repair model, as significant real-time repairs can be made during battles. I don’t recall sailors applying duct tape and welding the sides of boats in the middle of a firefight, but apparently there were according to the world of PT Boats.

The AI has a number of significant problems that hinders the single player portion of PT Boats. They rarely provide a challenge outside of having superior numbers (a cheap strategy often employed here), as the computer will perform questionable tactics and just open fire once you are spotted. The fundamental problem of PT Boats has to do with the way the game handles combat: once you can see the enemy ship, all of your weapons are in-range, meaning that fights are just a matter of who is more accurate, rather than subtle maneuvering into firing position like in older Age of Sail simulations. Torpedo boats can take on any size ship with their allotment of torpedoes, and they are at such an advantage due to their fast speed and small size. The combat of PT Boats is simply not that interesting. The AI is highly inaccurate to boot, and clearly does not use formations, instead sending a random lot of enemies towards you, typically one at a time, ready to be slaughtered. The computer opponents of PT Boats are not even at the same level as the questionable opponent in Distant Guns, lagging far behind the curve in naval simulations and adding another contribution to the overall mediocrity of the game as a whole.

PT Boats is not hardcore enough to satisfy the simulation crowd, and it's not simple enough to satisfy the action crowd. The tactical mode plays out like a simplified real-time strategy game, where you can direct ships around in formations and assign targets to attack with specific weapons. It is easy to select specific (or all) ships and assign orders, but the depth is lacking. You can also take the helm of a ship directly, although since ships will attack automatically anyway (and typically more accurately than you can with the control scheme), your time of first person action will be limited. The problems don’t stop there, however. There is only the single player campaign; while lengthy, it doesn’t provide near the replay value you need in a game such as this. PT Boats desperately needs some randomized or customized encounters to extend the life of the game as each of the scenarios are linear, predictable, repetitive, and arbitrarily lengthy. The last comment becomes an issue since you can’t save in the middle of a mission. Nice. Multiplayer includes the usual options, deathmatch and team events, but no cooperative features, not that there is anyone to play against. The damage of PT Boats is very simplistic and the sub-par AI is not a challenge, which makes the game less appealing to veteran simulation players. Really, PT Boats is a lighter version of Dangerous Waters, without all of that interesting depth. In addition, Battlestations: Midway did the whole direct-control thing better if you want a more arcade slant. PT Boats: Knights of the Sea doesn’t do anything that previous games haven’t in one form or another, and coupled with its numerous shortcomings, it is simply a forgettable title.