Thoughts On… Jane’s Longbow 2

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Publisher: Electronic Arts/Jane’s Combat Simulation 
Developer: Origin Systems 
Year of Release: 1997
Platforms: PC

Every gamer has someone who introduced them to the world of video games. For me, its my uncle who first showed me such gems as Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine running on an old Windows 95 machine. He and I were able to chat about games and perfectly understand. In fact, even to this day we still vanish off when he comes to visit to go and play PC games with a beer to give him a break from his kids.  However, one game that he owned that changed me forever and made me the PC gamer I am today. It was an old helicopter flight sim with the world’s foremost military intel agency name slapped on the front cover. Even its front cover was awesome. And the manual was about 2 inches thick.

Jane’s Longbow 2 is a helicopter sim which put you in control of an Apache, a Kiowa or a Blackhawk. As its a sim, there is very little in the way of story, character or good voice acting in this game, so don’t expect many OMG moments. Also the game is from 1997. That’s 13 years ago. It came out a year after the Nintendo 64. It was rare to have graphics cards and no one had played Half Life. More importantly, I WAS ONLY FIVE!

The back story to Longbow 2 is about a situation that in 1997 seemed pretty feasible to the military analysts at Jane. Basically Azerbaijan, Iran and Armenia starts kicking up a fuss over every possible thing from religion to oil. The USA, being the USA, decides to join in on the side of the Christians to keep the peace. It sounds stupid but the ring binded manual contains several pages of background filler ranging from analysts assessments of the Iranian army to predictions of the events of any wars that might take place. It is simultaneously awesome and scary as fuck to think a serious company would put so much work into a purely theoretical situation.

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Actually I love the box and the manual. You know how now a days your lucky if you get a manual that isn’t just controls and legal stuff? Longbow 2 comes with a ring binder manual, an installation guide, a multiplayer guide, reference chart and a cardboard sleeve on the box that has more than the usual hyperbole on. It makes opening it again after all these years fun, especially when you open the manual to find flight school level physics the game tells you to read before you play anything. It something we won’t have in the future of digital distribution as the coffee table size book spills out onto your desk.

Once in game, the mission are all part of a dynamic campaign fought over Azerbaijan. Each mission depends on the actions in previous missions, supply lines, world opinion, enemy troop positions and your general’s overall tactic. At the start you pick your helicopter with its type giving you authentic missions. The Apache is the most varied, from close air support to hunter missions miles behind enemy lines, while the Kiowa is all about recon and marking targets for other units with a laser. The Blackhawk is all about troop carrying, which at first sounds boring but you try picking up special forces after a raid while being shot at by AA. Quite a few missions are simple repeats of each other while some are boring as hell (wow another patrol over friendly territory with no enemies? and its 30 minutes long? brilliant) but it still fun to play. On top of the missions, you also manage your own squadron. You can rotate guys from a roster of pilots, assign them roles as gunner or pilot and pick which ones you take on missions. You also pick what equipment and fuel your going to roll out with so if its a simply shipping run you can get the bare minimum so more can be saved for later missions when the Iranians are on the door step.

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The issue is the flying. Its a bit… crap. The features it offers are pretty good with a huge number of options and such like to tweak. The problem is it is so clunky as it was designed in an age before modern computing. Actual flight leave a lot to be desired.  Even simply cargo hauling missions are hard to do with the game’s flight model, which strikes me as being fine in 1997 but compared to other modern flight sims its awful. Similarly the graphics and sound are a bit crap which can make playing it slightly painful, with it being a bit too clean and the 2D dashboards looking too fake despite the level of detail. Which brings me on to another problem.

Because the game came out before standards such as Direct X or having more than 366 mb of memory came out, it is a pain to get running on a modern PC. Without significant tweaks the game refuses to run. It require a huge investment in time to get the damn thing working properly which could be better spent playing other games that include helicopter simulation elements (like ARMA.) To get it working I had to run several other programs in the background to emulate the environment of a Windows 95 PC with parts from companies that no long exist. Not really acceptable but hey if you want nostalgia…

Longbow 2 is a classic game for the time, but if taken and reviewed from today’s standards its absolute rubbish. However, in my heart it holds a special place – it was the first game I was given as a present and it was the first of many simulation games that have graced my desk. This game begs for a remake or a similar game, which the makers of Lock On may produce in a later Digital Combat Simulation game. But if your looking for a helicopter game now, this isn’t worth your time. Oh and the fact you can’t find it could be an issue. Sucks to be you without a copy of Longbow 2.

My Gaming Origin – Not Featuring A Radioactive Spider or An Epic Quest

In the process of writing my Longbow 2 review (coming soon), I started to think back on the games that really made me the gamer/person I am. It may sound really nostalgic and like I’m old or something but as a historian once said “its in the past where we find the future”. So what the hell! Might as well delve back in time!

Little has changed Little has changed has it?

First things first – my first console was the PS2 and I have never owned a handheld console. Once you have got over the shock let me explain – all my gaming influences were from PC users.

I Blame The Grandparents

I may blame my Uncle Mike in my Longbow 2 review for my gaming habbit, but the facilitator came in the shape of my Granddad. For as long as I remember, there have always been two PCs in my grandparents house, one for their business and the other for keeping the grandkids quiet when the British weather decided to wreck any plans for playing in the garden. This machine was a gateway, which led me to play bad clones of breakout and missile command. As time passed, my grandparents then decided to attempt to use the PC to actually teach us something by using Aidi, Gizmos and Gadgets and a typing teacher that I can’t for the life of me remember the name of. These games held our attention for a while but I hated them, instead playing the Flight Simulator games my Granddad bought over and over again. One Christmas he got a Sidewinder Force Feedback joystick which changed everything. Gone was the waggly stick I’d used up until this point, now we had a joystick that bloody hurt when you dropped it. I soon go hold of it and used it every week to play such classics as Microsoft’s Combat Flight Simulator and Mechwarrior 3.

“Hmm, Medicinal Herbs”

At home the story was very different. For most of my life up until my last year of primary school, I was playing games on a laptop with a 4 MB graphics card which my Dad had got from his work. It was alright, though it struggled with a load of different things. At this point, my games at home were ones my Uncle showed me, such as Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine (review coming soon) and Longbow 2. My Dad, who still plays games, played through most of Indy and to this day still says lines from it. Longbow 2 on the other hand was what I played for most of my time on that PC. That is until 2001 where my attention swiftly changed to my first foray into Strategy gaming – Microsoft’s Close Combat series starting with the best, A Bridge Too Far.

“We’re Under Heavy Fire!”

Close Combat was the first time my mind had to actually work hard at. In Longbow 2 I’d flown around shooting people. In flight simulators I’d simply go full throttle and crash into things. In Bridge Too Far, I had to start thinking about the grand scheme of things. I had to lead a collection of guys through an entire campaign full of death. This game also introduced me to several key gaming laws:

  1. Flamethrowers are awesome –The Churchill Crocodile was king
  2. British dialogue is always bad – Bad but hilarious
  3. German tanks are bleeding terrifying
  4. It it goes boom, all is good – Churchill AVRE was also the king

I also got the sequel which threw out the Western Front and took me to Russia. This was the first time I learnt anything about the Eastern Front and all the battles like Kursk and Stalingrad. Most of my early interest in history comes from these two games –  thus leading to a lifetime of being known as a historical war nerd. But hey, I known all about World War 2, do you?

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A Tiny PC – A Big Break

In my first year at high school, my Grandparents decided to upgrade to Windows XP and so bought themselves a new PC from Tiny, the worst possible name for a PC manufacturer. As part of this came a game pack, which always worries me when manufacturers throw this stuff in. The pack was a little bit generic with games like Pacman, Sonic, a random Sega collection, Lemmings and two other games I played the hell out of. The first was Gunlok, a rather unusual sci-fi rpg which I have fond memories of getting nowhere in it despite spending hours on it. The other was slightly more effective in entertaining me. This was a buggy and grimy mess of an RTS called Earth 2150 but I still loved it. Being young, I ignored the plot and simply skirmished and made maps. I always played Eurasian Dynasty, the closest to modern troops available with tanks and helicopters as opposed to walkers or hovercraft. And I always pimped out my vehicles with as many upgrades as possible. The beginnings of my military tactics I’ve used in games from Command and Conquer to Company of Heroes all start from this game.

Sleep? We Don’t Need No Sleep

Now we come to more modern times and my first real experience of online gaming and sleep exhaustion. At this point I was still on the crappy laptop although the family had bought a Dell desktop which sat downstairs. And yes, following the “Michael-and-new-PC Syndrome (which says that within seconds of touching a new PC I’ll stick some games on it), I slapped on two multiplayer shooters America’s Army and Wolfenstien Enemy Territory. Enemy Territory lead me down a dangerous road of getting up in the middle of the night to play it online with the Yanks while my parents slept. I was never caught despite spending hours on it but America’s Army was the game that led me to getting a PC of my own. As an aside, I also played the first IL2 game on this PC thanks to a friend of mine buying it for my birthday. This was the first of a series of games that absorbed my life for several years spent flying over the steppes of Russia

A PC for Me? There goes Half my Life!

So at this point I got my own PC. And around this time I also got my hands on three games that introduced me to some of the key things of PC gaming. The first was Half Life 2 which my friend lent me before we realised it had a one use key. This game first led me to use Steam, which is now home to most of my games. It also made me a life long fan of Valve and made me go back to play their older games while also buying every single one of their games going into the future. Half Life 2 brought me into the new generation of games, and was the first I actually critically analysed in frantic discussions written during school lunchtimes on various forums. I still maintain that Ravenholm was scary as hell and that puzzles were some of the best, despite both these opinions being formed in around 2006

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Clan Teams and Mod Teams

I’ve never been the most social or creative of people but at this point gaming helped to bring me out of my shell slightly. I joined up to a Battlefield 2 clan called EAU, who was formed from various teenagers in the UK and USA. I felt right at home. We each became good friends constantly on Teamspeak or playing BF2 on our own server. We jumped into Project Reality when it was released and loved it. It was one of the best times of my life, spending a summer with a group of fun and talented people who made me my first sig (see above). However, I eventually left to get on with my life yet I still remain in contact with a few to this day even playing Bad Company 2 with them. One of the reasons I left was another side project which was testing for the Steel Legion mod for DoW. I am still genuinely proud of my time spent with that mod. I loved playing it, balancing it out and sending off reports to the mod leaders. Even  now when I find my emails about it in my inbox or see the mod online I sit back and smile to myself with the pride of having helped to make something that good. I keep the banner below in my pictures with pride. This was also the first of many beta tests I took part in which included games like Battlefield 2142 and programs like Office 2007, Vista and Windows 7.

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The Console Side

Up until this point I have hardly mentioned the other consoles. This is because I only played them at friend’s houses, never seeing the use because of my trusted PC. However, I eventually asked for a PS2 due to all the peer pressure but mainly because I wanted something else to play. This brought me into contact with Jak and Daxter, which is a game I love to this day. But more importantly it brought out 007 Nightfire and MoH Rising Sun, both games that played a key part in my childhood, my cousin’s opinion of me and the focal point of my birthday parties which consisted of games, pizza and films till late in the night. Some of my happiest memories come from that black box. But more importantly it bought my Dad back into gaming – many a time I’d come home from school to find him on his lunch break playing through Harry Potter or the later Jak games. It added something else we could talk about or do together. We always took it on holiday to the various part of the British isles (I hardly ever went abroad but that’s a different story) as insurance against the weather. My main memory of the PS2 was in a house on the coast of the isle of Skye – playing Indiana Jones while looking out the window as the seals flopped onto the beach literally feet from the patio door. Gaming has brought beautiful moments to my life.

There are other more recent stories to tell, like how Call of Duty 4 made a brilliant birthday or how I came to play MMOs but they are other stories to be told in the future. I hope this article has illuminated just where my gaming life comes from and how my family and friends brought me into this hobby. Oh and also why I still buy games on PC despite having an Xbox.

Thoughts On… The ARMA Series

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Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Bohemia Interactive
Year of Release: 2007, 2009
Platforms: PC

Operation Flashpoint was one of those games I spent hours on but never bought. Most of my time spent at my grandparents in 2002 was spent in a single field of a Eastern Europe looking country, running across it clutching an M16 and being mown down time after time by Russian machine guns. But I didn’t care – for a boy who spent most of his break times at school fighting pretend wars in the playground, this single challenge was the best war game I’d ever played. But due to my lack of skill in it I never bought it. In fact, I only picked up ARMA when it was sat in the buy one get one free section of Gamestation in Leeds. But despite this terrible start, ARMA and its sequel is a brilliant game if you are willing to spend time learning how to play milsim style and forget your tea bagging and noob tubing skills you learnt on the mean streets of COD4.

First, some history. ARMA and ARMA 2 are made by Bohemia Interactive, a company who specialise in interactive simulation training packages for the military and the same people who made Operation Flashpoint for Codemasters in 2001. After a split which left Codemasters with the name but Bohemia with the tech. In 2007, Bohemia then released ARMA based off their latest training program (closely followed by an expansion) and then in 2009 ARMA 2 was unleashed upon a rabid and dedicated fanbase built up since we first fought the Ruskies across that bloody field.

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ARMA is a soldier sim which delights in realism. Bullets act like bullets do in real life, with rounds arching at long ranges and requiring the usually annoying snipers to have to learn how to adjust for all sorts of factors (including the Coralis effect if you want to try firing a Barrett at around a mile.) Your ability to shoot and move can be modified in several ways such as through stamina or injuries. If you attempt to lug a machine gun across a field then when you attempt to shoot you will probably be more of a threat to your own squad than the bad guys. Similarly, the game hates your guts so don’t expect to run forward into the battlefield like Roach in Brazil – try any of that and you’ll be full of lead before you can say “Run Forrest Run”. Instead you need to keep low, command your squad and not attempt to open up on full auto at long range. As part of this, you need to use the terrain to your advantage – find a wall and use it for a base of fire team. In fact, if your able to find any real world military tactics, you can probably use them in the game.

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Most of the time you will be a simple foot slogger in the infantry but occasionally you’ll be driving tanks, APCs, Humvees, trucks and tractors or flying helicopters and jets. The game can render full combined arms operations with helicopters and jets providing support to ground forces and its at this point the game comes alive. There are few better gaming moments then when you sit back and watch helicopters silhouetted against the sky like in Apocalypse Now as flak round light up the sky. Yet at the same time even playing a small mission as special forces can be among the tensest times you’ve seen. One example was a time I’d sneaked into an enemy camp to place some demo charges – avoiding roving patrols was genuinely scary. Its amazing how versatile the game is.

Part of this is from the games editor which is amongst the easiest I’ve ever used. Within moments (and with a limited knowledge of scripting), you could be defending a beach landing zone from waves of enemy troops coming ashore or commanding a Marine Battalion as you advance through a No Man’s land of minefields and artillery strikes. The missions can be as complex as you want – I’ve seen missions which are based off the in game templates while others rival those that came with the game. Which reminds me – the campaigns in both games are terrible. They are alright if your wanting to learn how to play the game, but don’t listen to the plot or the dialogue as it is terrible.

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Multiplayer is I think one of the main draws of the game. As well as the usual mission types, the game also includes a pretty good mode called “Warfare”. By combining squad of infantry players with a commander who balances equipment and artillery support in an RTS mode, the game feels like a war going on with order seeping down from the top. Its like the PS3 game MAG, but better and with more people. But like that game, if there is a single idiot in the game at a command system the system falls apart and the game become no fun, especially when the commander thinks is funny to drop phosphorus rounds on the staging area. ARMA 2 makes it even better with a mode featuring three separate sides leading to a great deal of diplomacy between the West/East and the third party faction side. One game had the insurgents backing the Yanks up until the final moments. Unknown to the US, the guerrillas had placed satchel charges around all the key buildings and defences and carried Russian Special Forces to a cabin overlooking the West sides base. So while we were sat in the Russian camp smoking victory cigars and admiring our handiwork as we whittled down the remaining buildings, a huge explosion could be seen far away. The multiplayer is full of these moments and that is why its one of the best multiplayer experiences available.

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That said, both games are buggy as hell. Its a lot better when it gets to about the third or fourth patch but at launch both games were in a state. Constant crashes, memory errors, multiplayer disconnects and, the biggest issue of all, a stupid set of system requirements. The games’ system requirements on the back of the box seem alright, but it runs terribly on most PCs. The second is a slight improvement in the fact it runs slightly better (due in part to being optimised for multi-core processors) and looks better but even so, if you want to run it on high settings, you better be using a national supercomputer. I think this is in part to the 10 kilometre draw distance which is an amazing feature but its rare you’ll actually use it. Another downside is the command system, which has not been changed since Operation Flashpoint. It is really clunky, which can make it hard to make orders in the middle of battle accurately with round flying around. It takes more keypresses than it should to order a single soldier to hit the deck.

At this point the games need to be looked at separately. ARMA takes place in Sahrani, a fake Atlantic island which is in the middle of a situation not too dissimilar to the Germany in the Cold War, with the West backed South fighting the Communist North. In this you play as a US Army helping to train the Southerners. Its an interesting set up.. The map was also designed with two totally different climates with a desert to the south while an Eastern Europe looking region to the north. This variety allows it to pretend to be areas ranging from Iraq to Eastern Europe. ARMA also received an expansion pack called Queen’s Gambit, which takes place just after the end of the Sahrani campaign and has an even worse set up. However, the expansion also includes several new units and weapons which are a boon to mission makers, such as technicals, as well as a totally new island of Porto which is perfect for all the Blackhawk Down style missions.

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ARMA 2 is a much better package from the off. It looks better, plays better and is easier for new players to get into. Its multiplayer has worked reasonably well from day one and the setup is much more interesting than the first game. This is set in the fake ex-Russian state of Chernaus and has a conflict that escalates from a small scale insurgency (with American involvement) between entirely Chernausian forces up to an almost World War 3 conflict between the Russians and the US. The maps are also detailed to the extreme, with tiny incidental details littering the entire 225km square area. Due to it being based off satellite imagery of an area of Bohemia’s home country of the Czech Republic, every hill, valley, forest and town feels real. Unlike in Saharni, there are no areas that have the look of “generic_hamlet_01”, which make fighting through them a real joy. The Russian scenery is atmospheric with mist hanging low in the mornings as the sun rises over fields and castles. It’s a place where you could be quite happy to just move through the world ignoring the mission objectives. There are several galleries online packed full of landscape shots taken in the engine. The other advantage is the sheer number of different units on show. There are 5 sides (US Marines, Russia, local forces, insurgents and nationalist guerrillas) engaged in this conflict and each have their own set of vehicles and weapons ranging from main battle tanks to ATVs to artillery pieces to shotguns which are all detailed to the extreme as they should be in a training tool. ARMA 2 is getting its own expansion soon which adds the US Army, an Afghanistan-esque map and, for the first time, other Blufor troops (the German Special Forces and the Czech rear their heads.)

I have four personal recommendations for anyone wanting to get into the ARMA games:

  1. Buy ARMA 2 – its far superior, has more people in multiplayer and more addons being made for it.
  2. Learn to use the mission editor – I’ve spent most of my time in both of the games just making up cool scenarios ranging from single man stealth operations up to full scale wars across a huge area. There is a lot to learn but the basics such as unit placements, waypoints and basic triggers should be alright just for the start.
  3. Join a clan – It is easier and more fun to learn to play while part of a clan. I learned so much from the guys at Royal British Commandos ranging from how to use the editor to the oddities of the different equipment. It also means that you can just turn up to game and have a good time with a group of people who all enjoy the game.
  4. Download addons – most of the fun from ARMA is how its used as a platform for other mods ranging from changing the UI up to total conversions that change how the game plays entirely. Armaholic is the main site I use and it pretty good at getting only the best mods available. In fact, I’m at the point where the addons installed are around the same size of the game’s original data files. But if you want to be conservative, ACE 2 is a must have due to how much it adds or changes. However it can be a bit complicated to install and if you want to use it online you will have to make sure you regularly update.

I’ve spent over 230 hours in the ARMA games fighting in virtual wars. These games are war simulations without equals and bring you as close to war as you want to go, as long as your willing to learn how to play them. Jump in straight into the fire and you won’t enjoy it. But learn how to play, learn tactics and how to master the clunky command system and you’ll have an amazing time. Just try the demo before you buy as although I could rave about it until I grow a beard but it doesn’t appeal to everyone. See you on the battlefield.

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(I have actually review ARMA 2 before and it is still online over at geeks.co.uk
Its a brilliant site and the team behind it are all awesome)