This game occupies a position somewhere hazily between strategy counter-moving and simulation. It is in PSS 's familiar house-style, as opposed to what seems to be their 'imported ' style; that is, we have slick machine code programming, nice presentation terms of rather bland and pretty graphics, and the admittedly handy 'corn-box'.
The arcade sequence, which is predictable from this description, is not, in this case, an optional frill. It attempts to occupy a central position in the game, and justifiably so when you consider the scenario; it concentrates on the part played in World War II by the Bismarck - one of those unsinkable ships which inevitably go down. Historically the Bismarck lived up to the tradition set by the Titanic, and the gameplay of this computer simulation of the brief serving life of the 'pride of the Kriegsmarine' does its best to be authentic in this respect.
The Bismarck was launched into active service on 18 May 1941 and sunk by the flagship of the British home fleet, King George V, on 27 May. It was trying to head towards the mid-Atlantic, where it would keep the British battleships busy and allow its companion-ship, the Prince Eugen, to attack the merchant convoys safely. Before it could break out into the open ocean it was barraged not only by half the British navy, who had intercepted its radio messages and were able to track its position accurately, but by air attack. There is a detailed and well-narrated account of the Bismarck's nineday reign in the rulebook, which sets the scene admirably and individualises the various British ships which appear on the screen.
The map shows Western Europe, Iceland, and a portion of the North Atlantic. II you accept the default option to play the German side, it shows very little else when the game starts; the Bismarck, a small square with a cross on it, awaits orders at the top of the screen. Although the surrounding ocean is teeming with British battleships, convoys and aircraft carriers, the German player is only intermittently made aware of their positions.
There are icons on the map, in the form of a flag and windsock, representing the command centre and weather station of whichever side you're playing. The weather centre can always be accessed with the corn-box and shows what the weather conditions across the map are; a pattern of clouds, reminiscent of those new trendy electronic weather-maps, appears superimposed over Europe. If you really want to imitate the television weather forecast on your Spectrum, successive key-presses call up a prediction of where the cloud will be any number of hours later. Cosmetically this is an attractive feature, and the theory is that the German player ought to keep the Bismarck travelling under cloud to minimise the danger from British air attack.
The command centre can only be accessed when it flashes. For the German player it reports U-boat sightings of British ships, which come regularly and are very helpful in attempting to avoid their path. The British player is told of radio intercepts, which pinpoint the Bismarck's position. These radio sightings don 't start happening until about halfway through the game, so there ' s little the British player can intelligently do until then, beyond making sure the navy is in a fairly central position ready to steam towards the Bismarck when it shows up.
The main function of the combox is, as with other games in this style, to give movement orders to the units. The German player only has control over the Bismarck, while the British player can give orders to a number of battleships and an aircraft carrier. The only order which can be given via the corn-box is movement but it also accesses the unit's battlescreen.
This is where the famous - or notorious - PSS arcade sequence begins to look surprisingly like a serious attempt at simulation. The battlescreen, which unlike conventional arcade sequences, can be accessed at any time, is split into three sections. The upper part of the screen shows a featureless view of the sea in front of the ship and the enemy if there is one in the vicinity. Other ships appears as highly detailed outlines on the horizon. The middle section is a complex bank of icons and information, which are used to control ship movement and to fire the weapons. The lower part of the screen shows a diagramatic representation of the ship from the side on; as soon as you start getting shelled the point of this display becomes alarmingly apparent as fire spreads through the hull towards the engines and fuel tanks.
When the Bismarck sails near an enemy unit it appears on the map screen, and even if the other side decides not to engage in battle the ship will probably be visible if you access the battlescreen. Once in view, you can attempt to close on the enemy by selecting the appropriate icon, and when it's in range of your guns you can fire. There seems to be little skill involved in the actual firing. It's a matter of pointing the viewfinder in the right direction and pressing the button, discharging an apparently limitless quantity of shell. PSS tell me that the real skill lies in outmanoeuvring the enemy ships, and certainly, it you let the Bismarck sit there and take substantial damage from an opponent, then you will inevitably lose. Somewhat artificially, hits to the enemy ship are displayed above hits to your own. The Bismarck can take 99 points of damage before sinking, but as shells hit, fires start around the ship and unless these are dealt with you risk having an explosion in the fuel tanks before you're actually shot to pieces.
A separate icon allows the player to move a fire-fighting crew to the scene of the blaze, but in the meantime the enemy may still be firing. Am I being too exacting to point out that on a battleship like the Bismarck, which carried a crew of 2,300 men, it was hardly necessary to stop firing to run with a bucket of water to put out a fire? Probably not, because it puts the player at a disadvantage. The enemy doesn't pause to repair its fire damage. Juggling between combat and fire-fighting mode can become wearisomely fiddly.
The Bismarck is attempting either to reach the southern edge of the map reasonably intact, or to get to Brest with at least one sunk British ship to its name. This sounds easy and is extremely and depressingly difficult, as the historical disadvantage the Bismarck was under is ruthlessly reproduced. The ship only has 99 hit points and no way of recovering them once lost, several at a time, to enemy shells. It follows therefore that the Bismarck ought to avoid any combat if at all possible and head for the south edge of the map, despite an injunction in the rules to keep clear of battleships but 'sink everything else. In practice, It's very difficult to avoid being caught up in battle. Obvious British tactics unfortunately encourage a kamikazi mentality, for sending weaker ships to certain death against the Bismarck can do a significant amount of permanent damage. There ought to be penalties for suicidal strategies; as it is, you get 'A British Victory' and a respectable percentage for scuppering all of your ships except one which was on the point of exploding from fire damage. It's good to note at least that actually shooting at your own ships is not tolerated.
The game proceeds in real time, with a choice of pace between fast, medium and slow. Fast is not particularly speedy, and there should be no reason to want to slow up what happens on the map screen. The quick pacing means that the game is unlikely to last for a long time, and that - to me - contributes to an impression of shallowness. Other players may like a game which has fixed boundaries and a definite resolution within the space of an hour. The rules come in a small high-quality booklet and are nicely presented; there's an index table, illustrations of symbols used on the screen, and useful Information about the military capabilities of the ships. All aspects of gameplay are clearly described in a meaningful sequence, and the historical overview is well-written and interesting. The standard of PSS documentation seems to be improving.
Bismarck is a smoothly-presented, undemanding game which tries to make an arcade sequence work as an integral part of a wargame. Of that type, a type PSS are creating, it is successful. I remained unconvinced that this particular style of wargame has anywhere to go; it's too glib, it seems too much of a pale reflection of what it's attempting to blend, and it doesn't offer enough of a long-term challenge. But there's a lot packed into Bismarck, and this may be a game which younger and inexperienced wargamers will enjoy.