It's June 7th 1966: a US helicopter returning troops from a period of rest and recreation in Saigon goes all wobbly and crashes in the remote Central Highlands of Vietnam. There are seven survivors, and the nearest US base, Du Hoc, is 57 miles away. 57 miles of unbelievably harsh terrain. 57 miles alive with booby traps and Vietcong troops. A fully equipped team of soldiers would find the prospect of a trek of this sort of daunting (to say the very least) but the seven men who will be under your control have little food or ammunition.
Oh, and morale is low, obviously. Your chances of survival are extremely slim. In fact it's worse than that: you're as good as dead. Here's where you stand...
This is your troop. Watch them carefully - some of them have certain strengths. Some of them have certain weaknesses. You don't want to send the cook into unarmed combat with 'a Geek' if there's someone available who's quite good at origami (I think you mean Aikido, Ed.)
SGT. Charles Weaver
US Residence: Springfield, Illinois
STATUS: Height 5'9". Weight 153 pounds. 29 years old. Single. Two years army service. Ten months in Vietnam on W.H.A.M. Missions for intelligence. Decorated for valour during action in the An Loc Province during October 1964.
PTE. William Blom
US Residence: Pittsburg, Pennsylvania
STATUS: Height 6'1". Weight 168 pounds. 24 years old. Married, one child. Six months active in Vietnam. Aikido 2nd Dan.
PTE Robert Case
US Residence: Columbus, Ohio.
STATUS: Height 5'11". Weight 147 pounds. 31 years old. Married, two children. Nine months active service in Vietnam.
PTE. Harvey Moore
US Residence: Fayetteville, North Carolina
STATUS: 22 years old. Height 5'8". Weight 162 pounds. Single. Six months active service in Vietnam.
PTE. Richard Bachman
US Residence: Bangor, Maine.
STATUS: Height 5'10". Wight 161 pounds. 28 years old. Single. Fourteen months army service. Six months active in Vietnam. Highly proficient marksman.
PTE. David Cain
US Residence: West Liberty, Kentucky
STATUS: Height 6'0". Weight 163 pounds. 27 years old. Single. Seven months active service in Vietnam.
PTE. Juan Gomez
US Residence: Montgomery, Texas.
STATUS: Height 5'6". Weight 132 pounds. 24 years old. Married, two children. Nine months active service in Vietnam.
PTE. Roy Castle
US Residence: Richmond, Surrey.
STATUS: Height 5'9". Weight 138 pounds. 48 years old. Married, four children. Brand new draftee with no previous active service. Can play Flight Of The Bumble Bee on the Alpine Horn. (Are you quite sure about PTE. Roy Castle? Ed.)
This is where your route is planned and plotted. Familiarity with Vietcong war tactics and how to cope with the diverse terrain might help you. However, don't forget that the original 'Nam draftees weren't given any information. The only way they learnt was by experience - which meant (in so many cases) by getting themselves killed. You'll probably be doing the same - but at least you can have the luxury of a second bash.
This map screen is also where you check up on the morale of your men, where you choose to distribute rations (or to not distribute them - they're low remember) and, well, basically you give your orders and stuff from here.
The speed of your troop's progress can be changed by clicking on the centre of the compass icon (D). The direction in which you march (crawl, slope, hack or wade) is chosen by clicking on any one of the surrounding cardinal compass points.
Your movements, as in real life, are slowed to varying degrees by the natural terrain features of the route you take - hills, rivers, swamp or jungle for example. There's the Control Panel Message Slot (E) to keep your eye on, which gives you quite detailed terrain descriptions once you've summoned up the grid icon (F) and the highlighted the area you're interested in. The map, by the way, is two screens wide. And it's scrollable, so you can study it at your leisure.
The M icon takes you to the Team Morale screen, where not only will you get the individual morale and strength ratings but also details of injuries sustained. Clicking on the Lead icon chooses that member as the head of the team file as it moves across country. This means that he's going to be the first one to step on a mine or walk into a booby trap, so either choose someone you don't like or somebody who's proved himself to be observant and unflappable. Clicking on the scout icon allows you to select a 'pointsman'. In fact you can appoint two. What these pointsmen do is guard the flank of the file: checking for VC's creeping up the rear. (Insert Julian Clary type joke here. Ed.)
The menu bar at the top of the control panel (accessed by pressing the right mouse button) gives you access to a number of options. 'Traps' allows you to leave booby traps in your wake. 'Food' allows you to alter the amount of rations to hand out. 'Rest' is something you'll need to do occasionally if you have causalities among the troop (rations can be consumed during these rests, and morale will be lifted, especially if you known any Paul Daniels 'party tricks').
'Digging In' is something else you'll need to do - mainly at night. You can 'dig in' for multiples of one hour and like 'rest', you'll find it beneficial to strength and morale.
ONWARD MARCHING SOLDIERS
The Lost Patrol is made up of the main Map Screen and a host of sub-games: moving to a certain area on the map will plunge you into a small piece of arcade action. For instance, you might find yourself in a minefield which surrounds a Vietcong bunker. You can choose to retreat - but you might get spotted. Decide, instead, to push forwards and you're going to have to find a safe route through the mines. This is a viewed-from-above sequence against the clock.
You control a crawling soldier (pick which of your team you feel best able to cope in this situation). The soldier can be turned through 360 degrees and be made to probe the ground with his knife, which may (or may not) reveal a mine. If it does, well, you're not going to want to go that way, are you? No. You're not. (Unless you're incredibly thick.) So, it's a case of turning, probing again and when you find a safe spot, shuffling forwards. You mustn't hang around though, because at any point you could get seen by the VC and be overrun: um, which means getting mutilated and killed. But if you start panicking and move too fast, you might make a mistake and get your legs blown off - and the blast will be like a doorbell to the Vietcong anyway, saying "look over there. Some Americans to visit (and, um, mutilate and kill)".
Another of the arcade sequences takes a little bit of its inspiration from Operation Wolf, but instead of a continuously scrolling horizontal landscape, the action takes place on a single screen's worth with a vertically scrolling wall between you and the enemy. You dinf yourself pinned down inside ruined buildings by a VC force of unknown strengths and size. Hidden behind the wall, you're safe from their bullets and grenades. Unfortunately, because you're behind the wall, you can't see them either - you have to poke your head up to take a shot or throw a grenade. And you know another word for 'a head poking up over a wall' don't you? That's right: 'a target'. Still, you can't sit down behind the wall indefinitely, because you'll find yourself getting overrun by the VC's.
HAND TO HAND COMBAT
At any point during the 'game' one of your scouts may stumble upon a Vietcong soldier guarding arms or supply bunkers. As total silence is imperative (you don't want to alert his 'chums' to your presence), you have to take him on hand to hand, which is another way of saying it's time for a bit of side-on-view beat 'em up. You can punch and kick and, if you can get close enough, headbutt.
However, time isn't on your side (as seems to be the case everywhere else in the game) and if you fail to report back to the group at the designated time, you'll be regarded as Missing In Action, and left behind to fend for yourself. Mind you, you may be killed by the VC before your time runs out anyway.
Coming under fire from VC snipers isn't a barrel of laughs. You and your men are pinned down. All you can see are distant huts and trees and you hear the sporadic crack of rifle fire. Suddenly a message appears: "Private Case has been shot in the right arm". Oh dear, where are they shooting from? The trouble with snipers, you see, is that they're hidden. That's why they're called snipers. If they weren't hidden they'd be called 'sitting ducks'.
So, it's time to use the telescopic sights on your rifle. Okay, scan the landscape dead slowly. Crack. Another shot. Phew, no-one's been hit. Scan more of the landscape. Crack. Hey, there was a tiny flash from that bush over there. It's sniper fire. Bang, bang, bang (go easy on the ammunition). There. Got him. Oh no, Private Case has been hit in the left leg. Retreating from snipers can be just as dangerous as facing them and trying to pick them off. It's just another of the many dilemmas you'll be facing.
There's another sniper sequence in the game, in which you have to use hand grenades instead of your rifle. You pull the pin from the grenade, aim it with the cross hairs and set the power meter for whatever you think is the correct distance. This means you have five seconds to get the grenade aimed and launched - because you can't put the handle and pin back in again. If you take too long the grenade will go off in your hand, and it'll be frankfurters for tea.
On entering villages, you have to interrogate the inhabitants. This is done in the style of adventure games, with text descriptions and menu-driven multiple choice responses. You're placed in the unenviable position of not being able to trust anyone - the gentle looking old man in front of you could be just that : a gentle looking old man. However, he could also be a Vietcong sympathiser, holding information that will mean the difference between life and death for you and your men.
This is where the real flavour of the Vietnam war starts to seep into the gameplay - have you been dehumanized by the carnage and destruction you've witnessed in the jungles and swamps? How will you play it softly, giving the old man the benefit of the doubt, and having a friendly game of noughts and crosses with him? Or will you get slightly rougher in your techniques, resorting to threats of physical violence and handling out the odd slap? Maybe you'll get seriously gung-ho and batter him about the head with a rifle butt until his skull goes all wibbly.
You have the option to do all these things. Basically it's a question of how much you value the lives of potentially innocent people. This is set against your duty to get the men in your command back to safety. Role playing has never had such serious undertones. (Personally we'd set fire to his legs).
Dunc: Hang on a mo, I want to tell you a story first I've just got to put on my Vietnam soldier's voice. Ahem. Grunt, grunt. (Clears throat and tries to sound like a cross between Matt Dillon and Martin Sheen.)
"There he was, in a village, me and give of my men (Gomez had been blown apart in a VC trap the previous day). Morale was low, and there wasn't a helluvalot of food or ammo left. Two of the party had serious wounds and we still had 35 miles to go before hitting Du Hoc."
Ahem. Grunt. Actually I'm not very good at being 'American', so I'll have another bash - this time as an English 'soldier'...
"Blimey. This is a rum old turn up for the books. I can blinking well tell you. The bally helicopter crashed and all seven of us were stuck in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle, without so much as a cricket bat to help us pass the time. We jolly well soldiered on though, on foot, and eventually made it to a charmingly picturesque village. (Um, except for Gomez that is, who got into a bit of a scrape with some sort of landmine)".
"As I said, though, the village was wizard: wooden huts with hay on the roofs. The sergeant got hold of an old wrinkled farmer chappie and suggested we get some information from him. 'Oh good', I said, 'can you ask where I can buy some ethic mantlepiece ornaments?' The sergeant told me that he was after information of a different kind, so I let him get on with it and went for a little walk. A few minutes later I stubbed my toe on something. It was a trapdoor, so I lifted it up - and found a hole in the ground full of people wearing funny hats and brandishing guns."
'''Oh, how quaint, they're playing tunnels' I said, and asked them if I could join in - but they all jumped out and started firing. 'Hey, you can't shoot me, chaps', I said. 'I'm English', but they paid me no heed."
What The Lost Patrol is all about is atmosphere. And it scores. You feel tension with every step your party takes. You get a feeling of 'it's not fair'. You get a feeling of 'why do we have to be here?', but you are there, so you have to carry on. That's the intention. The war isn't glorified, but you're not allowed to play the pacifist humanitarian. Well, you are, but you'd be dead in about two pico-seconds. I could say 'first you do this, then you do that and then you do this and that and the other' but that would spoil the game. Anyway - the real soldiers in Vietnam weren't told what to expect, so why should you? What I will say, however, is that there's a certain 'random element' in the game. Luck. Just like real life.
Paul: In space no one can hear you scream. (You're not in space, you're in the middle of war torn Vietnam. Ed.) Well, this is certainly a rather different approach to war on computer. No shoot, shoot, shoot, kill, kill, kill ha, ha, ha. It's far more thoughtful than that. In fact it's an 'anti-war' game, in a sort of Cinemaware fashion.
That doesn't mean to say it's not violent. It is. Very. But the violence comes inside a different pill than most war games: it's slightly harder to swallow. From the very outset, the tension is there. You stare at the map screen, scrolling it around to check the terrain, and a bass heavy 'Nam war film type riff comes form the speakers. "Where would I be hiding" you ask yourself, "if I was a Vietcong foot soldier?". "Where wouldn't I expect to find a group of weary Americans?". On deciding on an area you think the VC's wouldn't expect you to be, it's a good idea to head for it.
The trouble is that whenever you think the Vietcong won't suss something out, you're generally wrong - well, quite often. The tension can be a real killer. Still, what am I telling you this for? The Lost Patrol is a mission of discovery. You really have to learn as you go along, but just as in the real war, the cost of any mistakes can be very high. You can find two members of your party killed because you stupidly didn't realise that... oh dear. There I go again, nearly letting the cat out of the bag.
Actually, I wish I could have my first go all over again. Getting all seven of the company safely to Du Hoc on the very first play would be quite an achievement. As it happens, if this was real life I'd be already dead and wouldn't have another chance.
The graphics are superbly done, both in the statics and arcade sections. Check out the black and white digitised film sequences: brilliant. And the interrogation screens and something else. (I really hate to say that I enjoy them, but you know what I mean). Non, no, I'm not going all gung-ho, what I mean is that they add to the game in a way that... Look, I don't actually 'enjoy' them, it's just that you find yourself in a real dilemma as to whether or not you... Oh, I give up. I'll just say that The Lost Patrol, as a whole, is even greater than the sum of its parts. (Yes. And you liked the interrogation scenes in particular., didn't you? Ed.)