Tubular Belle: World of Subways 3

By Tim Stone on November 6th, 2010 at 2:50 pm.

In 1887, Charles Pearson, a wealthy London lawyer sick to death of the “I had that Mr. Holmes in  the front last week” anecdotes of hansom cabbies, proposed the building of a subterranean railway line from Paddington Station to Farringdon Street. That line eventually grew into the 27-stop transport loop that TML Studios are painstakingly reproducing for their third World Of Subways sim.

If WoS 3: Circle Line follows the pattern of its predecessors, we’ll be driving the trains rather than clogging their carriages as dead-eyed commuters, cunning pickpockets, or sly revellers. Some – like those yearning for a sequel to  Metro Rules of Conduct – may regard that as a colossal design flaw. Me, I’m just happy to see the London Underground’s long and glittering career in games take another fascinating turn.

It all started of course, back in 1983. That was the year that the young LU snagged a lead role in  3D Tunnel for the ZX Spectrum. Based on Willard Warfarin’s “Confessions of a Victoria Line Vermin Exterminator” the game cast the player as an armed environmental health officer tasked with cleansing some unusually angular Tube tunnels of rat, bat and frog life. Quite why this diligent public servant couldn’t stop occasionally and gather his thoughts/grab a cuppa/grumble about the proposed abolition of the GLC, was never fully explained. The critics however were prepared to overlook such inconsistencies describing 3D Tunnel variously as “The best SGWAHP (Shooting Game With A Human Perspective) since Maze Wars” (Your Sinclair) and “Froggier than Frogger, rattier than Cyber Rats and battier than Graham Gooch’s Lords of Midwicket!” (Crash).

A rash of Tube-themed games seemed inevitable, but mysteriously never materialised. LU had to wait four years for another role. That role when it came was in Viz Design’s calamity-steeped Werewolves of London. The Heaven’s Gate of its day, WoL arrived two years late and more than £8 over-budget. Blatantly unfinished, callous reviewers took pleasure in comparing it unfavourably to lycanthropic landmarks such as Knight Lore, Operation Wolf and Horace Goes Throat-Ripping. A smarting and disillusioned LU turned its back on the entertainment business for what would turn out to be almost a decade.

It would take a personal entreaty from adventure game design guru Charles Cecil to lure LU back into the video game limelight. In 1997 the man behind Beneath A Steel Sky and many other fine examples of Walkeriana, called up London’s premier mass transit system and offered it a cameo role in upcoming point-and-click spectacular Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror. The chance to perform, albeit briefly, alongside Gallic heartthrob Nico Collard and (EASTER EGG SPOILER) BaSS lead Robert Foster proved impossible to resist. PC Player magazine described the resulting scene set  in an abandoned Tube station under the British Museum as a “troglodytic triumph” (preview, PCP#24)  and “fairly good” (review, PCP#31).

Nico wasn’t the only feisty femme LU shared a screen with in the late Nineties. Shortly after Broken Sword 2 broke cover, London’s tile-lined intestines were seen again in Tomb Raider III. A level based on Westminster’s Aldwych station gave daring archaeologist/sherry heiress Lara Croft ample opportunity to demonstrate her new ‘vault over ticket barrier’, ‘kick chocolate vending machine’ and ‘disembowel busker’ abilities. Official Tomb Raider Magazine’s editor Nigel Canesten found the Underground section “Tube-tastic” comparing Miss Croft to an “unstoppable endoscope”, the guard-dogs and gun-toting goons she encountered to “rectal polyps” and “compacted gobbets of faecal matter”.

If LU hadn’t already shown itself to be adept in action roles, its appearance in Rogue Spear: Urban Operations (2000) proved it beyond any doubt. New Bridge station might have been  fictional but the poster-plastered foot tunnels, plodding escalators, and hard-to-find staff screamed ‘London Transport’. The visual fidelity and redolent atmosphere were recognised at that year’s Golden Joysticks where UO scooped the coveted ‘Best Grouting In A  PC Game’ award ahead of favourite Duncan Goodhew’s Let’s Learn How To Swim IV: Backstroke.

The next phase in LU’s career was blighted by controversy. After an unconvincing performance in Midtown Madness 2 (2000), it began working on a gritty Film Noir-style action-adventure with Finnish studio Remedy Entertainment. By all accounts ‘Bert Payne’ was progressing swimmingly when the British rail network, citing ‘health reasons’, unexpectedly pulled out. An exasperated Remedy were forced to parachute in a replacement (the New York City Subway) and radically rethink the project.

Post-Payne, LU’s attitude to game involvement appeared to change. For a good five years, the focus was on rigorous, respectful simulations rather than high-drama hokum. Collaborations with various amateur creators, produced a slew of Microsoft Train Simulator, Trainz, and BVE modifications. A few of the latter simulated the giant aluminium centipedes scuttling beneath London’s gold-paved streets so faithfully, they were incorporated into visitor attractions at the network’s own museum.

The documentary years may have salved LU’s conscience, but they didn’t pay the bills. In 2006 violence returned to the world’s oldest underground railway system, courtesy of the Rogue Spear-reminiscent The Regiment. This bit part was closely followed by a massive role in what should have been LU’s crowning glory. Distinctly sulphurous, unapologetically blood-curdling, and populated with a grotesque cast of semi-humans, Underground Ernie: International Fun Station emerged in 2007 to chilly reviews and barely-disguised gasps of disappointment. Jasper Wirt of Practical Prosthetic Monthly put into words the thoughts of many when he wrote “It’s hard to believe that the hands and minds that moulded this mediocrity also moulded Crazy Aquarium, Sudoku Potato Famine, and My First Gazebo Planner”.

And now let’s see if I can terminate this pointless history without A) Mentioning the splendid fellow that has faithfully recreated all of London’s Tube and bus routes in SimuTrans, B) Referring to that bit in Doctor Who Adventures where the Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companion (Keiron Gillen) dodge Daleks on a stretch of Tube trackbed that plainly lacks power rails, C) Giving Mornington Crescent a quick nod or D) Linking to a prize piece of Eighties pop with Underground overtones.

Failed.

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35 Comments »

  1. Alexander Norris says:

    What, no link to this?

    (Would have made a splendid soundtrack to the Rainbow Six vid.)

  2. bob_d says:

    Oh, how could you neglect to mention the tube-centric “Hellgate:London”? Why, it really should have been called “Hellgate: London Underground.”

  3. Lambchops says:

    A fascinating history Mr Stone. That Learn to Swim series sounds intruiging not least because of the grouting! Perhaps it could be combined with the Underground in Learn to Swim: Ecological Disaster Edition/.

  4. Rich says:

    “the game cast the player as an armed environmental health officer tasked with cleansing some unusually angular Tube tunnels of rat, bat and frog life.”
    You forgot to say “having first had a heroic dose of mushrooms”

  5. Matt W says:

    The Circle Line is, in fact, no longer a loop for passenger purposes.

  6. Ricc says:

    Bravo, I enjoyed that. :)

  7. R. says:

    One of the stages in Shadow Man had a delighful journey through a disused Tube station and tunnels (Down Street maybe?).

    • Eddy9000 says:

      Ooh you bugger! You beat me to it!
      I thought I was finally going to get something useful out of that shitty little game and you stole it from me!

  8. Rath says:

    Does anyone else feel paranoid about the DM or similar branding this World Of Subways game a terrorist training program?

    • kwyjibo says:

      I thought something similar. The only way this title will get any kind of publicity/sales is if the developers manage to produce a press furore over it as a terrorism training game.

  9. Huw says:

    The underground also featured in The Rats, based on the James Herbert book of the same name. As a young kid playing it on the C64, I found it scary as shit. :)

    • Tim Stone says:

      @Huw

      Good call.

      My Faintly Spooky James Herbert Story: In the Nineties my sister and brother-in law lived in an unremarkable terraced house on an unremarkable street in Eton called Eton Square. I was staying with them for a bit and had brought with me a stack of books including a Herbert novel (think it was The Survivor). Curled up in bed one night I started said novel only to discover that the main character *clap of thunder, splash of lightning* lived in a terraced house on Eton Square, Eton!

    • Huw says:

      @Tim

      Oohh, meta-scares! :D

  10. Colthor says:

    Wait, when did they start running trains on the Circle line?

  11. Dozer says:

    What? No mention of SimSig’s Drain?

    Whatever. I know the Commander because he’s my pal. Don’t think you can tell me something about the Commander. Here’s a picture:
    http://www.simsig.co.uk/index.php?option=com_jfusion&Itemid=73

    SimSig is a marvellous and free and very accurate simulation of modern British mainline railway signalling. Which means it’s completely inappropriate for simulating a London Underground signalling centre, but what the heck. There’s several signalling centres available, includig The Drain (aka the Waterloo & City Line) which is nice and easy to run – two stations and up to five trains.

    Here’s the download links
    core files: http://www.simsig.co.uk/index.php?option=com_remository&Itemid=56&func=select&id=4
    Drain files: http://www.simsig.co.uk/index.php?option=com_remository&Itemid=56&func=fileinfo&id=131

    • Tim Stone says:

      @Dozer

      It did cross my mind – honest. I’ve written about SimSig in PC Gamer before, and always meant to cover it here in a fitting piece-all-to-itself fashion.

  12. MadTinkerer says:

    It’s technically not a game but more of a game construction kit, but The Game Creators’ First Person Shooter Creator does have an optional London Model Pack DLC that comes with a bunch of Underground sections. (It’s best combined with a few of the other not-specifically-London-flavored model packs for a properly flesh-out cityscape.)

  13. Mike Kennelly says:

    This was my contribution to the genre of London transport in FPS games, a Half-Life 2 DM tube map originally entered for the HL2 mapping contest, featuring a rideable tube train … http://www.mike.kennelly.dsl.pipex.com/tube/index.htm

  14. Guardian-X says:

    So it’s a “third World Of Subways sim”? How extensive is Zimbabwe’s underground transportation system, and does it really warrant a sim game?

  15. starclaws says:

    Hmmm looks like RPS might need to add a report comment button soon…