The Flare Path: Catenaries And Dirigibles

By Tim Stone on February 3rd, 2012 at 1:11 pm.

Sorry, no foxer this week.

Last night I dreamt the sim industry was in the grip of canal mania. You couldn’t move on Steam without tripping over a new barge or waterway for CanalWorks. The forums at SimHQ were thronged with folk debating lock physics and butty boat damage models. Thrustmaster was on the verge of bringing out a heavy-duty HOTAT (Hands-On-Throttle-And-Tiller) controller… Things had gone so far, I was contemplating changing the name of this column to The Tow Path.

How sad it was to wake, and realise that Simulatia had no interest in plodding narrowboats. How galling to have to replace planned pieces on Kanaal Koningen (A work-in-progress Amsterdam- based sim incorporating Seventeenth Century history and tycoon elements) and ‘Idle Women, Vital Work’ (A new add-on from Just Barges) with articles on ZDSim and Over Flanders Fields.

 

Moor Realism

It’s hard to believe the same hand that shaped the sleek snout of the World’s fastest steam engine, sketched the square jaw of the EM1, a pioneering British electric loco. Perhaps Nigel Gresley left his French curve at home the day he designed the star of RS.com’s latest Railworks 3: Train Simulator 2012 add-on.

I was planning to bring you some impressions of the Class 76s (as they were later known) and their soggy moorland habitat today, but Henry, the Flare Path accountant, says spending 25 pounds on a rail sim add-on, is simply out of the question at present.

I pleaded, pointing out that many RW fans are saying this ribbon of post-war Pennines-traversing permanent way, is one of the best things ever produced for RailWorks. I cajoled, mentioning that RS.com had gone to the trouble of modelling motive power peculiarities like regenerative braking and traction modes. Nothing made any difference. Henry said if I was so keen on prototypical pantography why was it I still hadn’t got to grips with ZDSimulator, the acme of electric loco simulation? “BECAUSE I DON’T READ NAFFING UKRAINIAN, YOU NAFFING SKINFLINT!” I bawled back, before storming out for a sulky walk along the canal.

ZDSim is what happens when a talented Ukrainian railway engineer with a background in MSTS add-on fabrication, has a bash at making a standalone training tool. The results aren’t just realistic, they take train sim verisimilitude to a completely new level.

In Ukraine, it seems, knowing where the ‘Make Train Go Faster’ and the ‘Make Train Go Slower ‘ levers are, is simply not enough. To make the grade as a Укрзалізниця driver you must also know what to do when your vehicle grinds to an unscheduled halt in the middle of snowy birch forest or stretch of sun-baked steppe. In such situations only hopeless defeatists radio for assistance. True Heroes of the Former Soviet Union grab their torches, open the doors at the back of their cabs, and go for a rummage amongst the labyrinthine looms and warm fuses.

The catenary-caressing conveyances in Vyacheslav Usov’s sim are almost as complex and fallible as their inspirations. A right-click takes you from a 3D cab to a 2D engine compartment view in which every fuse cabinet, battery box, and compressor valve is accessible. By checking circuit diagrams and deciphering panel warning lights, a competent operator should be able to find the tripped trip switch or the blown fuse, and revive his failed charge.

Fumbling around amongst the switches, knobs and levers (and, sadly, fumbling around is what most Western users are likely to find themselves doing until Vyacheslav gets round to producing English instructions) I found myself wondering whether ZDSim’s strikingly holistic approach could be applied in other sim spheres. It wasn’t long before I was mentally playing a WW2 tank recovery/repair sim based around the activities of REME, and toying with a design/tycoon sim inspired by the careers of steam pioneers like Trevithick and Stephenson.

Designing, fixing, and tinkering with machines could, I reckon, be every bit as interesting as operating them, yet our sim fashioners rarely encourage us to get our hands oily. The Airfix-like joy of assembling an intricate mechanism, the pleasure that comes from analysing a fault, finding its source, and repairing it… these are things I hope one day will be accepted and cherished aspects of the sim scene.

 

Hydrogenated And Fat

In my eagerness to deploy a Flare Path subtitle I’ve been itching to use since the column started, I foolishly assumed someone somewhere would be busy coding either a high-fidelity zeppelin sim, or the PC version of Luftschiff the World desperately needs.

Now that I’ve actually gone to the trouble of sending out the FP recon geese (Alcock and Bull) I realise I was a tad over-optimistic. In order to justify that bonny bit of Newsom up there, I’ve now got to do one of the following…

A) Claim to have begun development of a high-fidelity zeppelin sim or a PC version of Luftshchiff, presenting artfully doctored Crimson Skies screenshots as evidence.

B) Commence a retro piece on Microprose’s little-known airship tycoon oddity Zeppelin: Giants of the Sky.

C) Spend several paragraphs explaining why Zeppelinstrasse is my favourite bus stop in OMSI.

D) Launch into an enthusiastic recommendation of Fighter Squadron: World War I – that rare thing a free flight sim featuring both pilotable dirigibles and balloons.

or

E) Make the best of an awkward situation by penning a few words on the seemingly imminent and apparently Zeppelin-blessed Over Flanders Fields: Phase 4.

As ‘A‘ would be downright dishonest, ‘B‘ would be perverse (Zeppelin: Giants of the Sky was one of the most tedious games Microprose ever released), ‘C‘ would risk reigniting my productivity-sapping passion for That Bloody Bus Game, ‘D‘ would involve repeating myself, that leaves…

I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t flown Over Flanders Fields since it morphed from a free Combat Flight Simulator 3 mod into a payware one several years ago (You’d have to ask Henry why that is). I have however cycled past its busy aerodrome on occasion and overheard the chatter of happy dogfighters.

The general consensus seems to be that while Rise of Flight whips OFF in the flight modelling and netcode departments, the situation is reversed when it comes to bandit AI and long-term singleplayer satisfaction (About right, Wodin?). What does the old-timer’s campaign offer that the newcomer’s doesn’t? I suspect most of the answers are set down here – hundred of intelligently generated incidental sorties, a plausibly mobile frontline… Old Brown Dog have gone to incredible lengths to ensure their solo customers feel bound to their squadrons, and those squadrons feel like they’re participating in a titanic struggle.

Phase 4, as the devs are keen to stress, is not just extra planes. Though new machines like Gotha and HP bombers, and Rumpler and Aviatik recon aircraft will be added to Phase 3’s already chockablock hangars, much of OBD’s energy since the release of Hat In The Ring, seems to have gone into overhauling core elements like scenery, cockpits, flight models, and AI. The above preview vid gives some very encouraging glimpses of high-detail airfields, lively low-level sparring, and atmospheric night ops against giant flammable sky cucumbers. If the aviation is as exhilarating and evocative as it looks like it might be, then I may just be able to overlook the fact that the cucumbers are almost certainly AI only, and most probably never get to cast their shadows on chugging Belgian barges.

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26 Comments »

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  1. Spinoza says:

    Is there is place you could purchase Over Flanders Fields as DD? Only DVD option on main website , or I’m missing something? Also ,no FP today?

    • Premium User Badge

      Mechanicus_ says:

      It does say on one page it is available on DVD only, which is a real shame because I would have bought it on the strength of that video and it having a better single player experience than Rise of Flight, but I’m not bothered mucking about with DVDs and international shipping.

      Also if I may digress; the single player in Rise of Flight is so frustrating; they invested so much effort in that career system, but without a checkpointing or “skip to action” functions it’s almost useless – I spend most of my time in it on time compressed auto-pilot flying from the base to the front line (and back) – even more annoying if you arrive at the fight and get zippered/flak zapped in 5 minutes and have to do it all over.

      There’s no excuse for not respecting the players time.

    • Zenicetus says:

      I agree that’s a big problem with the current RoF campaign design. Also the predictability of enemy spawns, so there isn’t enough variety on patrols. Still, there’s hope for improvement since the campaign is still in development.

  2. CaLe says:

    All of this out of my wheelhouse. All of it.

  3. Dys Does Dakka says:

    So, is OFF the Red Baron 2/3D with acceptable graphics I’ve been lusting for for so long?
    -How’s the damage model? Didn’t see much in the way of plane-to-plane destruction in that vid.

    • Zenicetus says:

      The damage model in OFF is good enough for a reasonable level of immersion, but there are limits to what can be done with the older MS Combat Flight sim the mod is based on. It’s pretty basic damage modeling.

      The damage model in Rise of Flight is much better, much more physics-based (as is the flight model). I’ve had crash landings where I’ve seen one of my wheels detach and go rolling off down the field. You can limp home with a fair amount of wing surface missing (especially with one of the triplanes). Losing wing parts isn’t all-or-nothing damage. If your engine takes hits and is set on fire, you can actually survive and get the plane down to a landing by side-slipping with rudder and aileron, so the flames stay out of the cockpit. Small details like that in RoF are simply amazing.

      On the other hand, OFF is better at providing context and atmosphere, so I feel that I’m actually in the war and working with my squadron mates. The RoF campaign mode is still a work in progress, and requires some intentional role-playing to get into the spirit of things.

      As a comparison to Red Baron, I’d say that RoF — because the planes are more difficult to fly and fight in than OFF (for me, anyway) — does a better job of making me feel that I’m doing well if my pilot just survives a few months of the war. I remember Red Baron as being fairly tough, especially at first. OFF is probably a better game if you want to easily become an ace with high scores, and fly a bunch of planes from the beginning to the end of the war.

  4. JackShandy says:

    What an incredibly odd series to stumble on to. I feel like I’ve peered down the back of RPS’s shirt and gotten hopelessly entwined in it’s labyrinthine back hair.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Mechanicus_ says:

    I’ve always thought a trading game where you pilot an airship about a Crimson Skies-esque world would be great; tinker with engines mid-flight, fight off sky pirates, blow up rival airships all while hauling 20 tons of bauxite from A to B.

    • DuddBudda says:

      Something that smells of Pirates! or Mount and Blade in a steamy punky airship blessed world would probably destroy my life.
      One please :D

  6. afflictiv says:

    Is the title of this article a Joanna Newsom reference?

  7. Raiyan 1.0 says:

    ‘giant flammable sky cucumbers’

    Has there ever been a finer word smith than Tim Stone in the lands of simulation?

  8. BAshment says:

    Like the lighting in over Flanders field. Rise of flight always seems to bright.

  9. kzrkp says:

    I wish every day was a Flare Path day. :)
    I’m bummed that Rise of Flight lacks the one plane I want to fly, a Curtiss Jenny.

  10. Premium User Badge

    AndiK says:

    Here, while you’re talking about regenerative brakes and stuff like that…
    May I point you to excellent train sim Zusi? Don’t be scared off by the shoddy graphics. You’ll be rewarded by authentic operation of safety systems, a variety of fairly realistic propulsion systems (including accumulators!) and huge timetables. Think of it as Omsi on rails. I’ve been playing that thing for almost 10 years now and it still rocks.
    (No, nobody pays me money to write this. I just felt that I had to contribute something off the generic model-train-on-screen thingies.)

    Oh, and there’s another one I quite like: MaSzyna EU07-424
    It’s rather unifinished but has something I haven’t seen anywhere else: DC locomotives with manual control of resistors and shunt steps. Takes quite a bit of exercise to drive well, but that’s what this column is all about, isn’t it?

    And should anyone be interested in signal boxes, SimSig shall cover their needs. :-)

    Oh, and that narrowboat sim thing is a great idea! I hired one with my then-girlfriend two years ago. Apart from the boat lending people* forgetting to check whether our planned route was clear (which of course it wasn’t) we had a great week. Lacking a suitable girlfriend to work the locks now, a proper simulation would be greatly appreciated. :-D

    * what’s the right term?

  11. JaminBob says:

    OMSI has come up everywhere the last few weeks. Number 40-odd in the ‘Top 100 Greatest PC Games’ ever in PC Gaming mag, then turns up as the only game reviewed in the Bristol Evening Post, surreally reviewed by a local commercial radio breakfast DJ…

    I can’t bring myself to play a bus simulator…

    • Megadyptes says:

      It was in the Evening Post? Man I must’ve missed that. :(

    • Bonedwarf says:

      You’re missing out. Not played OMSI’s one, but played another. I’m a hardcore race sim nut, but I love taking on a bus and driving to a schedule, the routine etc… Instead of blasting round a track as fast as I can I have to take a much more measured approached.

      Of course I was playing Railworks not 30 minutes ago so I may just be strange.

      Also, WW1 sims… Makes me dearly want to play the wonderful WINGS again on the Amiga. Magnificent game.

  12. EthZee says:

    The idea of a simulator where you not only control your train/bus/tank/vessel/Ur-Quan pain frigate, but have to muck about in the internals to fix it as well, is oddly compelling.

    Sounds like an inherently satisfying thing to do. Sitting in the depths of space/Poland/the M4, reading from a well thumbed manual, whilst holding a virtual five-pointed spanner and just looking at it and thinking, “…what does this even do?”

    It’s the virtual equivalent of pottering around in an old shed, and I love it.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      Oh my, I’d certainly play a “fix up this old spaceship” sim, especially if it was a prelude to a Firefly-esque “bum around space in a really junky spaceship” game.

  13. Megadyptes says:

    Zeppelin: Giants of the Sky. Now there’s a game that I thought no one apart from me had ever played. I miss Microprose, so many weird and wonderful games.

    • Bonedwarf says:

      Microsoft also put out the first real race sim too. Full F1 season, car setup etc… All at a glorious 7fps at best on the Amiga.

    • Premium User Badge

      shlomme says:

      I do remember playing Zeppelin: Giants of the Sky, quite some time ago. The most vivid memory I have is that I found out its save games where largely text files and could easily be changed, which made me feel very sophisticated back then.

  14. wodin says:

    Yes you are correct Mr Stone. RoF looks amazing and has superb flight model, OFF P3 has an amazing campaign, far more atmospheric and is just an all round highly immersive experience. Frontlines move historical, fly over the Somme during the Somme campaign and the battle will be playing out below you , flying of an Arty barrage is exhilarating.
    P4 improves on the Campaign again which means it’s a must buy. RoF’s campaign is years away in matching OFFP3, mainly from a technical viewpoint so this will make the gap even greater again.
    RoF is the best for multi player action and for it’s sense of flight and the bus’s look beautiful however for me as a single player experience OFFP3 beats it and P4 will carry the torch for immersion even further.

    All said and done though it’s great we have achoice and everyone gets a WW1 sim the enjoy.

    Someone once said “if you want to fly a WW1 plane buy RoF, if you want to fly a plane in WW1 buy OFFP3″…that more or less sums it up.

    Oh again thanks Tim I feel very privileged to have my forum name in an RPS article!

    edit: just want to say aswell the musical score in P3 is sublime and P4 apparently has some amazing scores aswell.

    • Guhndahb says:

      Thanks to you and Tim for highlighting the differences between the two. I’ve been on the fence about which to buy for years (and ended up buying neither). As I’m a flight simmer who loves campaigns where I feel I’m a part of something bigger and who only plays SP, it sounds like OFF is a nice fit!