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The Flare Path: Serious Matterhorns

When Rebecca Teacakes offers Flare Path a penny for his thoughts, Flare Path seldom answers honestly. Admitting you’ve let your porridge go cold or your pilsner go flat because you’ve been contemplating questions like “How many looted harpsichords could be squeezed onto the back of a Kettenkrad?” or “What would Boudica, queen of the Iceni, have smelled like?” takes courage. Much better to pretend you were pondering column-related conundrums like “Why does Steam appear to discriminate against wargames and their makers?” and “Why aren’t more sims as staggeringly beautiful as aerofly FS?”.

 

Pretty Swissh

It’s here. It’s finally here. A copy of Ikarus’ shy sky child aerofly FS has just flopped onto the doormat local woodlice refer to as The Great Thicket. Will the new arrival live up to the promise of those screenshots? Am I about to install a potential Microsoft Flight beater? Unfortunately, there isn’t time for thorough scrutiny, but a feast of first impressions start here.

(Because my mother might read this…)

Goshing hell!

Gosh me!

GOSH ME SIDEWAYS!

The official screenshots lied. Aerofly FS isn’t just pretty, it’s goshing gorgeous. I’m just back from my inaugural jaunt – a ten-minute Pitts biplane hack through the Alps (You can start flights anywhere over the sim’s bijou Swiss scenery, simply by clicking a map) and I can honestly say, in my 30 years of simming, I’ve never seen this marvellous mothership of ours looking more lovely. The ruffled rock, the glittering shelves of virgin snow, the grubby glaciers… I realise it’s just a bitmap draped over a mesh, but gosh what a bitmap, blimey what a mesh.

Away from the mountains, the scenery isn’t quite as breathtaking. That’s what my second sortie (F/A-18, somewhere near Zurich) seems to suggest anyway. Don’t get me wrong, the landscapes are still up there with the very best the genre has to offer, but skim most towns and villages and the lack of 3D structures does corrode the illusion somewhat. Not sure about that water texture either.

Can these FPS figures be real? I’m getting framerates two, three, four times higher than I get in FSX and X-Plane. Despite having pushed the graphics sliders as far as they go, aerofly is tearing along like a Sidewinder with a Sukhoi to catch. My third outing (Sopwith Camel) took in countryside, a lowland town, plus some of those ravishing snow-capped peaks, and there wasn’t a hint of stutter or slowdown. No signs of dawdling textures or unsightly pop-up either. These Ikarus chaps really seem to know a thing or two about optimisation.

Sorry, you won’t be getting any incisive flight model observations from this aeroflier. I just don’t have the expertise to comment usefully on such things. My last flights involved the Cessna 172 and Extra 330 LX and, what I can say is, they both handle quite differently. As you’d expect, the Extra will roll in the blink of an eye with just the barest touch on the stick. Treat it roughly and, assuming you’re flying from the cockpit view, your head is subjected to some very atmospheric g-force-induced buffeting. The Cessna is a much more sluggish bird. It seems to want to stall at around the 110km/h point. Let the stall take hold and you’ll find yourself weathering a couple of scary quarter-rolls then plunging for the deck. Recovering is child’s play. Realistic? I’m sure at least one Flare Path reader will be able to tell us.

For my last foray, I gave the sim’s two sailplanes (a Discus bM and a Swift S1) a quick spin, and had a fiddle with the primitive (by MSFS and X-Plane standards) weather options. The baked scenery shadows mean it’s always midday in aerofly, and canopies are never battered by rain. There is however, the chance to mess around with a fog slider, alter cloud altitude and coverage, and set wind direction and strength. Thermals are modelled too, making gliding a viable an extremely attractive proposition. Do the themals decay? Is ridge lift represented? These and other questions, I’ll hopefully get around to answering in a future Flare Path.

 

A Bitter Peace

The Flare Path has a mole inside Steam HQ. Montague is coal-black, velvety, about 15cm long and has these amazingly large hands. If he hadn’t gone into covert surveillance, FP reckons he could have had a glittering career as a very small concert pianist or a miniature masseur.

Monty is currently operating inside (or, strictly speaking, under) the offices of the world’s most popular game distribution company, because I’m desperate to find out why Steam stocks so few top-notch wargames. Go scan its store shelves and you’ll find hardcore flight and sub sims, niche management and sports titles, but almost nothing that would qualify as a bona-fide wargame What the gosh is going on?

Perhaps the makers of grog fodder simply don’t bother approaching outlets like Steam?

No, that’s not it. Though folk like the creators of Combat Mission refuse to tango with Gabe’s goliath…

“Battlefront has had its own successful digital delivery platform for over 10 years, with close to 300,000 customers served, so unlike most other independent developers, we do not need Steam… Wargames are a niche, and making them available on Steam won’t make a twitchy 10 year old FPS player want to buy them. The mainstream market hasn’t worked for wargames since the late 80s, so we’re very comfortable where we are right now, growing our business slowly each year.”

…I know of several studios that have made enquiries over the years, and received the infamous ‘not a good fit’ email for their trouble.

Maybe it’s a question of quality then. Is ‘unfitness’ Steam’s polite way of saying, “Your game is goshing atrocious.”? Highly unlikely. Amongst the offerings Steam has rejected in recent times are two of the very finest strategy and tactics titles imaginable.

Preposterous prices? Are the petitioners putting ridiculous figures in the application form price box? Again, I’d be amazed if this turned out to be the explanation. No, the Flare Path suspects the lack of scrupulously modelled Sherman Fireflies and painstakingly researched OOBs in Valve’s bustling games bazaar is down to one thing: Ignorance.

Steam simply don’t realise what they’re turning-down. They don’t have the personnel or mechanisms in place to sort wargaming wheat from wargaming chaff. If a new small studio comes to them with the The Best Thing Since Combat Mission; Beyond Overlord or Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, they will, in all likelihood, turn it down, unless a link to impressive Metacritic scores or already-healthy sales figures, is paper-clipped to the application.

It’s a depressing state of affairs. The developers suffer because they’re deprived of an important shop window. Wargaming suffers because those gamers that don’t routinely stop-by Gamersgate, Matrix Games, and Battlefront, never get to see the gems the genre has to offer. Steam is made to look uncaring at best, arbitrary and prejudiced at worst.

All hail Zdeněk Miler!

If you’d like to see superlative military strategy games on Steam, and Monty recalled for a spot of much-needed R&R (Did I mention he suffers from acute claustrophobia and gets terrible rheumatism in his tiny velvet-upholstered knees?) do make your feelings known in the comments section below. Perhaps Valve employ their own moles.

 

The Flare Path Foxer

As a result of a string of unfortunate air-rage incidents, FP is only permitted to travel on ten of the world’s airlines. Can you identify the lucky carriers?

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