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The Flare Path: Lochs And Unlocks

Simulation & wargame blather

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Today’s column bestrides Europe like an unusually colossal colossus. Quite why an unusually colossal colossus would be standing with one foot on Fort William, Scotland and the other on Volgograd, Russia is, frankly, anybody’s guess. He could be doing his pre-breakfast callisthenics. He could be admiring the Northern Lights. He might have got a sudden urge to urinate on Finland or Algeria. There’s just no way of knowing for sure.

Whatever his purpose, with his massive bonce well above the exosphere, it’s unlikely he’s aware of the hubbub in the IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad community at the moment.

Last Friday, early accessers got their first taste of IL2BOS’s campaign component. Though 777 and 1C Game Studios had made no secret of the fact that – initially at least – the ‘career’ side of the sim would be fairly rudimentary, many users still seemed taken aback by the lack of ambition, atmosphere and realism flexibility on show.

The devs have chosen to split the titular battle into five chronological chapters, and allow unlimited pilot and plane hopping. To move from one chapter to the next, six randomly generated sorties must be completed successfully. Sortie type and steed is left up to us (Though if you’ve purchased the Standard edition, you’ll need to start in fighters before moving on to bombers). We can even switch sides when we please, and abandon missions and buy the collective farm without being penalised.

In effect we’re every(air)men… ghostly EXP gatherers rather than the specific pilots attached to specific squadrons we are in many other sim campaigns.

In its favour, the approach is refreshingly uncomplicated. Because paintjobs and loadouts must be unlocked with EXP (Slaying secondary targets, flying with ‘expert’ realism settings, and choosing to start/finish sorties on the ground generates heftier rewards) there’s encouragement to fly realistically and hunt energetically. The mission generator ensures ground targets are always present, aerial ones prompt to arrive, so there’s no scanning barren snowscapes and horizons for hours at a time.

What’s causing the consternation is primarily the coldness and the constraints. With death de-stinged, pilots undefined, and information so baldy presented, there’s little sense of context or consequence right now. The decision to snapshot the fight for Stalingrad at five key moments rather than present it dynamically wasn’t necessarily a bad one, but when the snapshots provided are so empty and devoid of colour (Fly outside the immovable waypoint rhomboid and – going by my early campaign forays – the world seems almost totally deserted.) it’s hard not to find yourself questioning it.

The campaign mode feels a tad dictatorial too. Not only is it not possible to customize realism beyond ‘normal’ and ‘expert’ (If you want to fly with the high-yield ‘expert’ settings for instance, you’re forced to live without exterior cams) the loadout and skin unlocks also apply to multiplayer meaning online aces have no option but to furball bots for a spell. Inexplicably, the latest update further restricted play freedom by removing some autopilot options and capping time acceleration at x2.

Without added atmosphere and elasticity, IL2BOS’s campaign engine will always be vulnerable to ‘It’s just a camouflaged Quick Mission Builder’ jibes. Finger-crossed, 777 and 1C take the recent flak flurry on the chin turret, and respond with eagerness rather than evasive manoeuvres.

 

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From the Land of the Red Star to the Land of the Red Deer. Having spent much of this week skirting lochs, cleaving snowdrifts, and listening to Monarchs of the Glen bark and bellow, I’m now in a position to confirm that the recently released West Highland Line Extension is one of TS2015’s very best routes.

While this £25 add-on will leave speed merchants spitting ptarmigan feathers (the limit for much of the single line 50-mile route is 30mph) more leisurely simmers will adore its unusually evocative highland spaces and sonorous motive power.

Combining a generous selection of bespoke structures, flora, and sounds, with some rather accomplished ben sculpting and glen gouging, Alan Thomson and Keith Ross have succeeded in creating the most Scottish space I think I’ve ever visited in a video-game. Whether you’re trundling along in the shadow of Ben Nevis with a load of fresh pine pulp, hauling a tourist train past a sun-kissed Loch Eilt, or just shunting oil tanks in the yard at Fort William, the sense of place is superb.

The route’s unusual layout (two separate lines extend in different directions from the Fort William terminus) numerous inclines and speed limit changes, plus its range of traffic (in addition to passenger services, there are freight trains serving a local timber processing plant, oil depot, and aluminium smelter) and novel signalling, ensure the ten bundled scenarios are as interesting and varied as they are elaborate and challenging.

The blue box in the top-right corner of the above pic is a RETB device. As well as paying attention to the mix of semaphore, colour-light, and ground signals on the West Highland line, drivers must also periodically request and return radio ‘tokens’ from a control centre in Bannavie. The system, a modernised form of the old physical token procedure introduced in the Nineteenth Century to prevent collisions on single track lines, is pretty straightforward. Only four of the buttons on the apparatus actually do anything important, and helpful tips messages appear when a token change or radio frequency change is required. The richly accented context-sensitive audio that accompanies radio exchanges is typical of the Thomson attention to detail. In this add-on even the information displayed on station notice boards is appropriate to the location.

An excellent recreation of a Class 37 – a type synonymous with the route during the late 80s scenario timeframe – complete a package that only needs a driveable Class 156 DMU, a few spookable stags, and some quieter level crossings for total perfection.

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The Flare Path Foxer

Gentlemen! Ladies! Please don’t crowd the foxer! I realise it’s not every day a week-old unsolved collage appears in your midst, but beasts like this can be unpredictable when hemmed. Buy a threepenny ticket from Melancholy Melanie, my lavishly illustrated assistant here, and tonight in the Old Quarry you’ll be able to marvel, scrutinize, and caress all you like!

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Today’s foxer has the head of a lion and the body of a Pharaoh. Roman sphinx it will be solved circa 13.42. I’ve got a shiny copper-nickel heptagon riding on a 13.58 defoxing.

All foxer answers in one thread, please.

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Tim Stone

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