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The Flare Path: Ablaze

Simulation & wargame blather

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… The last time we saw Golovina was on the evening of the 14th. We passed her on the road to Lipsk. She was bringing in a Sd.Kfz 11/5, a real nice example. Said she’d found it “under a gooseberry bush”. There were rumours that a big Kraut convoy had gone down in the wets near Krikštonys, and Golovina and that idiot winchman of hers, had found it. Most magpies steer clear of that part of the world on account of the wisps, but she had balls as big as Tiger turret bearings. She went where she liked. Anything that so much as glimmered at her funny, got a signal flare in the mush …

The Flare Path has been bog angling this week, and our toothy Swamp Hydra has snagged Vietnam ’65, DCS World, Ultimate General: Gettysburg, and Steel Armor: Blaze of War stories.

Released yesterday, Vietnam ’65 [official site] is not a typical piece of historical hexiana. Ingenious, evocative, deceptively simple… it’s a tactical wargame filled with monster cabinets, milk runs and tricky unit purchasing and base placement decisions. Much of the time you’re fighting communist ghosts – guerillas who are far more interested in ambushing, mine-laying and inculcating, than engaging in full-blown pitched battles. The Hueys and Chinooks that buzz around the randomly generated maps aren’t period decor or optional combat luxuries, they are the circulatory system that keep your war effort effervescent.

Though I haven’t had a chance to play the release version yet, the menu screen suggests that Every Single Soldier haven’t slipped in a campaign mode at the eleventh hour. It looks like they haven’t worked out a way to inject more variety into their random maps either. If Vietnam ’65 carried a typical Slitherine/Matrix Games price tag, such shortcomings might have been reasons to burn your draft card and make for Canada. At $10, the surprisingly reasonable RRP, I’d argue they’re merely overlookable (and, hopefully, patchable) annoyances – mild disappointments that you put to the back of your mind while you’re busy massaging hearts and minds, and deluging hillsides with napalm.

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Will someone prod me with that cannon wormer over there when Ultimate General: Gettysburg [official site] arrives at its final destination. I was rather hoping the long-awaited 1.1 patch would mark the end of major behaviour and campaign tweaks, but the wide-ranging hotfix that came hot on its heels suggests Nick Thomadis is still struggling to get his campaign flowing and his sprite soldiers battling exactly as he’d like.

Until everything is nailed down for good, attempting a second assessment or nagging Nick for details of UG2 (Shiloh? Sharpsburg? Waterloo? Isandlwana?) seems fairly pointless.

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If you’re an impatient crumpet toaster or a frustrated Maverick impersonator, the latest DCS World [official site] news is guaranteed to seed a smile. Not only has the F-86F Sabre recently gained a formidable sparring partner…

…Leatherneck Simulations, the poly-national perfectionists behinds the MiG-21bis, have announced that a recreation of the seldom-simmed F-14 Tomcat is on the way.

Feature list talk of “highly accurate” avionics, weapons systems, and flight and external models is hardly a surprise. What snags my attentional arrestor hook is the mention of “one free theatre bundled with aircraft” and “JESTER AI – A proprietary AI system for fully voiced, dependable and smart RIO/WSO”. Will our artificial cockpit companions berate, barrack and barf, I wonder? Will we get to buzz the tower at NAS Miramar? We should know by Christmas.

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How exactly does the Steam store’s ‘New on Steam (Featured New Releases)’ list work? I ask because perusing it this morning I couldn’t see any mention of the fact that one of gaming’s most entertaining and ambitious armour sims, trundled onto Steam yesterday.

Steel Armor: Blaze of War [official site], also available at GamersGate, is a true eccentric. It champions Cold War war chariots like the M60 Patton and the T-62, and provides large, deformable Cold War-era battlefields based on genuine Angolan, Afghan, and Iranian/Iraqi real estate.

It can be transformed into a Combat Mission-calibre tactical RTS at the press of a button.

And a marvellous turn-based strategy layer means there’s meaning and uncertainty in every campaign engagement.

In effect a rich, high fidelity tank sim welded to a rich, high fidelity wargame, the unique SABOW unfortunately comes with an interface as rambling and idiosyncratic as its theme. If you’re new to Graviteam games, you’re going to struggle at first. A tooltip-utilizing tutorial mode attempts to teach the basics, but my advice to initiates would be:

* Print out the extensive key list

* Set up some simple scraps with the skirmish generator

* Once you’ve deployed units, rely on the Close Combat-style right-click order list rather than the potentially confusing grid of icons in the lower-right corner of the screen

* Read Krabb’s gunnery guides (M60 firing, T-62 firing, using the M60 rangefinder, tank weakspots)

* Experiment

* Experiment

* Experiment

After a day or two of acclimatisation, the Byzantine GUI will, I promise, start to make sense. You’ll begin to notice and utilize more and more of its powerful features.

Wow, that’s handy, I can get my units to auto-deploy in cover by clicking that icon. That one lets me see individual soldiers on the tac map. If I dab that one, my AFVs will attempt to use roads to reach their destination…

The more comfortable you get with controls, the freer you’ll be to savour SABOW’s potent atmosphere and savage spectacle.

My last campaign – a recreation of Operation Hooper – was a corker. Tracer-laced night engagements between South African Olifants and Ratels, and FAPLA-supporting Cuban-crewed T-62s in the thick of the Angolan bush. Bloody infantry scraps for riverside villages. Desperate retreats across plains patrolled by swooping bomb-burdened Strikemasters … Historical wargaming doesn’t get much more gripping or exotic.

Units in stablemate Graviteam Tactics: Operation Star (aka Achtung Panzer: Operation Star) occasionally exhibited clumsy pathfinding and sometimes seemed a little cavalier during assaults. Though the engine has come a fair distance since my APOPSTAR Wot I Think, the refurbished SABOW suffers from similar issues now and again. Don’t be put off. No-one else is making games like this. Perhaps if we pray and plead hard enough, the Ukrainian devs will eventually give us a WW2 version.

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The Flare Path Foxer

Last week’s foxer was literally littered with literary locales. Only a Pamplona street scene and the site of Dresden abattoir foxed fiction fiends Matchstick, Gusdownup, phlebas, Shiloh, Rorschach617, foop, Smion, Pockets and Halk.

a. Pamplona (The Sun Also Rises)
b. Oran (The Plague)
c. Lyme Regis (Persuasion or The French Lieutenant’s Woman)
d. Cannery Row, Monterey (Cannery Row)
e. Woking (The War of the Worlds)
f. Sacra di San Michele, Piedmont (The Name of the Rose)
g. Slaughterhouse 5, Dresden (Slaughterhouse-Five)

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I’m 127 words into my ‘History of PC Wargames’ book and the £2000 advance is already almost gone. I was hoping to get at least the introduction done yesterday, but the discovery of a fascinating scrapbook filled with old wargame adverts put paid to that. See how many of the following ten ad fragments you can identify before getting an uncontrollable urge to DOSBox Steel Panthers or Fields of Glory.

All answers in one thread, please.

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Tim Stone

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