The Flare Path: Extravehicular Activity

The world of simulation would be a much drearier place without TML Studios. Over the last decade this small team of Erfurt eccentrics has released around a dozen standalone vehicle sims. Often odd, occasionally downright unhinged or hilariously broken, weak physics and unchecked ambition mean you’re unlikely to find any of their games in ‘Top 10 Sims’ lists. Those who admire TML – and lately I’ve realised I’m one of these curious creatures – tend to admire the studio for its mercurial talent for atmosphere evocation, and its endearing belief in drama and player freedom, rather than its quality control or respect for realism.

The recently released World of Subways 4 illustrates TML’s heartwarming/heartbreaking strengths and weaknesses perfectly. A recreation of NYC Subway’s Line 7, it mixes moments of sublime sense-suffusing translocation with moments of awful illusion-fracturing crassness. Most of the crassness lurks in the 3D HQ-cum-menu that the devs insist on building into many of their creations.

Virtual offices, garages, airfields, sub pens, and tank laagers can be excellent devices for enriching sim experiences and strengthening bonds between players and vehicular steeds. Sadly, they’re also rather good at showing-up gaping schisms between a studio’s ambition and its ability or budget. Let me walk you around the WoS4 HQ by way of illustration.

I’m guessing the architect responsible for designing the game’s hub building was either a fallout shelter specialist attempting to broaden his/her horizons, or an idiot who, skim-reading the brief, somehow managed to misread ‘wheelchair friendly’ as ‘vampire friendly’. Wandering the HQ’s gloomy windowless corridors, I regularly find myself eyeing fire axes and first aid boxes, and hesitating when doors swing open unexpectedly up ahead. After a long shift your mind can play tricks on you in a place like this.

That yellow stripe halfway up the wall? There’s a rumour going round that the company is so short of funds, it can only afford to repaint one course of bricks per year. Come back in 12 years’ time and this corridor should be ‘primrose blush’ from floor to ceiling.

Perhaps financial stringency also explain the strange lack of GENTLEMEN/LADIES plaques on the toilet doors. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the clot responsible for office signage blew his entire budget on CAUTION, WET FLOOR signs this year.

Of course, when male members of staff insist on standing three feet from urinals, you’re going to need a fair few puddle markers. That’s Bruce Hawkins, the mechanic, tinkling on the tiles in the above shot. He’s one of the 8 mission-furnishing NPCs that lurk in the bowels of the WoS nerve centre.

And there’s nowhere more bowel-like in that nerve centre than the office of company boss Jason McKenzie. Why does Big J lean forward when he’s delivering reprimands? That’s the only way he can be sure you haven’t taken advantage of the room’s coalhole-ambience to surreptitiously slip away.

Steven Flynt’s (Shift Supervisor) office next door isn’t much brighter. In his case I suspect he likes the lights dim because of his unfortunate condition – Marigolditis. When your hands look like inflated washing-up gloves, a little shyness is understandable.

What no World of Subways 4 screenshot can communicate is the milk-curdling awfulness of the character accents. To stroll into the cafeteria and strike up a conversation with one of the personalized NPCs sure to be loitering there, is to invite an ear battering of fearful brutality. Those colleagues that don’t sound like they’re auditioning for an ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ pastiche sound like frightened hostages reading from captor-penned scripts.

Even when the voice talent is passable, clumsily translated dialogue often scuppers the scene. “I hope this will spurn you on”, “I don’t want to be a badass, but I need to get this finished”, “Satisfaction holds a different face”… Big J and his secretary, Lindsay, get to deliver many of WoS4’s most ungainly lines.

As laughably terrible as the 3D WoS4 hub is at times, I love the fact that TML have given it a shot. The idea that the game’s eight action-oriented scenarios are unlocked through conversations with key NPCs is cleverer than it first appears. We’re not doing chores for those NPCs, we’re acting out their remembered experiences. Jake Jones’ bomb hunt, Jeff Teach’s flood scare, Matt Silver’s midwifery dash… on the rare occasions other sim devs offer us outlandish situations like these, they tend to do it through mission menus and text briefings as unimaginative as they are uninvolving.

I love too that TML don’t pen us in our vehicles the way the majority of their counterparts do. Most of the scripted missions include a spot of pedestrian exploration, a torchlit scamper down one of the sim’s uncommonly atmospheric Redbird conduits. Even in the highly flexible shift mode (drive for minutes or hours – it’s up to you) there’s nothing, except a blotted performance copy book and a string of delayed trains, to stop a stiff-limbed player from stretching his legs on a platform for a bit.

Brilliantly, if you choose to start a shift at a stop other than the depot, when the load screen vanishes you find yourself standing on a platform with your train approaching. The simple act of stepping aboard an EMU once it has drawn up, exchanging a few words with the exiting driver, and taking his place at the controls might seem trivial but it frames and contextualizes what’s to come remarkably effectively. Eat your heart out Train Simulator 2015.

And despite WoS4’s flaky physics – particularly noticeable during braking and on slopes (TML never seem to give Gravity the respect it deserves) – this is a sim eminently capable of dissolving your bedroom/study walls on occasion and replacing them with something far jigglier, noisier and more mesmerising. In certain light conditions and locations, especially since cab and carriage sway were patched in earlier this week – the unmistakeably TML World of Subways 4 can spellbind with the best of them.

World of Subways 4 is out now, and the trailer is as awful as the accents.

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The Flare Path Foxer

I’m going to need a bigger gravy boat. Last week’s prize – a slap-up Sunday lunch round at Flare Path Manor – went to a posse of thirteen sharp-eyed shark-hunters (Stugle, Joshua, Spinoza, Rorschach617, Grizzly, richard, billy_bunter, Zogg, Beowulf, iainl, Longdan, GT5Canuck, and spamsac) led by Quintessential foxer fathomer Shiloh.

(theme: Jaws)

a Cage
b Orca
c Harpoon/Martha’s Vineyard
d USS Indianapolis
e Bruce
f Shark
g Spanish Ladies
h Christine Watkins
i Richard Dreyfuss
j Universal Pictures

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The puzzle below was devised by Roman’s latest protégé, Kenneth ‘Crécy’ Cresswell. My Chief Foxer Setter has been far too busy preparing the 2015 Flare Path Easter Egg Hunt to concoct cryptic collages. If you’re thinking of attending (Saturday, 1300-1500hrs, Jasper’s Clump) my advice would be ‘Bring stout boots and a good supply of wound dressings’. Roman spent most of yesterday whittling Punji stakes.

All answers in one thread, please.

21 Comments

  1. Rorschach617 says:

    OK, I’ll grag the easy one.

    The coin is the 5 Euro cent coin

    • Rorschach617 says:

      *grab

      • Rorschach617 says:

        The coin bears the initials of the designer, Luc Luycx. Is there a connection where the items have the designers put their name on what they make?

        • phlebas says:

          The other side of the Italian version has a picture of the Colosseum.
          The Colosseum is also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre (Lancia Flavia Sport)
          The nude sculpture is at the Olympic gate of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

    • SuicideKing says:

      The other easy one: A finely chiseled penis.

      • phlebas says:

        Sculpted by Robert Graham for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, I think.

    • Hydrogene says:

      The logo in the background is for Arena, the swimswear brand.

    • Llewyn says:

      The car bottom left is the work of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Ugo Zagato; a man whose work, after 35+ years of car obsession I still can’t decide if I love or hate. I’m not sure I’d ever seen that car, a Lancia Flavia Sport, before but knew immediately who I was looking for. That’s not really something you* can say for many other designers of anything.

      *I. You of course might be able to.

      • Llewyn says:

        Ha, I’m an idiot. It seems the Flavia Sport was actually designed (at Zagato) by Ercole Spada, not by Zagato himself. Not that it’s necessarily relevant to the Foxer at all anyway, but I guess it serves me right for being pretentious about car design.

    • Hydrogene says:

      The 8-bit pixelman seems to be Chuck Norris Superkicks (!) by Xonox.

      • Hydrogene says:

        Or maybe not Chuck Norris after all, the feet and headgear look slightly different… Oh well. Anyway I could not find any roman link with Chuck Norris!

        • phlebas says:

          Looks like the Atari 2600 version.

        • phlebas says:

          Aha! The reclining figure below Chuck Norris is Bruce Lee (from the Spectrum version of his platformer). Chuck Norris fought Bruce Lee in the Colosseum in Way of the Dragon.

    • JiminyJickers says:

      The pixel bars in the left middle looks like it is from Daggerfall or Arena.

      • phlebas says:

        I don’t think so – they have three stat bars, not four.

  2. stoisko says:

    Looks great

  3. Premium User Badge

    Grizzly says:

    Sorry for the horrible confusion, but me and Joshua are actually the same person! :P – I realized after my RPS premium upgrade that my nickname had defaulted back to Joshua, so I slotted it back to Grizzly where it belongs :)

    I geuss this means that, now that I once finally appear in the flare path foxer, I now appear in there twice 0_o

  4. John O says:

    It’s Erfurt. The missing ‘r’ confused me into looking up the website, which cleared up the issue for me.

  5. April March says:

    Is that a real World of Subways trailer, or a mockingly fan-made trailer about how “This is how EA would market World of Subways if they were publishing it!”?

  6. yhancik says:

    Every trailer absolutely needs its glitch effects. That’s the rule.

  7. celticdr says:

    Another recommendation from Mr. Stone for a game I’ve been eying… you’ll send me broke yet Tim!