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The Flare Path: Loos Cannon

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Tim,

There’s no kind way of putting this: this week’s Flare Path was a disgrace. You’ve done some pretty unprofessional things in the past but slyly writing-off an ambitious work-in-progress flight sim because you’ve seen similar projects fail, and recommending a wargame that you’ve played for a mere two hours, sets new standards of irresponsibility. Where was the detailed TS2016 coverage and the piece on the imminent DCS: Nevada? I turned up expecting topical analysis of genre stalwarts and found instead multiple paragraphs on an obscure half-finished Dora sim! And the less said about that awful title pun, the better. You are aware, are you not, that Loos is a good hundred miles from the Ardennes, played no part in the Battle of the Bulge, and was never visited by a WW2 railway gun? Your Meuse seems to have deserted you on this occasion.

Deeply disappointed,

(your name here)

Unfortunate release timing means I’ve seen little of this week’s most tempting arrivals. Faced, late last night, with the difficult choice of pre-decimal West Country train simming (TS2016 features a flavoursome Fifties treatment of the famous South Devon Banks) or a quick burst of Shenandoah Studio’s newly ported Battle of the Bulge I ended up plumping for the latter.

The original iOS version of BotB generated much acclaim and some extremely persuasive reviews when it appeared in 2012. Encounter the design for the first time through the £6.29 (£7 after Sept 23) PC version just unveiled by Slitherine, and the reasons for all that enthusiasm soon become apparent.

This is a wargame that explains itself in the time it takes to assemble an M1 mortar or make a mug of Char B. Players take turns activating map areas and moving the units within those areas. When opposing units wind up sharing a space, invisible dice are rolled and casualties calculated. The tutorial speeds past like a fleeing Greyhound; before you know it you’re knee-deep in the three-day ‘Race to the Meuse’ introductory scenario, scrambling to achieve the seemingly impossible – a German thrust to the titular river – and figure out how such amazingly simple fundamentals can combine to produce such a bally evocative strategy experience.

Hopefully, by next week I’ll be in a position to properly explain BotB’s magic. After three failed but fun attempts to blaze a path through to the Meuse, I suspect the game’s knack for evocation owes much to clever map design, beautifully engineered combat equations and unusually capable AI (Honed for this release, CPU-controlled foes come in three fiendishly formidable forms). A host of small but telling rule subtleties also play their part.

I love, for instance, the super-legible supply mechanics and the pithy way the bottlenecking effects of the region’s narrow stone bridges have been represented (attacks across bridge boundaries are limited to single units). The decision to randomize turn lengths – days consist of a random number of alternately distributed turns – is a stroke of genius. Everywhere you look there’s the inspired shorthand of a designer acutely aware of the crucial difference between distillation and simplification.

There’s a tiny chance me and Battle of the Bulge might fall out during the next seven days (Who knows, I might take against its surprising lack of random weather or the maddening infallibility of its silicon adversaries*) but, given my overwhelmingly positive first impressions and the stack of laurel wreaths already heaped upon the design by others, disappointment seems most unlikely.

*Or mid-afternoon Sunday I might encounter this very annoying bug for the first time. :-(

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There was a time when this column would trumpet news of a potential MS Flight Simulator replacement/successor from the rooftops. Years of stalled projects and unfulfilled promises have taught us to be a bit more circumspect. Nowadays we tend to do our trumpeting from atop beer crates, milking stools, and molehills.

The following three paragraphs come to you from the summit of a deceased tortoise.

An outfit called Next Generation Interactive Software is the latest in a fairly long line of developers keen to “put away the old and build the future of flight simulation using a platform that will continue to keep abreast with the rapidly changing world of software development tools and the hardware that runs them.” The platform in this instance is Unigine, an engine that’s been batting its eyelashes at flight simmers since late 2013.

NGIS appear to be at the very start of their developmental journey. There’s no evidence of coding progress or asset work as yet. All the lovely screenshots on the NGIS site seem to come from existing Unigine demos. Only time will tell whether a team that optimistically describes itself as “the flight sim community” has the skill, will, manpower, organisational acumen and cash to carry through a project that already – going by the extensive ‘feature list’ – looks dangerously amorphous.

Sadly, the Flare Path doesn’t have infinite supplies of Hope. Having squandered bushels of the stuff on previous prospective FSX/X-Plane eclipsers, we wish NGIS luck but won’t be emotionally investing in ‘Next Generation Flight Simulator’ until its makers reveal concrete progress and introduce a little hard-nosed realism into their worryingly Dovetailian publicity campaign.

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Development of Flare Path Underactive’s great gun simulator is going great guns at the moment. We’ve recently moved from the ‘high-poly daydream’ phase to the ‘write some feature ideas on the back of an electricity bill’ phase. Next stop title screen mock-ups and a research material shopping spree!

Alternatively we might just jump straight to the ‘abandon project on learning that our idea is nowhere near as original as we first thought’ stage. It turns out that we’re not the first people to imaginify an Eastern-Front-3D-Scorched-Earth-with-trains. Reader Ashtorak dropped me a line on Saturday offering programming assistance and drawing my attention to his Schwerer Gustav sim.

An avid WW2 Online: Battleground Europe player, Ash built this prototype without any previous coding experience. Utilizing Unity3D and playable in a browser, it lets you lob thunderbolts the size of human torpedoes at besieged Sevastopol in May 1942. To commence lobbing you first need to clamber up ladders on the left side of the leviathan and locate a control panel. Switches on this panel elevate and lower the 100ft barrel, initiate loading, move the gun forward and backwards on its curved tracks (the only way to traverse the intransigent Dora), and send shells on their way.

In theory you can observe the results of your long-range handiwork via a camera strapped to the belly of a city-circling Stuka. I say ‘in theory’ because thus far I’ve yet to see a single projectile strike Sevastopol or its surroundings. The mushroom clouds and water spouts that should aid aim adjustment are nowhere to be seen. Either I’m an extremely lousy shot (quite possible) or there’s some hidden fuze setting mini-game that I’ve yet to discover.

Perhaps Ashtorak hasn’t got round to modelling impact effects yet? No, that’s not it. The coastal battery near Sevastopol which, somewhat improbably, has the flexibility and range to mount counter-battery fire, regularly rings Dora with smoke plumes. Sometimes the Soviet gunners even have the audacity to put an end to your parabolic pondering with a direct hit.

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The Flare Path Foxer

The ‘quick’ version of last week’s foxer (only available to members of the FP Platinum Club) included a snap of Walter Koenig and a picture of a Nissan Cherry. The standard version, defoxed by Gusdownnup with help from mrpier, AFKAMC, JB, phlebas, Shiloh, Stugle, and Rorschach617, featured…

(theme: Anton Chekhov)

a Sakhalin ferry
b Bears at Taganrog
c Tsar Bomba
d Hungarian stamp commemorating Yalta summit
e Chaika
f General Keller
g Detail from TB prevention poster
h Sniper Anatoly Chekhov
i Brändli BX-2 Cherry
j Gooseberries
k Mount Olga

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Foxer Fact #914

Bohemian king Boleslav the Inquisitive (1084-1111) fell to his death while attempting to defox the Karlovy Vary Cryptych, a three section collage carved into a high cliff face in the Ohře Valley.

All answers in one thread, please.

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