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17

The Flare Path: Makes For Moscow

Drive on Moscow test-drive + sim news

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Men in balaclavas and frosty greatcoats are jumping up and down to keep warm. Lumps of snow dislodged from bowed pine boughs by rising exhaust fumes fall like icing sugar mortar bombs on idling panzers. A few miles away to the east, framed by twin smoke columns, the fairy domes of St Basil’s Cathedral gewgaw a cloudless, corpse-blue sky. Everyone wants to know ‘What’s the delay? Why aren’t we moving?’. The frozen soldaten can’t see their famished fate-shaper – the Englander hurrying upstairs with a cheese and chutney sandwich, a glass of blackcurrant squash, and a happy “Back to Drive on Moscow!” look on his face.

The latest release from Shenandoah and Slitherine is a £7 delight. Clean of limb and brisk paced, Drive on Moscow abstracts aggressively yet delivers a recreation of the Battle of Moscow heavy with flavour and nuance.

Ted Raicer’s remarkably crisp design re-purposes an engine last seen in Battle of the Bulge. The handsome if skew-whiff* map is crazy-paved with irregular areas, none of which can hold more than three player-controlled units at a time. Turns are chopped into a random number of ‘impulses’. Every other impulse you have the opportunity of activating one area, then moving any units in that area that have yet to move that turn. It’s a heavily stylised system, but enriched by a layer of well thought-out movement, supply, and combat rules, and a small but finely wrought selection of scenarios, the mechanics very rarely upstage or dumb-down the history.

*The left side of the map represents North rather than West presumably because a rotated front minimises scrolling on typical monitors.

The elements that need to be at the centre of an Operation Typhoon wargame are at the core of DoM. At fixed points in the 22-turn campaign, weather changes completely alter the feel and character of play. Autumn rains bog down blitzkriegs and ground aircraft. Winter frosts eliminate river barriers. Kübelwagen-swallowing snowdrifts clog roads and turn forests into partisan playgrounds. Fail to fully exploit favourable weather windows and defeat is almost inevitable.

Scripted reinforcement patterns and ‘prepared offensive’ bonuses also can’t be ignored. For the first few turns the Germans get what are in effect free attacks – the disarray of the Soviets at the start of Operation Typhoon translated into extra riskless impulses for their opponents. In the later stages of the campaign the tables are turned and Zhukov’s counterattack is simulated in similar fashion. As the Reds are also seeing the benefits of a far healthier reinforcement stream by this time, the closing turns are invariably tough for a Panzer-pushing player.

What the unit selection lacks in variety it more than makes up for in clarity. There’s no poring over complicated stats screens prior to movement or combat. The punch, pace, and ‘breakthrough’ ability (on eliminating all enemy units in a particular area, tanks can push on) make armour units natural spearheads – the ideal way to reach and take distant Victory Locations quickly. Like mechanized infantry – a German speciality – they’re also great at encirclement, a very important tactic bearing in mind the game’s harsh but impartial out-of-supply rules. Only the Soviets boast cavalry units (handy behind-the-lines hellraisers) and airborne troops (once every game they can be airdropped). Only Panzers suffer from random fuel shortages and benefit from the powerful ‘double breakthrough’ ability.

Influential terrain, that hallmark of a serious wargame, is a DoM attribute. Pushing defenders from an urban, forest, or trench-riddled area without first encircling it can be an arduous business. Though bridges are less common and slightly less significant than they were in BotB, a rule that prevents multiple units using a river crossing during an attack remains meaning certain map areas are natural bulwarks best isolated rather than assaulted directly.

While an unusually effective interactive tutorial backed by a brief html manual explains all of the above, it’s only when you get stuck into a full campaign and the host of clever design choices begin interweaving that DoM’s true quality emerges. Both the ‘quick’ and ‘slow’ AI foes are worthy opponents, responding to pressure sensibly and cutting supply lines adroitly. Machine-like efficiency is leavened by the odd slip-up (on one occasion I snatched Moscow in a somewhat improbable fashion) and a slight tendency towards caution/timidity in attack. That said, I’ve yet to discover any consistently exploitable chinks in the AI’s armour. The random factor in combat together with fuel unpredictability and light-touch AI scripting mean tactics that paid off in one playthrough won’t necessarily work in a subsequent one.

It’s unfortunate that the shortest scenario and the first on the list – the five-turn curtain raiser, ‘Operation Typhoon’ – is, because of a very high Victory Points threshold and the default ‘Play as Axis’ position, arguably the hardest challenge on offer. Newcomers on the end of several crushing defeats may desert before realising DoM is actually a great introduction to the genre. I recommend jumping straight into the campaign. If you value the same things that I value in a wargame – historicism, pace, a constant stream of engaging decisions, solid artificial opposition, ambience (the season-related sound effects are rather good) and a well-constructed UI – chances are you’ll emerge two to three hours later wearing a smile whether you’ve won or lost.


Periodic freezes (now fixed apparently) wrecked my relationship with Battle of the Bulge. Happily, Drive on Moscow seems free of show-stopping bugs. The most annoying flaw I’ve encountered in a week of play is an immovable combat window pop-up that makes attacks in corner areas like Voronezh fiddly. Very occasionally, movement limitations rub me up the wrong way (arguably there should be a simple way of swapping units in adjacent areas, and reinforcing a contested area without triggering a battle) but minor blemishes like these won’t stop me playing one of 2016’s most absorbing and affordable battle sims.

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Dovetail Games, the enterprising simpressarios behind Train Simulator, FSX Steam Edition, Flight School, and that angling game I didn’t like quite as much as Fishing Planet, have persuaded a UK finance company to toss a few million quid in their direction. They’re going to use the cash injection to develop ‘Dovetail Live’, an “online destination, which will enable players to interact with Dovetail’s products and each other in an environment tailored specifically to fans of simulation entertainment.”

Reading this detail-light press release I’m really not sure whether to be afraid or excited. The cynic in me wonders how many TS users honestly feel that “existing gaming platforms don’t cater well for their very specific interests and needs” or how many hanker for somewhere new to “engage in discussion…. learn new skills… [and] truly celebrate their hobby.” (Surely, busy sites like www.uktrainsim.com meet these needs pretty well already?). While, yes, I would like to see Train Simulator mods hosted in a single free, fast, and friendly location, if the cost of that convenience is another ‘platform’ with all the password palaver and background process gubbins that will doubtless entail, then I think I’d rather stick with the status quo.

This statement from Dovetail’s Chief Operating Officer, Jon Rissik – “Dovetail Live… will enable us to better understand our customers and as a result we will be able to help them tailor their own experiences by offering them content which is very specific to their unique interests.” will send shivers down the spine of anyone already irritated by TS loadscreen ads. If Dovetail Live turns out to be more shopping mall than community centre, there’s a high risk that naturally nostalgic and self-contained creature, the ‘rail fan‘, won’t warm to it.

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The last time I checked, City Car Driving was boulevards ahead of the competition when it came to simulating the kind of prosaic yet peril-strewn motoring ordinary folk like you, me, and that chap across the road with the lovely Vauxhall Vortigaunt engage in or witness every day. Now boasting snow, ice and slush, potholes, unpredictable pedestrians, traffic light faults, VR compatibility, and traffic rule support for countries other than Russia, the mod-friendly sim finally showed up on Steam yesterday priced £19.

Creators Forward Development – an outfit whose core business is building ‘serious’ training sims and the hardware to go with them – tell me they’re working on a new physics system at the moment which, when fully implemented (ETA sometime next year) will heighten handling realism and add breakdowns to the already sizeable list of hazards. Expect thoughts on the game’s current driving model, together with revised assessments of everything from Lada lilt and UAZ adorableness to tram AI and babushka animations in next week’s Flare Path.

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This way to the foxer

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