The Flare Path: Get Knotted

Happy Eggmas! As this Steel Division/MaSzyna Flare Path may end-up lingering longer than usual on the front page, I’ve been asked to preface it with a quality intro rather than the usual nonsense. Apparently, a list of my Top Ten Knots (10. Sheepshank, 9. Highwayman’s hitch, 8. Dutch bunch, 7. Cream splice, 6. Inverted Medusa, 5. Double Windsor, 4. Sir John Knot, 3. Pixie snare, 2. Quarter Lincoln, 1. Bee-and-thistle) or my Ten Favourite Sexual Positions (10. Sheepshank, 9. Highwayman’s hitch, 8. Dutch bunch, 7. Cream splice, 6. Inverted Medusa, 5. Double Windsor, 4. Sir John Knot, 3. Pixie snare, 2. Quarter Lincoln, 1. Bee-and-thistle)  won’t cut it today. 

See how restless Steel Division: Normandy 44 is in the RPS RTS cage? See the way it paces to and fro and keeps peering in this direction? Deep down I think it wants to be in The Flare Path corral with the Pureblood Wargames.

Eugen baffle me. For years they’ve been calling their creations Wargame This and Wargame That. Their latest effort is – based on the evidence of the cracking two-map beta released earlier this month – the most plausible, wargamey thing they’ve ever done, and yet they decide now is the moment to rebrand! It makes no sense. Well, it makes no sense until you remember just how lumpen a name ‘Wargame’ was, and realise that the new moniker is whispering ‘This isn’t just Red Dragon with older weaponry and more fascists’ at the same time as it’s evoking scarred tank armour, gleaming bayonets and grizzled warriors.

Although Steel Division inherits much from its predecessor – gorgeous battlefields,  a disdain for base building, and an obssession with unit shopping, most notably – a clutch of ingenious new ideas together with the era shift make it a diversion even staunch Wargame sceptics should investigate. What’s impressed me most about the admittedly rather limited beta is the absence of absurdity. Yes, tanks never pop smoke, AT guns and recon vehicles are sometimes a little too cocksure and the unscripted attacks can be on occasion improbably piecemeal, but for the vast majority of the time I’m totally taken-in by the myriad life-and-death dramas unfolding in front of me.

This is a game that gets right so many things that other mainstream WW2 titles get wrong. AFVs trade fire at sensible distances and, like infantry, automatically fall back or seek cover when flustered. An unsuppressed enemy is a dangerous enemy, a hopelessly surrounded one a potential PoW rather than an inevitable corpse. There are times when I’m gazing down at Pointe du Hoc’s icon-strewn pasture patchwork or Colombelles’ fiercely contested industrial centre, I feel I’m in the presence of the 3D Close Combat game I’ve been dreaming about for the past 20 years. Everywhere I look there are tactically fascinating skirmishes raging, tactically fascinating skirmishes that I can influence without having to wrestle with a Byzantine interface first.

Bullet-time mode – effectively an active pause –  means ditherers and ponderers aren’t punished in solo engagements (On the rare occasions when the AI is struggling to reposition a StuG-harassed Stuart or reroute a flak-chewed Spitfire efficiently, there’s usually time to intervene). No-nonsense anti-armour stats mean players that don’t know their Sherman or Churchill variants, can be confident they’re going Tiger hunting with their most capable Panzer perforator.

The decision to replace Wargame’s capturable map zones with organic frontlines gives scraps a pleasingly ragged feel. Territorial control still means victory in Conquest Mode (in Destruction games, kills determine who wins) but the strikingly naturalistic landscapes are no longer parcelled into polygonal chunks. It might be illusory but at times the AI seems to be pausing, weighing its options, and seeking out sections of your line where your forces are thinnest.

The beta shows Steel Division can serve up mesmerizing ‘meeting engagements’ on essentially flat terrain. Hopefully, the full game when it arrives (May 23) will be a little hillier and prove the new three-phase battle structure works equally well in situations where one side is more interested in holding ground than taking it. If every clash in the campaign starts with a land rush and angry tussles between armoured cars and recon jeeps, then there’ll be grumbling from folk like me who can’t read the word ‘Normandy’ without picturing dug-in Paks and foxholed Panzerfaustists.

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TS2017, Run 8, openBVE, Open Rails, Trainz… anyone disillusioned with the current state and scope of Train Sim World isn’t exactly short of choices when it comes to alternatives. Being peculiar, penurious, and dimly aware that Poland’s railway network is home to some of the world’s most endearing (and English) electric locos, I’ve decided to deal with my own TSW disappointment with help from MaSzyna, a free Polish train sim crammed with catenary and goggle-eyed loveliness.

Comprehensive English language instructions and a convenient 1GB download (a sizeable selection of both locos and routes is included) make MaSzyna one of the most approachable of the Eastern European train sims.

Which isn’t the same thing as saying it’s idiot-proof. Although not as staggeringly literal as the fuse-obsessed ZD Simulator, this constantly evolving 17-year-old hobby project does simulate components like transformers, compressors, brake systems, and overload relays. At the start don’t expect to coax a loco or EMU out of a station or siding using just the controls list. You’ll almost certainly need to peruse this tutorial to get anywhere.

I’m at the point now where I can usually persuade my chosen steed to start, stop and honk like an irate swan at approaching crossings, but fluency in Polish signalling will, I suspect, take a few more evenings.

Thanks to lush, layered audio, and essentially plausible physics, you should quickly forget that the scenery dashing past your cab is often MSTS crude and sparse, and that the 3D passengers dotting platforms never move a muscle. MaSzyna shows how unimportant all that out-of-the-window stuff really is. Get the motion, mechanics, and music of trains right, and the auxillary GPU between the user’s ears will do the rest.

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Should purchasers of the upcoming Normandy map for DCS World have to pay extra to strafe, bomb, and rocket period vehicles? The Fighter Collection/Eagle Dynamics think so. Their decision to make Shermans, Tigers, Cromwells and the like, a separate purchase (a bundle is also available) hasn’t been met with universal approbation in the sim community. In the asset pack blurb, the makers stress the amount of effort that has gone into crafting the vehicles, and dangle the carrot of future free additions and coming Combined Arms integration. In the forums, the unhappy stress the silliness of a WW2 map (potentially) without WW2 units, and recall the good old days when sims were stout and the idea of paying for AI tanks in a flight sim was unheard of.

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This way to the foxer

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21 Comments

  1. peterako1989 says:

    Wait. So they want to sell the normandy map and the AI vehicles seperately from one another?! Eagle dynamics staff needs to lay off the weed for a while. Im Ok with the way the modules are, but that starts to get on my bad side in regards to DLC.

    • Mmmslash says:

      Not that crazy, honestly. If you look at the cost of the bundle, it’s as much as the only other DLC map, which does not feature any units whatsoever.

      Why they chose to offer it separately, I don’t know. But folks somehow would have been happier if they had just made the bundle the only SKU, and I find that frustrating and baffling. More options should not warrant embitterment, but the DCS community is very prone to it regardless.

      • P.Funk says:

        I am honestly really really worried about the future of TSW and what it means for the community of third party devs.

  2. celticdr says:

    Really tempted by Steel Division as my next game purchase… still $39.99 is more than I usually like to spend on a game.

    Is it worth it for someone who is an intermediate w******r Tim?

    The last w*****e I got in to was Vietnam ’65 (based on your review) and I really liked that, but it was $9.99 – is Steel Division worth four times that?

    Btw – I loved the Close Combat games, I remember bringing the Wehrmacht to a halt in CC3 thanks to my solitary KV-2 and a heap of snipers, them were the (w*****e) days.

    • Artemas says:

      As Tim suggests, its a much improved version of Eugen’s Wargame series. At this point i’d hold off (its in beta after all), and the inclusion of some features not currently in the beta (like the aforementioned attack-defend mode) could make or break an individuals recommendation. If you’re really interested to know if this is for you, you could pick up one of the Eugen’s earlier Wargames, they’re cheap and go on sale pretty often.

      • celticdr says:

        True, I’ll check out one of the Wargame series then, thanks for the recommendation Artemas.

  3. Artemas says:

    Just a correction Tim, the income in Steel Division is based on your division and the current phase, not map control.

  4. DeadCanDance says:

    Is the Steel Division really good? I’ve seen some troubling points on some of steam’s reviews about low quality sound, and the gameplay videos weren’t really much fun… It seems that to counter the AI’s new possibility of initiative the morale system makes the units retreat easily as to not get destroyed in their own.

    Also, is the “hiding in the bush” still a thing? Like the other wargames? Where units wouldn’t go exactly to the edge of forests and couldn’t shoot or would go out of them and get shot?

    • Tim Stone says:

      Some of the vocal cues are a bit mad/ghastly (I particularly dislike “Between war and dishonour, I choose war!”) their silliness clashing with the naturalism of the landscapes and the unit behaviours, but the rest of the audio is solid enough.

      I like the auto retreats, even if they aren’t always executed as sensibly as they could be (Occasionally a vehicle will remain in a threat’s LoF while reversing when a turn into the lee of a building or wood would be wiser).

      I’ve not noticed any LoF issues in woods.

      Once I’ve spent some time with the full version I plan to post a follow-up impressions piece. I’m thoroughly enjoying the surprisingly replayable two-map beta, but need to see much more before putting Steel Division on my GOTY pile with Afghanistan 11.

  5. The Bitcher III says:

    Thanks, I really appreciate your look at Normandy. I’ve not touched an RTS since awful experiences with the later Total War games, but especially since COH2. I’m absolutely down with everything you highlighted – fuzzy front lines and similarly nuanced resource capture schemes would seem to me to be the way forward for single player RTS / Tacticals.

    Never made much sense to me that so many games make extensive (read: annoying and self-defeating) use of RNG’s for combat, yet we insist on linear, completely transparent resource capturing / meta.

  6. dee says:

    who’s gonna say it

  7. David Mitchell says:

    Anyone else sick & tired with Eagle Dynamics for switching away from modern jets & naval aviation? I got into DCS ‘cos of Flanker 2.5, LOMAC, Flaming Cliffs & their superb Black Shark. I’m not really a fan of vintage aviation but hey I bought their Mig-21 anyway and that was OK. My main love of the game though is with modern naval aviation and carrier ops. Can’t get enough of carrier traps on the Kuznetsov! For whatever reason, they then seemed to forget all about Russia and switched focus to the A-10, WWII and vintage training in Nevada… which… I’m not really that interested in… um, ok? I’ve lost count of all the emails from DCS offering me sales and discounts on Las Vegas Nevada, WWII Normandy, Spitfire, Mustang, Mirage & F-5 where I simply close it and think no thanks… wondering how much longer it will be before I finally unsubscribe from this unsolicited torrent of crap permanently?! What the hell happened to the Strait of Hormuz map and a new modern Russian naval campaign they said they were working on years ago? What happened to the upgraded detailed Kuznetsov? And for that matter, the new Nimitz and F-14?? What was the turning point that caused Eagle Dynamics to drift so far? Why did they lose track of their original Flanker 2.5 mission so bad? It’s as if they fell into the trap of “trying to please everybody”, apparently oblivious this is a formula for failure and an efficient method of alienating your customer base? As Patrick McGoohan once eloquently put it, “…You see, one of the things that is frustrating about making a piece of entertainment is trying to make it appeal to everybody. I think this is fatal. I don’t think you can do that.”

    Skip to 16:16 for “How Patrick McGoohan saved the videogames industry”: link to youtube.com

  8. David Mitchell says:

  9. CodeSquares says:

    Thank you so much for pointing out MaSzyna, I was completely unaware of its existence and resigning myself to pootling about in vaguely familiar UK in TS2017 scenarios (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just a couple of years familiarity vs. my entire childhood :)). Ordered myself a standalone numpad (apparently a must) and can’t wait to dig into it.