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The PC that time/Tim forgot

1024 x 768 memories

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A combination of a bugged mission and a campaign as straight as a bamboo cane has put paid to my plan to review convention-flouting Vietnam War wargame Radio Commander this week (Expect analysis in next Friday’s Flare Path assuming Serious Sim patch promptly). The closest thing I have to a ‘Plan B’ is a tad self-indulgent but will, I hope, prove moderately entertaining. I’d like to show you what I found when, yesterday afternoon, I blew the dust off one of my old PCs prior to taking it to the dump for recycling. 

The redundant rig has been serving as a spider tenement in the cupboard under the stairs since 2011. Plugging its hard drive into my current system, I discovered a fascinating cache of old sim and wargame screenshots. Forgotten titles were remembered, dimly recalled ones pleaded “Play me again! Play me again!”. For an hour or two, the ludological memories danced like dust motes disturbed by a church mouse’s sneeze. Join me as I sift through an accidental archive prior to whacking it with a dirty-great lump hammer.

Remember Brass and Steel? Around ten years ago, Mark Pay, the chap behind well-liked sidescrolling RPGs The Spirit Engine and The Spirit Engine II, flirted with isometric Shermans and Schützen for a spell. The enchanting result, a free alpha that combined cute visuals with a surprising level of realism (suppression modelling, morale, one-shot tank kills, towable AT guns…)  impressed almost everyone that stumbled upon it, but sadly never matured into a finished game.

Venus Patrol was another tantalising might-have-been. In free three-sortie prototype form it entered circulation circa 2011 and briefly raised sky-high the spirits/hopes of Crimson Skies fans hungry for a spiritual sequel. The aerodynamic algebra was sophisticated, the steeds suitably quirky (Meteor, Vampire, Avro York, Yak-23…), the soundtrack (Holst’s Uranus) perfect, and the way in which the mouse was used to control both flight surfaces and camera, absolutely masterly. Unfortunately the pupa never turned into an imago, but at least that original demo build is still available.

Before Gaijin fell in love with free-to-play multiplayer, they produced a couple of very easy to recommend light solo flight sims. Apache Air Assault and IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey were both exceedingly handsome and just about simmy enough FM-wise to evoke memories of the classic popular flight sims of the late 90s. At the time they appeared, almost no-one was producing prettier flight sim scenery than the molluscs from Moscow. What a pity the studio never created anything with a dynamic campaign and a decent-sized map.

A fresh, enticing theme and an intriguing freeform campaign system, failed to save Mosby’s Confederacy from a swift swan-dive into obscurity. According to a review I penned for British PC Gamer in late 2008, Tilted Mill’s effort was scuppered by its sorry tactical layer:  “It’s the real-time battley bit where everything comes undone faster than a saloon strumpet’s corset. Once you’ve picked one of the randomly generated missions from the map and selected a force of up to 19 Rebs to fight beside Mosby, you’re hurled into an RTS so insipid, so tactically threadbare, you wonder how the devs thought they’d get away with it.”

MX Simulator! We had some fun back in the day, did we not! Judging by the official site and its lively messageboard, Josh Vanderhoof’s creation remains the go-to sim for anyone interested in tearing about bumpy countryside on a realistically recreated two-wheeled, two-stroke rut carver. No motocross game could match it for physics and feel, or provide more entertaining computer-controlled competition. Hurtling over a blind crest or slithering round a tight bend, it wasn’t unusual to find the track in front of you strewn with crashed bikes. I wonder if I still have my licence number.

I daubed a big red “73%” on 1914: Shells of Fury when I reviewed it over a decade ago. Delighted to finally get my hands on a WW1 sub sim, I was willing to partially overlook weaknesses like a line astern campaign (albeit a long line astern campaign enlivened by plenty of randomly generated marine traffic) and extremely eagle-eyed ship lookouts. £1.65 at Gamersgate until Sunday night, the game has a 4 out of 5 user rating at the site which suggests my enthusiasm wasn’t misplaced.

It’s impossible to look at a Jet Thunder screenshot without thinking of scary_pigeon. Tragically, Steve Dobbs died before he could bring his Falklands War flight sim to fruition. There was an attempt to continue the project with new coders, but ultimately it came to nothing. If there isn’t a virtual museum devoted to Sims That Didn’t Make It then there really should be. Jet Thunder, Desert Fighters, Target for Tonight… they’d all be amongst the exhibits.

Montjoie!, one of the first games I praised on RPS, is, I believe, currently unobtainable. A shame that. A well executed digital version of eventful Hundred Years’ War board game Joan of Arc, it mixed diplomacy, random historical events, and fortification building, very nicely with simple, pacy province-grabbing militarism. The sound design was great, the battle animations pure Terry Gilliam and utterly charming. I’d be up for a game right now if only I could find my copy.

Another super board game adaptation, Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War rightly earned plaudits for its able AI, stylish aesthetic, and firm grasp of history. There’s still no sign of the promised sequel, Fall of Rome, and the Matrix Games logo on the box means the price has barely dropped in the nine years since release, but who knows, one day Hannibal may, through a retailer like GOG, get the late-life sales boost it richly deserves.

The Theatre of War titles out-realism the disappointing Close Combat: The Bloody First in many respects and manage to look prettier into the bargain – a rather bizarre state of affairs considering their vintage. ToW2: Kursk 1943 (2010) boasted very impressive ballistics and plenty of battlefields large enough to showcase it. Missions could feel a tad scripted and contrived, but a solid random skirmish generator gave succour to serious wargamers. If you struggle with the complexity and interface of Graviteam Tactics, and don’t mind doing without a strat layer and putting up with high infantry mortality (cover can be scarce), ToW2 is well worth a look especially as it’s a piffling 60p at Gamersgate this weekend.

An unconventional UI did WW1 wargame Jutland no favours, but it was its creators questionable approach to copy protection and customer service that really doomed the closest thing we’ve ever had to a naval Combat Mission. After ditching a hateful DRM system that insisted on phoning home every seven days, ambitious Storm Eagle Studios introduced Stormpowered, their own pale imitation of Steam. Today if you own Jutland, there’s a very good chance you can’t play it.

A surprising number of the screenshots on my dump-destined PC feature Battle of Britain 2 Hurricanes and Spitfires. Two of the above pics also show the environmental handiwork of the BDG – a band of dedicated modders who’ve enhanced Rowan’s/Shockwave’s incomparably immersive masterpiece in countless ways over the years. Although there hasn’t been a BDG update for a while, last month the sim gained a very welcome Windows 10 patch. BoB2’s reign as king of the Finest Hour sims looks set to continue for a few years yet, despite Wings Over the Reich’s strongish debut and steady progress. No game captures the jaw-dropping spectacle of Eagle Day better.

No, it’s no good. No matter how vigorously I massage my little grey cells I can’t identify the games that feature in the following screenshots (Unhelpful generic FRAPS file names provide no clues). Flare Path Flair Points made out of conkers that never dull to anyone that can put names to the images.

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Tim Stone

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