Last night I dreamt the sim industry was in the grip of canal mania. You couldn't move on Steam without tripping over a new barge or waterway for CanalWorks. The forums at SimHQ were thronged with folk debating lock physics and butty boat damage models. Thrustmaster was on the verge of bringing out a heavy-duty HOTAT (Hands-On-Throttle-And-Tiller) controller... Things had gone so far, I was contemplating changing the name of this column to The Tow Path.
How sad it was to wake, and realise that Simulatia had no interest in plodding narrowboats. How galling to have to replace planned pieces on Kanaal Koningen (A work-in-progress Amsterdam- based sim incorporating Seventeenth Century history and tycoon elements) and 'Idle Women, Vital Work' (A new add-on from Just Barges) with articles on ZDSim and Over Flanders Fields.
It's hard to believe the same hand that shaped the sleek snout of the World's fastest steam engine, sketched the square jaw of the EM1, a pioneering British electric loco. Perhaps Nigel Gresley left his French curve at home the day he designed the star of RS.com's latest Railworks 3: Train Simulator 2012 add-on.
I was planning to bring you some impressions of the Class 76s (as they were later known) and their soggy moorland habitat today, but Henry, the Flare Path accountant, says spending 25 pounds on a rail sim add-on, is simply out of the question at present.
I pleaded, pointing out that many RW fans are saying this ribbon of post-war Pennines-traversing permanent way, is one of the best things ever produced for RailWorks. I cajoled, mentioning that RS.com had gone to the trouble of modelling motive power peculiarities like regenerative braking and traction modes. Nothing made any difference. Henry said if I was so keen on prototypical pantography why was it I still hadn't got to grips with ZDSimulator, the acme of electric loco simulation? “BECAUSE I DON'T READ NAFFING UKRAINIAN, YOU NAFFING SKINFLINT!” I bawled back, before storming out for a sulky walk along the canal.
ZDSim is what happens when a talented Ukrainian railway engineer with a background in MSTS add-on fabrication, has a bash at making a standalone training tool. The results aren't just realistic, they take train sim verisimilitude to a completely new level.
In Ukraine, it seems, knowing where the 'Make Train Go Faster' and the 'Make Train Go Slower ' levers are, is simply not enough. To make the grade as a Укрзалізниця driver you must also know what to do when your vehicle grinds to an unscheduled halt in the middle of snowy birch forest or stretch of sun-baked steppe. In such situations only hopeless defeatists radio for assistance. True Heroes of the Former Soviet Union grab their torches, open the doors at the back of their cabs, and go for a rummage amongst the labyrinthine looms and warm fuses.
The catenary-caressing conveyances in Vyacheslav Usov's sim are almost as complex and fallible as their inspirations. A right-click takes you from a 3D cab to a 2D engine compartment view in which every fuse cabinet, battery box, and compressor valve is accessible. By checking circuit diagrams and deciphering panel warning lights, a competent operator should be able to find the tripped trip switch or the blown fuse, and revive his failed charge.
Fumbling around amongst the switches, knobs and levers (and, sadly, fumbling around is what most Western users are likely to find themselves doing until Vyacheslav gets round to producing English instructions) I found myself wondering whether ZDSim's strikingly holistic approach could be applied in other sim spheres. It wasn't long before I was mentally playing a WW2 tank recovery/repair sim based around the activities of REME, and toying with a design/tycoon sim inspired by the careers of steam pioneers like Trevithick and Stephenson.
Designing, fixing, and tinkering with machines could, I reckon, be every bit as interesting as operating them, yet our sim fashioners rarely encourage us to get our hands oily. The Airfix-like joy of assembling an intricate mechanism, the pleasure that comes from analysing a fault, finding its source, and repairing it... these are things I hope one day will be accepted and cherished aspects of the sim scene.
Hydrogenated And Fat
In my eagerness to deploy a Flare Path subtitle I've been itching to use since the column started, I foolishly assumed someone somewhere would be busy coding either a high-fidelity zeppelin sim, or the PC version of Luftschiff the World desperately needs.
Now that I've actually gone to the trouble of sending out the FP recon geese (Alcock and Bull) I realise I was a tad over-optimistic. In order to justify that bonny bit of Newsom up there, I've now got to do one of the following...
A) Claim to have begun development of a high-fidelity zeppelin sim or a PC version of Luftshchiff, presenting artfully doctored Crimson Skies screenshots as evidence.
B) Commence a retro piece on Microprose's little-known airship tycoon oddity Zeppelin: Giants of the Sky.
C) Spend several paragraphs explaining why Zeppelinstrasse is my favourite bus stop in OMSI.
D) Launch into an enthusiastic recommendation of Fighter Squadron: World War I - that rare thing a free flight sim featuring both pilotable dirigibles and balloons.
E) Make the best of an awkward situation by penning a few words on the seemingly imminent and apparently Zeppelin-blessed Over Flanders Fields: Phase 4.
As 'A' would be downright dishonest, 'B' would be perverse (Zeppelin: Giants of the Sky was one of the most tedious games Microprose ever released), 'C' would risk reigniting my productivity-sapping passion for That Bloody Bus Game, 'D' would involve repeating myself, that leaves...
I'm ashamed to admit I haven't flown Over Flanders Fields since it morphed from a free Combat Flight Simulator 3 mod into a payware one several years ago (You'd have to ask Henry why that is). I have however cycled past its busy aerodrome on occasion and overheard the chatter of happy dogfighters.
The general consensus seems to be that while Rise of Flight whips OFF in the flight modelling and netcode departments, the situation is reversed when it comes to bandit AI and long-term singleplayer satisfaction (About right, Wodin?). What does the old-timer's campaign offer that the newcomer's doesn't? I suspect most of the answers are set down here - hundred of intelligently generated incidental sorties, a plausibly mobile frontline… Old Brown Dog have gone to incredible lengths to ensure their solo customers feel bound to their squadrons, and those squadrons feel like they're participating in a titanic struggle.
Phase 4, as the devs are keen to stress, is not just extra planes. Though new machines like Gotha and HP bombers, and Rumpler and Aviatik recon aircraft will be added to Phase 3's already chockablock hangars, much of OBD's energy since the release of Hat In The Ring, seems to have gone into overhauling core elements like scenery, cockpits, flight models, and AI. The above preview vid gives some very encouraging glimpses of high-detail airfields, lively low-level sparring, and atmospheric night ops against giant flammable sky cucumbers. If the aviation is as exhilarating and evocative as it looks like it might be, then I may just be able to overlook the fact that the cucumbers are almost certainly AI only, and most probably never get to cast their shadows on chugging Belgian barges.