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The Flare Path: Extravehicular Activity

Simulation & wargame blather

The world of simulation would be a much drearier place without TML Studios. Over the last decade this small team of Erfurt eccentrics has released around a dozen standalone vehicle sims. Often odd, occasionally downright unhinged or hilariously broken, weak physics and unchecked ambition mean you're unlikely to find any of their games in 'Top 10 Sims' lists. Those who admire TML - and lately I've realised I'm one of these curious creatures - tend to admire the studio for its mercurial talent for atmosphere evocation, and its endearing belief in drama and player freedom, rather than its quality control or respect for realism.

The recently released World of Subways 4 illustrates TML's heartwarming/heartbreaking strengths and weaknesses perfectly. A recreation of NYC Subway's Line 7, it mixes moments of sublime sense-suffusing translocation with moments of awful illusion-fracturing crassness. Most of the crassness lurks in the 3D HQ-cum-menu that the devs insist on building into many of their creations.

Virtual offices, garages, airfields, sub pens, and tank laagers can be excellent devices for enriching sim experiences and strengthening bonds between players and vehicular steeds. Sadly, they're also rather good at showing-up gaping schisms between a studio's ambition and its ability or budget. Let me walk you around the WoS4 HQ by way of illustration.

I'm guessing the architect responsible for designing the game's hub building was either a fallout shelter specialist attempting to broaden his/her horizons, or an idiot who, skim-reading the brief, somehow managed to misread 'wheelchair friendly' as 'vampire friendly'. Wandering the HQ's gloomy windowless corridors, I regularly find myself eyeing fire axes and first aid boxes, and hesitating when doors swing open unexpectedly up ahead. After a long shift your mind can play tricks on you in a place like this.

That yellow stripe halfway up the wall? There's a rumour going round that the company is so short of funds, it can only afford to repaint one course of bricks per year. Come back in 12 years' time and this corridor should be 'primrose blush' from floor to ceiling.

Perhaps financial stringency also explain the strange lack of GENTLEMEN/LADIES plaques on the toilet doors. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the clot responsible for office signage blew his entire budget on CAUTION, WET FLOOR signs this year.

Of course, when male members of staff insist on standing three feet from urinals, you're going to need a fair few puddle markers. That's Bruce Hawkins, the mechanic, tinkling on the tiles in the above shot. He's one of the 8 mission-furnishing NPCs that lurk in the bowels of the WoS nerve centre.

And there's nowhere more bowel-like in that nerve centre than the office of company boss Jason McKenzie. Why does Big J lean forward when he's delivering reprimands? That's the only way he can be sure you haven't taken advantage of the room's coalhole-ambience to surreptitiously slip away.

Steven Flynt's (Shift Supervisor) office next door isn't much brighter. In his case I suspect he likes the lights dim because of his unfortunate condition - Marigolditis. When your hands look like inflated washing-up gloves, a little shyness is understandable.

What no World of Subways 4 screenshot can communicate is the milk-curdling awfulness of the character accents. To stroll into the cafeteria and strike up a conversation with one of the personalized NPCs sure to be loitering there, is to invite an ear battering of fearful brutality. Those colleagues that don't sound like they're auditioning for an 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' pastiche sound like frightened hostages reading from captor-penned scripts.

Even when the voice talent is passable, clumsily translated dialogue often scuppers the scene. "I hope this will spurn you on", "I don't want to be a badass, but I need to get this finished", "Satisfaction holds a different face"... Big J and his secretary, Lindsay, get to deliver many of WoS4's most ungainly lines.

As laughably terrible as the 3D WoS4 hub is at times, I love the fact that TML have given it a shot. The idea that the game's eight action-oriented scenarios are unlocked through conversations with key NPCs is cleverer than it first appears. We're not doing chores for those NPCs, we're acting out their remembered experiences. Jake Jones' bomb hunt, Jeff Teach's flood scare, Matt Silver's midwifery dash... on the rare occasions other sim devs offer us outlandish situations like these, they tend to do it through mission menus and text briefings as unimaginative as they are uninvolving.

I love too that TML don't pen us in our vehicles the way the majority of their counterparts do. Most of the scripted missions include a spot of pedestrian exploration, a torchlit scamper down one of the sim's uncommonly atmospheric Redbird conduits. Even in the highly flexible shift mode (drive for minutes or hours - it's up to you) there's nothing, except a blotted performance copy book and a string of delayed trains, to stop a stiff-limbed player from stretching his legs on a platform for a bit.

Brilliantly, if you choose to start a shift at a stop other than the depot, when the load screen vanishes you find yourself standing on a platform with your train approaching. The simple act of stepping aboard an EMU once it has drawn up, exchanging a few words with the exiting driver, and taking his place at the controls might seem trivial but it frames and contextualizes what's to come remarkably effectively. Eat your heart out Train Simulator 2015.

And despite WoS4's flaky physics - particularly noticeable during braking and on slopes (TML never seem to give Gravity the respect it deserves) - this is a sim eminently capable of dissolving your bedroom/study walls on occasion and replacing them with something far jigglier, noisier and more mesmerising. In certain light conditions and locations, especially since cab and carriage sway were patched in earlier this week - the unmistakeably TML World of Subways 4 can spellbind with the best of them.

World of Subways 4 is out now, and the trailer is as awful as the accents.

Cover image for YouTube video



The Flare Path Foxer

I'm going to need a bigger gravy boat. Last week's prize - a slap-up Sunday lunch round at Flare Path Manor - went to a posse of thirteen sharp-eyed shark-hunters (Stugle, Joshua, Spinoza, Rorschach617, Grizzly, richard, billy_bunter, Zogg, Beowulf, iainl, Longdan, GT5Canuck, and spamsac) led by Quintessential foxer fathomer Shiloh.

(theme: Jaws)

a Cage
b Orca
c Harpoon/Martha's Vineyard
d USS Indianapolis
e Bruce
f Shark
g Spanish Ladies
h Christine Watkins
i Richard Dreyfuss
j Universal Pictures


The puzzle below was devised by Roman's latest protégé, Kenneth 'Crécy' Cresswell. My Chief Foxer Setter has been far too busy preparing the 2015 Flare Path Easter Egg Hunt to concoct cryptic collages. If you're thinking of attending (Saturday, 1300-1500hrs, Jasper's Clump) my advice would be 'Bring stout boots and a good supply of wound dressings'. Roman spent most of yesterday whittling Punji stakes.

All answers in one thread, please.

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About the Author

Tim Stone