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The Flare Path: Get Knotted

Shifting frontlines and Polish branchlines

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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