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The Flare Path: Orientally Oriented

Simulation & wargame blather

When a Flare Path Friday falls on Chinese New Year, it’s traditional for all the stories to be Sino centred. Back in 1997 that meant coverage of Taiwan invasion TBS 以臺海兩岸緊張, thoughts on Ding Ding, a work-in-progress Hong Kong tramway sim, and an interview with Implicit Sextant, the team behind heavenly 14th Century fireworks sandbox, The Fire Drake of Fuzhou. Today it means Silent Service II patrols in the South China Sea, and a swift inspection of Just Trains' new SS7C CR electric loco.

Run Silent, Run DOSBox

I wonder if it's too late to sue whoever-owns-the-company-that-now-owns-MicroProse for the above box-lid claim. In the three evenings I've spent with Silent Service 2 so far, I've not seen a target vessel or impact plume sporting anywhere near that many pixels. Thinking about it, I'm not sure I've spied any land through periscope or UZO either.

De-mothballed last week, the 23-year-old WW2 sub sim makes the Mary Rose look modern. Perpetually calm brine and cloudless skies, pre-rendered third-person views, ship sprites with more crenellations than Windsor Castle... if it wasn't for the gem of a campaign engine and some formidable enemy AI, then I'd have opened the seacocks almost immediately.

MicroProse provide a huge swathe of the western Pacific as a hunting ground. More impressively, with a clever combination of shifting traffic patterns and periodic event announcements, they manage to make that hunting ground feel like a bubbling conflict cauldron rather than a thinly veiled skirmish generator. As you cursor one of seven types of US sub around the strat map (the sim uses a surprisingly engaging manual movement system rather than than the plot-and-thumb-twiddle method preferred by Silent Hunter) clipped radio reports detail every troop landing, naval scrap, and SUBPAC appointment. The stream of reportage might not be totally realistic, but the result is a powerful sense of period. History swirls around you like the Kuroshio Current. Very few sims convey wider wars as consummately.

And the unfolding events aren't just atmospheric set-dressing. As surface fleets clash and islands fall and are retaken, new patrol zones become available, bases open and close, enemy tactics and shipping flows alter, and new tech finds its way onto your craft. Predation outside chosen patrol zones is possible, but usually you're more likely to find victims in the area of the map you finger-jabbed before leaving port.

Those victims come in 14 basic forms. The thrill of spotting a carrier or battleship
through your periscope after weeks of DDs and freighters, is as palpable in SS2 as it is in prettier, more sophisticated sub sims. Because of strong escort AI and vigilant but plausible lookouts, the fattest targets frequently escape unscathed leaving rueful destroyer-dogged player-captains whirligigging desperately beneath thermal layers. At higher difficulty levels it's not uncommon to head home from a patrol with little or no additional tonnage in your log book, and an imaginary crew (sadly, submariners aren't represented visually or statistically) cowed by constant crash dives and depth charge near-misses.

Of course there are moments of jubilant air-punching and hearty handshaking too. The first time you persuade a pack of ASW vessels to disperse by venting a tube of oily debris? Magical. Catching a charging destroyer (escorts will attempt to ram when they spot an opportunity) with a fan of eels from your stern tubes? Priceless. Receiving a medal and a commendation back at port after a particularly successful sortie? Screenshot-worthy!

Yes, torp slinging is easier than it should be thanks to the simplified lock-and-fire TDC modelling, deck-gunning without wave motion is a piece of cake, and the complete absence of aircraft means your strat map rambles are never interrupted by boat-bellied Kates or Mavises, but SS2 still manages to capture the feel of PTO sub ops bally well. Thanks to those sprite ships and flat seas it wouldn't be my first choice of heritage sub sim (uncommonly atmospheric SH3 template Aces of the Deep has that distinction) but for a measly $6 it's a very acceptable second choice.


A Lan Gan Tan Fan Speaks

Browsing the Trans-Siberian-length Train Simulator 2014 DLC list, you'd think iron horses were unknown outside Britain, North America, and Germany. Despite professing an interest in new horizons, Dovetail Games seem reluctant to look outside their core markets for route and rolling stock inspiration. Those of us that fancy truly foreign climes must scour freeware roundhouses, lay our own track, or keep a weather eye open for unusual third-party add-ons like Just Trains' new China Railways SS7C pack.

A £15 outlay buys you a lovingly modelled contemporary CR electric Bo-Bo-Bo complete with in-cab signalling, unintelligible (assuming you don't speak Chinese) nagging Nora, swivelling seats, generous grime application, and authentic if suspiciously-jolt-resitant dashboard fag packet. The realism doesn't quite extend to a fully functioning LKJ-2000 (a combined driver aid/black box fitted to most CR motive power) or ZDSim-style fuse fiddling, but a cold-start does involve a modicum of satisfying switch-flicking.

The sounds are as patinated as the visuals. Traction motor fans thrum, circuit breakers fizz, and two-tone horns yodel. There's a strong sense that you're not in Kansas/Kings Cross any more long before you leave your first station or freight yard (the SS7C is a jack-of-all-trades) and start exploring the bundled 'ChengYu 2' route.

A recreation of an 85km section of the Chengdu-Chongqing Railway in SW China, said route isn't fashioned to quite the same standard as the loco, but there's enough local flavour to prompt rubber-necking and the odd free-cam wander. Anyone familiar with BVE's Japanese routes may find their thoughts turning in that direction while beetling through ChengYu's tightly-hemmed single-track sections.

Somewhat annoyingly considering TS2014's impatient instruction style and sometimes confusing activity goals, the seven bundled scenarios are locked until you've completed a sequence of four tutorials, one of which appears to be bugged at present. Until Just Trains/RISC patch-out the padlocks or eliminate the bug, I'll be contentedly trundling between Shi Yan Qiao and Lan Gan Tan via Free Roam.


Flare Path's First Fart Joke

To mark the Year of the Horse, Battlefront are finally adding equines to CM?

The arrival of WW2 Russian forces in CMx2 paves the way for a Khalkin Gol expansion?

Mao referred to his own bum blasts as 'Red Thunder'?

Nope, it's no good. Linking the just-unveiled Combat Mission: Red Thunder to today's Chinese theme simply isn't possible. Reflections on tank riders, hit decals, sky-scanning AA vehicles, flamethrowers (at last!) and the callous treatment of noncombatant nags will have to wait until next week.


The Flare Path Foxer

Like laptops, trouser presses, and tortoises, firearms are often far easier to disassemble than assemble. Last week I asked you to ID the ten components I'd found under the coffee table after a marathon Gun Disassembly 2 session. The matchless Matchstick earned a rare M204 Flare Path flair point launcher (compatible with most assault rifles) for naming all ten correctly. The less successful Mr-Link, Spinoza, grundus, phlebas, FuryLippedSquid, DumbparameciuM, Blitz Those, and Carnivrspigbat must 'make do' with flair points carved from Mauserhandle brooms.

A. MP5 foregrip
B Lewis Gun radiator
C Barrett M107 muzzle brake
D MP 40 mag holder
E RPG 7 trigger assembly
F Boys AT Rifle shoulder pad assembly
G Welrod baffles/spacers
H Colt Single Action Army cylinder
I Steyr AUG mag
J PPSH mag cover

FP never throws anything away. The other day he accidentally toppled one of the stacks of newspaper clippings in his study, and discovered near the bottom a seventy-year-old front page. A Flare Path flair point display bowl made from a Lancaster astrodome to the person that correctly deduces the most missing words.

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