In the game development playground, wargame and sim devs are easy to spot. They're the ones sitting on their own in quiet corners with noses in history books. They're the ones transfixed by warring ant colonies, feathery vapour trails, and distant trains. This conspicuousness and level of distraction makes them soft targets for playground predators. This week's Flare Path commences with a tale of despicable bullying.
Bully Beef Stew
Recall Battlefield Academy, the bright and breezy tactical TBS launched last year by Matrix Games? Unusually for a Matrix title it was 3D, cute as a button, and as easy to penetrate as a Vickers Light Tank. I rather liked it, slapping a 76% rosette on it when asked for an opinion by PC Gamer UK.
At the time of release there was talk of add-ons. Those add-ons never materialised. Now we know why. Notorious schoolyard bruiser Electronic Arts Esq. had Matrix/Slitherine/BBC in a headlock. Apparently the hulking brute didn't like the first part of BA's moniker. The name BA had inherited from its ancient Flash game father made EA so mad that it threatened to (excuse legalese) 'biff-up' the bespectacled youth if it didn't change it immediately.
Brow-beaten and scared, BA did just that. This week the game relaunched as Battle Academy. The sterling efforts of EA's legal dept. means that band of Battlefield™ enthusiasts that like to purchase electronic entertainment without first a) reading a description, or b) looking at screenshots, can continue to do so without fear of accidentally purchasing a refreshing WW2 strategy game.
The climb-down means Slitherine-Matrix are now free to publish their first add-on. I haven't seen the press release yet but I'm guessing Operation Market Garden tasks you with turning round a failing fruit & veg growing business. Success probably involves scouring Eastern Europe for cheap labour, and covering the countryside with unsightly poly tunnels.
Either that or its focus is the bold Allied attempt to grab a series of Dutch bridges in September, 1944. In that case you can probably expect a host of new units including Red Berets and Screamin' Eagles, a fresh campaign sequence, extra MP missions, not to mention the odd tulip field and windmill. The new BA demo is strictly a Normandy affair but it does let you have a shufti at the Arnhem mission prefaces. Like the original ones, they're constructed from splendid "Share this amongst you, squareheads!" Commando-style art. BA might have surrendered its 'field', but its stylish swagger remains.
Unity Isn't Unit-y
I've just found the secret key combo in the Red Orchestra 2 beta, the one that unlocks the camera. With a spin of my mousewheel I've gone from staring at sandbags, snowflakes and Schmeissers to looking down on the entire Ost Front. Through ragged cloud and smoke haze, I can see the Axis' perilously overstretched supply lines, the vulnerability of Stalingrad to encirclement, the vast forest west of Kharkov planted in such a way it spells out 'Wake Up Tim. This Is A Dream'.
Bah. That'll teach me to wind-up a long day's gaming with back-to-back sessions of RO2 and Unity of Command.
Unity of Command is an almost-complete TBS from dinky Croatian studio 2x2 Games. Tomislav Uzelac and a handful of chums have been toiling away since 2007. Having sampled the fruits of that toil, the years look to have been well spent.
Happily, this isn't one of those Eastern Front monsters where plotting a turn's worth of movement requires the patience of Sophia Tolstoy. Neither is it the sort of game where you 're forced to spend hours perusing a pdf before issuing your first command. Moments after the beta installer had finished unloading its Opel Blitzes, I was happily pushing Panzer divisions towards a heavily defended Voronezh. It was only when, half an hour later, I realised that most of those divisions had been ruthlessly cut-off and culled, that I reached for the manual.
It turns out beneath the Playmobil visuals and friendly UI, lurk some challenging subtleties, some pleasing historical truths. Ignore supply considerations and troop quality factors, and your chances of getting Army Group South as far east as Stalingrad are zero. Playing the Axis campaign, I quickly came to realise that control of the rail network was vital, and that my numerous Hungarian and Romanian divisions couldn't fight their way out of a soggy paperbag.
I also learnt to respect the silicon mind marshalling the Soviet forces in my path. 2x2 appear to have created a beast of an AI. With a few more sessions under my belt, I may start spotting flaws, but right now the way in which enemy units exploit gaps and seek to split and pocket my attacks, is positively humbling.
Definitely a project the perpetually-circling Flare Path Fieseler Storch will be keeping an eye on.
A Streetcar Named Dire
A responsible simulation/wargame correspondent would wrap-up this week's Flare Path with talk of BMS 4, a fan-made update for Falcon 4, years in the making and staggering in its scope. He'd talk of the finely honed flight models, the refurbished graphics, the added aircraft, the campaign and avionics advances. He might even muse on why, 13 years on, there's still a sizeable community willing to put time and craft into Microprose's landmark sim.
Sadly, I am not that correspondent. Not this week anyway.
I'm the sort of incorrigible moonraker that would rather babble about his adventures in Bus & Cable Car Simulator San Francisco. I've only spent two hours with this singular creation thus far, but crikey, what a two hours they were. It all started in a little apartment on Powell Street...
To click 'start' in BCCSSF is to pass through a looking glass, a wardrobe stuffed with musty fur-coats. You emerge into a flat so gloomy and squalid even Max Payne and that geezer out of Kingpin would raise an eyebrow. It seems the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency don't pay very well. Either that or drivers routinely blow all their wages on liquor and (that fluorescent blue bottle in the corner can only contain one thing) mana.
Finding the door, I stepped outside just in time to see a hatchback drop forty feet onto the blacktop. After landing, the plummeter drove away nonchalantly. I decided to follow its example and - guided by on-screen prompts - climbed into a pick-up truck - my pick-up truck - and turned the key.
Immediately it was clear that I had failed to secure the vehicle properly overnight. Someone had clearly broken in and stolen The Physics and The Sound. Finding myself at the wheel of a whispering hover-car I decided to liven-up what was plainly going to be a very long/dull journey across town to the bus station (TML's Frisco is vast) by running some red lights and rear-ending some AI automobiles.
This turned out to be moderately entertaining. Hapless victims were left propped against lamp-posts, or riding each-other like copulating beetles. A few were so discombobulated by my attacks they flashed their hazards for a few moments before vanishing like popped soap bubbles. Would the same fate eventually befall my own ride? It seemed unlikely. However much havoc I wreaked, the pick-up remained pristine. The bastards that took the physics and sound, had obviously swiped the damage model too.
Being a simulator, BCCSSF ultimately tired of my hooliganism and decided to halt it in a time-honoured fashion: I was awarded the 'Smack, Boom, Bang' achievement. Dispirited, I parked my soulless/scratchless steed in the middle of an intersection and decided to proceed on foot. This proved to be an inspired decision.
Within minutes I'd discovered that the pedestrian-me could ghost through certain cars, and burst onto bendy-buses by running at their rear windows, front windscreens, or concertina-like midriffs. One unfortunate vehicle found itself with a fleshy figurehead - a figurehead that could, simply by moving an inch forward or back now and again, stop and start the bus whenever it pleased.
Once bus baiting became boring I went in search of more exciting playmates. The pretty cable cars that rumbled up and down certain streets didn't disappoint. The first time I was struck by one I was pushed waist-deep into the road. The second time, I found myself dropping through a vast empty void beneath the city. Say what you like about TML Studios' choice of themes or commitment to realism, but when it comes to grandiose metaphors they are maestros.
The descent ended as abruptly as it had begun. In a flash I found myself standing on a street corner, a stone's throw from the scene of the accident. Chastened by a glimpse of the abyss, I vowed to behave more responsibly in future. I vowed to return to my pick-up and continue to the bu... WOW!! YOU CAN KICK BINS ABOUT BY RUNNING INTO THEM!!
The next 20 minutes I'd categorise as my Bin Phase. I bowled them along boulevards. I kicked them down alleys. I shoved them in front of cars then watched, giggling, as those cars pushed them for block after block. I stood on them, disrupting traffic. I attempted (unsuccessfully) to derail trams with them. My bin phase was beautiful.
It would have gone on for much longer had I not been run down by another cable car. No tarmac wading or fearful freefalling this time. On this occasion the impact knocked me into a bizarre underworld a few feet beneath the bustling streets. I could look up and see the underside of passing vehicles and the foundations of buildings, but, try as I might, I could find no way of returning to the surface. Caught in this demi-world, this subterranean limbo, I wandered lonely and confused for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably nearer 26 minutes.
Escape seemed close when, exploring the voids beneath the SF Cable Car Museum, I discovered I could push my head through a cellar floor. Sadly, the rest of my body refused to follow. Perhaps this was a test. Perhaps I should have picked-up that bottle of mana.
Was it courage or desperation that caused me to continue searching for a way out of that troglodytic hell? I'm not sure. Whatever it was, my exploration and experimentation did finally pay-off. Running at a particular corner in a particular way, I was suddenly topside again breathing the sweet air and basking in the warm sun. I vowed to behave more responsibly in future (no more bin-kicking). I vowed to return to my pick-up and WOW!! I CAN BUY SUNGLASSES AT THIS SHOP!!
It was soon after I'd purchased the sunglasses and realised I didn't know how to put them on, that I spotted the sign. Propped on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street was a sandwich-board emblazoned with the sort of provocative personal slur that no self-respecting BCCSSFer can let pass:
"Your display is PEPPER."
I couldn't help myself. Incensed, I ran over and started kicking the sign down the street. The first three kicks went like clockwork. It was during the fourth that the pavement turned to quicksand and I found myself falling... falling...