Like a Zeppelin stopped in its tracks by strong headwinds, PC flight simulation doesn't seem to have made much progress during the past twelve months. Besides a modest clutch of high-quality add-ons for FSX, X-Plane and DCS World, and some encouraging IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad developments, there's been little to lift the spirits and lighten the wallets of discerning desktop aviators in 2015. If it wasn't for the title I'm about to Wot I Think, you could be forgiven for thinking the genre that gave us greats like Falcon 4.0, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, and Stunt Island, had run out of ambition and ideas.
I now understand why Silent Knight haven't been answering emails for the past three years. The sequel to Santa Simulator 2012 is huge in the same way the Atlantic is wet and the Sahara is sandy.
Since the last appearance of the world's favourite seasonal sky courier sim, over half a billion households have been added to the game's seamless global scenery, an already impressive sleigh selection has tripled in size, and the incomparably intimidating 'full campaign' has been joined by an intriguing 'story mode' and a generous selection of single missions. God knows how the tiny team from Tromsø also found time to revamp flight, damage and weather modelling, Norway spruce-up visuals, and add hundreds of new sound effects and Saint Nick quips.
As its “A Century of Festive Flying” subtitle suggests, SS2015 sets out to simulate a hundred years' worth of reindeer-hauled gift lifters. In addition to old friends like the Snow Goose and Valkyrien, there's now the option to criss-cross the globe in museum pieces like the Tunnan and modern marvels like the Sleipner X. Silent Knight's airframe artisans have painstakingly recreated the experimental craft that proved, at various points during the 20th Century, the viability of enclosed cockpits, retractable skis, and stub wings; they've also taken the time to build replicas of the evolutionary dead-ends - the Xmas x-planes that showed that 'pusher' configurations, rocket boosters, and autogyro-style rotors weren't much use to a cloud-cleaving, clock-watching Christmas present porter.
Going by the machines I've spent the most time with thus far – the elegant Marjatta, the dinky Barouchette, and the outrageously swift Sleipner – the shift to a blade element theory based flight simulation system has paid fat dividends. Not only do these flyables feel alive and responsive in a way that their SS2012 equivalents didn't, their capabilities - their top speeds, turn rates etc. – when drawn by default teams, are much closer to the figures leaked by 'Elf 31' in Eve of Battle: The Memoirs of a SantAir Sleigh Technician (one of the few available sources for reliable performance data).
The reindeer modelling in the previous iteration of Santa Simulator was famously divisive (Until v1.12 arrived, every other thread on the official forum seemed to consist of an irate Luftwhiner moaning about Donner and Blitzen's lack of power). Redistributable skill points mean controversy is less likely this time. All Grade I sleigh pullers – Dasher, Dancer, Prancer etc. – now boast 120 SP spread over seven skill categories, while Grade II beasts – Trumper, Humper, Hopalong etc. - sport 70. Shifting a point from, say, 'Stamina' to 'Top Speed', or 'Obedience' to 'Nasal Luminescence' can be done in seconds, assuming you're back at the North Pole.
Whether small or large (the game now supports eight-in-hands!), comprised of celebs or understudies, a team needs to be thoughtfully arranged to pull efficiently. Pair incompatible 'leaders' or 'wheelers' and the steep, curving approaches/climbouts required in many locations will seem maddeningly difficult. Reins and whip are powerful instruments in SS2015, but in locales festooned with power-lines or tightly hemmed with buildings, trees or streetlights, seconds spent chivvying a 'creepmouse' or restraining a 'jaggler' can be costly.
One of the most challenging aspects of the antique sleighs is their lack of trim wheels. Throwbacks like the Berta (1916-20) and the Kotka (1920-25) are trimmed by rearranging the cargo they carry. As I discovered yesterday during an extremely hairy low-level flight across 1919 London, moving toy sacks about while simultaneously avoiding fog-muffed steeples, chimneys and cranes is bally tricky. Have SK bothered to model the internal workings of Big Ben? I can say with complete certainty that they have.
I estimate that it would take around 1700 years of full-time flying to complete the full Christmas campaign (Add another couple of centuries to that if you plan to play without GPS and with dangers like icing and owl strikes 'on'). Understanding that most of us don't have anywhere near that amount of leisure time available, considerate SK have provided a host of new customisation options and alternative excuses for aviation.
It's now possible to select a particular street, village, town, or city district as a short-term goal and sidestep the final sleigh-to-stocking/tree phase of deliveries. Unquestionably the weakest aspect of SS2012, home incursions have been improved with new randomly generated floor plans and stealth-jeopardising hazards (Toy cars, marbles, TV remotes, baby monitors...) but remain somewhat repetitive. After tiptoeing past your 200th dozing dog and downing your 200th sherry wine, there's a fair chance you'll find yourself wishing there were a few sentries to blackjack and wall-safes to crack.
Superb modding facilities mean SS2015's Santa could well turn jewel thief or super-spy in the future. Drum78 (Krampus mod) Jackernatt (Operation Pelican) and The Hypocrats (Flying Doc mod) have already announced they'll be updating their amazing creations to take advantage of SS2015 features.
Judging by the types of activities recreated in the new single sortie selection suggest, the lads and lasses from Tromsø are mod fans too. Santa's little-publicised humanitarian and environmental work provides the backdrop for many of the thirty-odd standalone scenarios. Air drops to communities cut-off by floods and earthquakes, forest firefighting, illegal logging surveys, elephant counts and air crash searches... SK are keen to remind us that, in the 21st Century, Father Christmas doesn't hang up his fake-fur-trimmed g-suit when his festive duties are complete.
With the broadened scope comes a willingness to model the darker aspects of Mr. C's job and workplace. SS2012 warmed like a glass of mulled wine or a hug from Mrs. Fezziwig. The sequel is just as cheering, but very occasionally the jingling sleigh bells cease... the sugar-coating cracks. Delivery destinations now include orphanages, refugee camps, detention centres and hospices. Here and there charts are hatched with 'Here-be-SAMs' NOTAM zones. A few evenings ago, while overflying Southern Turkey, I found myself cruising alongside a fully armed Reaper drone.
Even the titular star has got a little grittier. Now voiced by Ray Winstone rather than Ricky Gervais, Santa's quips – often prompted by reindeer misbehaviour, foul weather, or dodgy mince pies and sherry – include (assuming you've ticked the 'strong language' box in the options) some pretty colourful cursing. “F**king creosote!” is one of my favourites.
In the story campaign, some of Ray's choicest expletives are directed at Globus, the shady international logistics company attempting to muscle in on Father Christmas' monopoly. I don't think I'd be giving too much away if I mentioned that the Sleipnir's ECM pod and flare dispenser really earn their keep in this entertaining-but-sure-to-peeve-purists element of the game.
Santa Simulator 2015 is available now, priced £25. Assuming you enjoy a spot of Euro Truck Simulator 2 and FSX or X-Plane, and don't think every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart, disappointment is inconceivable.