C is for Cars and Carriages
Now, it may appear from this post that I have nothing better to do with my time at the moment than waste countless hours sat in front of a screen twiddling knobs and tapping incessantly on keys without really achieving anything productive. And they may be a modicum of truth in that hypothesis. However, I can assure you that the time I have spent playing has been (for the most part) well-chosen and has not adversely interfered with the normal running of my life. It has of course been lots of fun.
First of all, I recently acquired something I have wanted for years – a steering wheel. No, not for my car, but for the computer. And since all my games are now on the PS2, it had to be one that I could plug into that. An hour or so on eBay and a handful of reviews culminated in a purchase of a Logitech Driving Force EX steering wheel, which was plugged in and tested as soon as I was able (i.e. the evening of the day it arrived – see, I didn’t skip work for this), driving my current favourite game: Gran Turismo 4.
It took a while to get used to, having learnt all the basics of the game using the standard controller, but it wasn’t long before I was hooked. The steering wheel provided good feedback, with resistence and vibration like a real car, and actually made the cars a lot easier to drive with precision – which is what that particular game is all about. More recently I’ve even started playing around with drifting and controlling cars on off-road courses, neither of which I could master with a normal controller. I’ve also found myself preferring to turn off the traction control systems, opting to drive ‘raw’ and more in tune with the car, and that’s rewarded me with a much more pleasing feel to the drive. And aching arms.
Unfortunately the Driving Force EX isn’t without its faults. I soon discovered (and later found others who had found the same) that the “flappy paddle” gear change buttons on the back of the steering wheel don’t work with my version of GT4. Apparently it’s a known issue with that particular steering wheel and my particular release of the game – in other countries it’s absolutely fine. I’ve scoured all sorts of forums and suchlike, and the general consensus is that there is no solution. The error itself is in the wiring of the steering wheel, and the option that would usually remedy the situation is bemusingly disabled in PAL versions of the game. So I’m left with no alternative really but to keep the game in Automatic transmission, missing out on that final piece of absolute control. Well, I say no alternative, it seems you can get the flappy paddles to work, but only by unplugging the power supply to the steering wheel and using it as if it were a normal controller, meaning you get all the right buttons in the right places but no force feedback.
Still, I’ve had a whale of a time with the wheel so far, and it’s been incredibly addictive. I’ve spent many late hours screaming round various tracks, wearing tyres ragged and inevitably smashing into my fair share of walls too, but even so there has been the satisfying reward of some awesome corners and moments of superb and flawless control. The trick now is in reducing the number of accidents and increasing the occurrence of brilliance.
Meanwhile, up on the Mac, I’ve rediscovered (again) my love for Transport Tycoon. Or, to be more precise, OpenTTD, which is the open-source version that is still being developed and tinkered with by people who refuse to let the game die. This all started (or restarted, as the case may be) after a trip to London, and my mind got all creative and geeky looking at train station configurations. So I downloaded the latest version of the game and started playing again, and after a few false starts I’ve got a rail network going now that’s pretty efficient and elegant too.
Something that’s fairly new in the world of OTTD is the idea of “Path Signals”. There’s a wiki that goes into a little more detail than I can afford here, but basically it’s a type of signal that allows a train to reserve a route through a section of track. The advantage is that you can have multiple trains using track that would otherwise be limited to one train at a time with the other signal types. It’s very clever. In its simplest form it means you can have a really disorganised mass of track, whack some path signals in the right places, and let the trains sort themselves out without worrying about them crashing into each other. Marvellous. Obviously it’s a little more complicated than that in practice, but it does allow for much more elegant track designs, with more crossovers, less track, and fewer bottlenecks. I love it. I’d show you some screenshots, but the number of people who’d actually find that at all interesting would be so limited that I’d be wasting my time. Still, at least I thought about it.
EDIT: Due to popular demand (okay, one person, yay Phill), here are some screenshots of my current OpenTTD game. I’ve hidden the trees to make the track a little clearer.
And yes, I am a geek. Thank you for noticing.