One of the advantages of being completely independent is that I no longer have to persevere with games I’m not enjoying. Back in the days when I wrote for PC Gamer I would have had to play Last Train Home to the bitter end (Vladivostok?). Now, when Ignatius, my lugubrious shoulder-mounted gnome, whispers in my ear “God, this is a drag. Why not pack it in and go play something more entertaining?” I can nod and reach for the Escape key.
Sorry, Last Train Home admirers. The five additional hours I’ve spent in the company of Ashborne Games’ strikingly-themed RTT-RPG hybrid have convinced me I’ll never be one of you.
Yes, there have been moments since that wolf-infested bob-a-job mission I talked about last week when my pulse has quickened and the portion of my brain that lights-up when I wargame has twinkled, but they have been too few and far-between for me to pretend Ignatius isn’t right when he says “You know you’d be having much more fun right now if you were (re)playing Soldiers: Heroes of World War II or something by Pyro Studios or Mimimi”.
Identifying the final straw in my Last Train Home disillusionment isn’t easy. It might have been the occasion when I found myself pondering a merchant’s price list that included plates of scrambled eggs, bowls of salad, and tins of caviar. Or the time in that city scenario when I asked myself why, if my squad can scrounge improbably portable ‘metal’, ‘fuel’, and ‘wood’, can’t they also collect weapons and ammo from the Red dead.
Maybe it was that daft flag-hunting side task or that weird dialogue when the Russian wives as good as thanked me for killing their spouses and sons. Perhaps it was seeing, for the umpteenth time, a heavily outnumbered Bolshevik dash towards, rather than away from, the poised Pb projectors of my squad.
Doubtless we’d have got on better if combat had been more frequent and plausible. While claustrophobic weapon and view ranges, inconsistent cover slot placement, uncustomisable MG fire cones, unsubtle enemy AI, and a dearth of destructible scenery, give the pauseable firefights a decidedly synthetic flavour, I’d be lying if I said luring foes into ambushes, and dealing with their suicidal rushes, flanking manoeuvres, and formidable emplaced Maxims, hadn’t produced brief dopamine highs.
* So my troops are virtually bulletproof if they crouch behind that flimsy fence, yet that hulking truck confers no benefits whatsoever?
Judging by the game’s “very positive” reception on Steam, few people share my belief that Last Train Home’s train and personnel management sides are over-elaborate, even downright tedious, at times. When, not long before I quit for good, I realised Ashborne expected me to oversee the crafting of consumables and the research of recipes, my blood ran cold and Ignatius uttered an Anglo-Saxon imprecation that I’m far too polite to repeat here.
Part of me wishes Charles Games had got their hands on the incredible Czechoslovak Legion story before Ashborne. If they had, that story wouldn’t have arrived wrapped in so much pointless padding. The meaningful, history-rooted decisions wouldn’t have been swamped by so much busywork and trivial detail. Scrambled eggs or salad? Je mi to fuk.
* * *
I let conservative/curmudgeonly Ignatius choose Last Train Home’s replacement. After perusing Steam’s dross-stuffed “all new releases” list and twiddling his straggly beard for a spell, he picked the £10-until-December-11 Valor & Victory. “You’ve not played it in ages and it’s just gained a Pacific theatre add-on.” he pointed out.
As solid as Mount Suribachi, as no-nonsense as Douglas MacArthur, and as friendly as a sailor’s pet monkey found clinging to flotsam a week after a torpedoing, V&V: Pacific turned out to be a near-perfect antidote to the fussy LTH. With the help of trim rule summaries like this, I was hunting Honeys, cursing Japanese snipers, and hurling satchel charges into bunkers, in no time at all.
All twelve of the £8.50 add-on’s scenarios can be played from either an Allied or Axis perspective, and the vast majority run for a family-friendly seven or eight turns. Surprisingly, Australian and British troops feature in almost as many outings as US ones do. There’s even a clash between Japanese and Chinese forces.
Happily, Yobowargames haven’t been so busy pumping out add-ons – Stalingrad, Shield of Cholm, Arnhem, Kursk, Pacific – of late that they’ve neglected engine improvements. My biggest 3×3 complaint – absent Fog of War – is no longer valid, and after a couple of gripping jungle scraps I quite forgot V&V’s weird approach to range*. Although it’s a shame there still seems to be no way to view terrain cover values easily, or to see, without a separate LoS check, which enemy units are in LoS of a selected unit, FoW is a major step forward.
* Range isn’t a factor in infantry combat calculations!
Returning to V&V after more than a year away, I was struck once again by the admirably transparent combat maths, the sound AI, and the pleasing, legible art. There’s enough randomness in the game’s combat algorithms to make every dice roll exciting, but not so much that firefights feel capricious. Foes must be treated with respect. Using tanks effectively on vegetation-heavy battlefields is just as challenging as it ought to be.
Could victory conditions be more varied and less binary? Yes. Should the devs explain why Japanese forces can’t be fielded in randomly generated skirmishes at present, and set about fixing the issue ASAP? Definitely. Do you need V&V in your life if you already own and love Lock ‘n Load Tactical Digital? Hang on a mo, I’ll just ask Iggy…
His less-than-helpful reply – “How the f**k would I know?” – reminds me that it’s high time I got myself a new shoulder gnome.