Virtual Wanderlust via Trains, Trucks, and Maybe Flying a Cessna Around Borneo

Whilst socially distancing and not travelling all that much, one thing I’ve been doing after a day of staring at computer screens is … staring at more computer screens with a bit of Train Sim World, American Truck Simulator, and Euro Truck Simulator 2.

I haven’t played much in the way of computer games for twenty years or more, and needless to say things have come along in leaps and bounds since that time, but it has also been an interesting experience getting to grips with Steam, the performance limitations of virtual machines, and graphics processors, something that has taken a sharper focus with the launch of Microsoft Flight Simulator.

The computer I’ve been doing this on is my work laptop (lets hope they don’t read this), a 2016 MacBook Pro with Core i7 processor and Radeon Pro 455 graphics.

I started off with Train Sim World, which is only available under Windows, and so the first attempt at running that was in Windows 10 under Parallels (virtualisation) on macOS.

Not having much of a gaming background in recent years, I dialled the graphics settings back to “low” and was still impressed. At a guess it was only running at a handful of frames a second and still stuttered when going through the stations which had a lot of close-up buildings to render. Nonetheless, I played a fair few hours this way, mainly on a bit of track I’ve travelled many times in my lifetime, the Great Western line out of London Paddington — it was great to see it from the cab!

I did, however, start wondering what delay parallels was adding into this, so I fired up Bootcamp and created a native Windows partition to boot into and ran some Cinebench benchmarks.

Operating SystemCinebench points
macOS1679
Windows (Parallels)1168
Windows (Bootcamp)1570
Cinebench r20 results

Native macOS was the fastest, but in Windows it’s pretty close, and whilst they’re both significantly faster than running under Parallels, I didn’t think that was too bad for running in a virtualisation technology. I’m marginally surprised that using AMD’s drivers under Windows didn’t match the macOS performance, so I’m curious if you know why that is.

I then spent a bit more time playing Train Sim World in Windows, with the graphics settings still dialled down quite low, but with far less stuttering, even if it sounded more like a flight simulator as the fans on the MacBook spooled up after a couple of minutes of game play.

At some point I then came across American Truck Simulator and Euro Truck Simulator 2. These are available under Windows and macOS (and Linux!), and buying them under one O/S in Steam allows access to the games under other O/Ss, plus state is synchronised in “Steam Cloud.”

Now, Train Sim World is easily playable with just the keyboard and mouse, but the truck simulators less so. I started watching a few YouTube videos and was confronted with a lot of new kit — I mean, TrackIR to keep note of where you’re looking? Definitely looks useful, but I’m not sure my gaming requirements are quite at that level. How about a steering wheel and pedals? That would make the truck sims much more realistic, but again, that’s another good chunk of money to lay down for gaming, and I could see Lucy’s face when I told her what the package was that had just dropped through the door.

So, no TrackIR and no steering wheel, but what about a joystick? I’d not owned a joystick since a QuickShot II attached to my ZX Spectrum, but I managed to persuade myself (and Lucy) that was an acceptable halfway house, so I got a ThrustMaster T.1600M FCS. Even the terminology on joysticks has changed immensely since my days of gaming and it took a while to decide whether to get that or a LogiTech or something else…

It’s better than a mouse, no doubt about that, but it’s still a fiddly way to drive a truck, and I can see why people get the full setup.

Researching the kit then dragged me a little into YouTube videos of people playing the truck simulators, particularly Squirrel and Jeff Favignano.

That’s when something else started popping up in my YouTube recommendations — mentions of a beta of Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS).

What? I think. I had a flight simulator on my ZX81, another on my ZX Spectrum, and a (much) earlier version of MSFS on my Pentium 133 back whenever that was a reasonable machine. I thought it had long ago been abandoned, and so I started watching the videos of the beta versions of MSFS and my jaw dropped.

I am under no delusions about how that will run on a MacBook Pro with Radeon Pro 455 graphics, so I started looking at sizing up a gaming machine, mainly via PC Specialist. I’ve yet to persuade Lucy that I can justify the step-up from a £60 joystick to a £1,700 gaming computer as we’ve other things to save for (and whilst I won’t be paying for an Nvidia Ampere graphics card, their imminent release suggests it’s not the right time to buy a graphics card), but should I ever manage to do that, I know what I’ll be doing soon after I’ve got a grip of the flight controls — a tour of the small landing strips on Borneo.

Some day, maybe, but in the meantime I’ll just look at YouTube videos of 212 storey skyscrapers on Melbourne due to some mistaken entries in OpenStreetmap.

24/08/2020: Update to link to a Tom’s Hardware article comparing MSFS performance with different graphics cards and CPUs.

Pandemic Hotel Review: Holiday Inn Express, Swansea East

Unsurprisingly, it has been a little quiet on here of late. Like most of you, I’ve not been travelling all that much since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In fact, I’d hazard that as I don’t have a car and I am able to work from home, I’ve travelled far less than most, the furthest afield being about an hour’s walk away from home to get a rare bit of exercise.

Until this past weekend.

For family reasons I had to head down to Swansea for a few days, which meant finding somewhere to stay, and I ended up at the Holiday Inn Express, Swansea East, located just off junction 43 of the M4 motorway. I have stayed here once before with Lucy, a couple of months before we got married (I think it was when we were sorting out her hair and make-up trial for the wedding), and knew what to expect normally, but not what to expect during the pandemic.

The first thing to note as I drove down was the difference in policy on face coverings between England and Wales. England requires face coverings in public indoor spaces, but Wales does not. However, on the front door of the HI, there was a prominent sign to say that face coverings are required in public spaces in the hotel.

I donned my mask and entered to check-in.

As I checked in, the changes to service were explained to me. Firstly, there is no housekeeping except by request the day before it is required. Secondly, there was no sit-down breakfast, but a ‘grab and go’ to take back up to the room to eat (or take away).

I made my way up to the room which was the same as pretty much every other Holiday Inn Express room I’ve seen, but with one exception. There was no chair at the desk. I assumed this was also due to COVID-cleaning, but in retrospect I should have checked as it meant any writing, work on my laptop, or eating would have to be done either standing up or on the bed, and who likes crumbs in the bed?

The enhanced cleaning hadn’t extended to the thick layer of dust behind the support for the LED lamp over the bed, but a wipe soon sorted that out.

The grab and go breakfast was just an average breakfast buffet. There were croissants, yoghurt, fruit, cereal and either bacon or sausage baps (one or the other each day, not both) as the only hot option. There was no vegetarian hot option. Not a problem for me, but if I’d been travelling with Lucy there would have been comments.

In the evening the restaurant area was open with a limited menu and was participating in the “Eat Out to Help Out” programme, which provides 50% off food and soft drinks up to a limit of £10 on Mondays to Wednesdays in August. Last time Lucy and I stayed here we had eaten in the restaurant, and I did the same again with a pizza.

That’s pretty much it. I was there for three nights so I managed without housekeeping, but bought a tin of coffee from a supermarket as the instant coffee in the room didn’t last long. It was an uneventful stay and I slept well in the bed (there is no air conditioning in the rooms, so I had to leave the window open overnight as it was rather humid in mid-August). Though I am left wondering how much “enhanced cleaning” the rooms actually get (and I’m sceptical of that at most places that claim they are doing it).