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
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.

By Rob

Just another network engineer that enjoys motorcycles and travelling.

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