Years ago, when Gears of War was but a twinkle in CliffyB's eye, simulations were a big deal in PC gaming. Thanks to them, I grew up driving vehicles ranging from World War II submarines to state-of-the-art tanks. As a continuing fan of sim games, however, I'm finding it harder to enjoy a genre that has become increasingly sparse.
Large publishers like Electronics Arts and Activision no longer give simulators a second glance, and fans are left with games that usually come from tiny European companies you've never heard of. They're generally buggy, lacking in polish, and with learning curves that can only be called vertical inclines. In fact, fan communities often make the titles playable through mods and fan-made patches. What's a throttle-jockey to do? Every type of sim appears to have fallen by the wayside.
Remember when Jane's Combat Simulations was the top tier for combat flight simulation? Falcon 4.0 was the only game to challenge any of the Jane's titles for undisputed king of combat flight sims. In the decade that has passed since, though, we've seen little if any innovation in the market. Falcon 4.0 was re-released with a number of community additions, while Lock-on: Modern Air Combat became the only high-profile release in town. Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator died a quiet death, and its civilian counterpart looks to be doing the same.
Flight Simulator X was an unoptimized mess at launch, and though Microsoft says it is committed to the franchise, a large number of the game's ACES Studio employees were recently let go. At least we managed to get one good expansion pack out of it. After that, fans were left turning to community-made mods that can't compare to commercial products in terms of quality. In the meantime, the Ace Combat series and Tom Clancy's HAWX have created a new genre: flight action, which is just a kinder way of saying "dumbed-down flight simulator."
Even helicopter sims are missing in action. Longbow 2 remains the pinnacle of the genre, while newcomers like the Enemy Engaged series remind us why games with seemingly no QA cycles should be avoided like the plague. DCS: Black Shark is the only modern helicopter sim even worthy of mention anymore, but with wildly inconsistent graphics and a brutal learning curve, newcomers to the genre will find it difficult to get into.
There's something incredibly fulfilling about stalking your prey for hours on end, hiding in a tin can that's cruising just below the ocean's surface, and sinking your target at the opportune moment with a pair of well-aimed torpedoes. Submarine warfare is a blast on PCs, particularly because it doesn't require fancy controllers. But since the days of Wolfpack and 688(I) Hunter/Killer, there's only been one game in town: Silent Hunter.
While SH3 was easily the best entry in the series, the most recent Silent Hunter 4 sacrificed polish and design in favor of more attractive visuals. Keeping your submarine crew rotations in order proved to be a micro-management nightmare, while the game's copy protection punished even legitimate customers. Like many other recent sim games, Silent Hunter 4 would have been practically unplayable without a dedicated modding community.
Allegiance, Freespace, Tachyon: The Fringe, Freelancer, TIE Fighter, Wing Commander—all names that should bring a smile to a long-time PC gamer's face. The market used to be flooded with big-name space sims, but nowadays there's only one, maybe two if you count an MMO. The X series is now the only place for hardcore space sims to turn, with the newest game being X3: Terran Conflict. Terran Conflict had one of the most successful launches in the history of the franchise, with far fewer bugs and more robust content than any of its predecessors.
Beyond that, what are we left with? EVE Online is great if you like mining space rocks and staring at countless UI windows instead of actually fighting, but otherwise there's not a lot out there. The genre has simply failed to stay relevant, which is odd considering the continued popularity of shows like Battlestar Galactica and numerous sci-fi Hollywood films. Maybe another developer will decide to take a risk in the near future, but until then, the only game to play is X3.
At last, a genre that isn't rapidly dying off. Racing sims have only become more popular in recent years thanks to successful console franchises like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport. PC gaming is still the place to be for racing games, though, thanks to in-depth sims like Race 07 and Live for Speed. Combined with a quality wheel and pedals, those games provide a racing experience that's second to none. If you're looking for the most robust online experience, however, consoles provide a much larger player base with which to interact.
Maybe simulators are just canaries in a coalmine, a genre representative of a much larger trend in video games: the move toward simplicity. Even before the days of Nintendo's Wii console, video games were becoming easier and more accessible, all for the sake of becoming more mainstream. There's no doubt it worked. Video games now generate $9.5 billion in revenue annually, but at the expense of the more niche genres. Sim fans like myself are a dying breed, it seems. All I have left to do is yearn for the glory days and start working on my "back in my day" stories for all of you young whippersnappers.