Flashback: Consider the sum of Transarctica’s parts

June 7, 2013

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Board games have made me a very demanding person when it comes to game mechanics. After finding so many great titles focused on a powerful idea, an interesting problem or summarized in two pages of rules, the idea of spending time with wrinkles and subsystems has grown increasingly unappealing to me. However, it’s not a sustainable position. Games are enjoyed as a whole, and sometimes the wrinkles do much more than they seem at first glance.

Based on Georges-Jean Arnaud’s La Compagnie des glaces (The Ice Company), an amazing science fiction epic spanning more than 62 novels, Transarctica (or Arctic Baron) takes us to a future of permanent clouds and hail. It’s set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where humanity has forgotten the sun and omnipotent railroad companies control the only means of communication between remaining domed cities.

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After seizing control of the locomotive that is the game’s namesake, the player is cast as leader of a small group of resistance fighters, roaming the frozen wastelands in search of the remains of pre-glacial history all over the world. This is not a game only about glorious adventures. Blood to your engines and currency in such a cold world, coal is the most important resource; the necessary means to extract or trade for it for is the backbone of the game.

Captaining such a steel behemoth requires more than a sharp mind and keeping a safe boiler pressure. You must stock weapons and spare rails, lay a careful spy network to avoid enemy trains and take note of even the smallest of details. It’s here where the game must be understood as a whole. Taken in pieces, the game is uncomfortably disappointing: combat is slow and costly, and the carriages necessary to trade oil or plants aren’t worth their weight. The missile launcher, a special part of the train, requires tracing lines and calculating coordinates. Some of the scripted events aren’t especially exciting. It’s easy to miss their significance, but they compound.

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The game uses those nuances to form something better, attempting to be the next step beyond Sid Meier’s Pirates! and other games of its ilk. It refuses to be a minigame collection. It wants to be more. When it covers supplies and attacks while crossing tunnels, it doesn’t try to impress you or be strategically interesting; it’s reflecting the reality of its world. Few other games would dare to give you a “game over” when you blow up your boiler or because you run over a mine. Silmarils, the game’s developer, wasn’t exactly known for pulling any punches, but it doesn’t punish you here: the cohesiveness of the game does.

Beyond that, the game manages to be intriguing. The manual doesn’t mention any win conditions or goals, beyond describing the constant layer of clouds that covers the planet and how it was created. You can’t find a guide, as far as I know; they never made any and the only user who dared to list the cities on the Internet has never completed the game. I haven’t either. It’s a mystery to me. Perhaps you can help me solve it. We know about the smallest of glitches in other titles, but not even the solution to this one. It’s one of the remaining secrets of gaming, and more than worthy of the admission price.

{ 5 comments }

Joshua Dennis June 7, 2013 at 3:13 am

This article has got me intrigued. Going along with Andrew Passafiume’s article last week on how we play games, I’m definitely interested in a game that has zero info about it on the web, and no walkthrough to fall back on if I find myself stuck or having trouble. I might just have to put this on my list of “To Play,” to at least give it a shot and see how it is.

Erik Twice June 7, 2013 at 6:46 am

It is indeed intriguing. I’ve been taking notes while playing it over and knowing you can’t rely in outside information in such a game really makes the mystery matter. Your crew doesn’t know and you don’t either, you have to discover it by yourself. You have to take notes and play it slow, which is a great experience.

That said, I finally managed to see the ending through the use of some also undocumented cheats (!) and I’m on the verge of knowing the mysteries of the game so I’m trying to prepare a short spoiler-less guide and a full playthrough to finally shed a bit of light about it without ruining the experience so if you need any help, just send me a message ;)

Mhorhe June 21, 2013 at 7:56 am

Arctic Baron was the very first game I (had) bought (to me) when I was a wee kiddie in the 90s. I was a bit deflated when I found the big box with the impressive artwork contained only a cd which contained.. 1.5 mb of game :D

That measly quantity of data (even for its time) amounted to an incredible gaming experience for me, however. The atmosphere, the story.. remarkable! I got along fairly far (I think..) along the storyline, but what I bumped into was having to buy.. tender wagons, was it? in enough quantity to make Transarctica climb a steep incline, somewhere.

By that time I was piloting a train that had reached its 100 wagon limit and I simply found it unbearable to dismantle my carefully constructed net of cannon, machine gun, barracks and civilian wagons.

Went back to it a few times but when I did so I always went for a fresh start, and always got bored well before reaching that particular point of the story.

I would be tremendously interested to see a playthrough, but failing at I’d settle for someone simply telling me what the damn idea was all along. And how it all ended!

Erik Twice June 22, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Hey, thanks for your comment! :)

Everyone seems to get stuck at that spot and I’ve yet to find the answer. You are supposed to climb through the Himalayas using the power of an additional boiler found in a city called Omsk but just getting it doesn’t do anything, the locomotive just stops., you must trigger some kind of event before it.

One of the cheats you can try builds over every pothole and broken bridge and is called “super scenario” which lead me to think it also triggered all events. And it did, if I use the cheat and get the boiler moving instead of stopping a tunnel appears and you climb the mountain. You have to fight against an incredibly tough train which acts as final boss and if you defeat it you can reach the top of the mountain and access a facility to clean the permanent clouds. Then my game freezes much to my annoyance.

We are missing something. The game is very well made, without any bugs or issues and the cheat works so I really doubt its unwinnable.

I’m going to write the first part soon, examinations have kept me from writing it earlier but when I’m done I’ll give you the link :)

Erik Twice June 22, 2013 at 12:45 pm

I FOUND WHAT TO DO! SOMEONE DID IT!

http://inhocsignovinces.free.fr/scenario-en.html

I have been to that mountain, I just didn’t have the drill!