(well, almost everyone)
It’s always nice when we can return to a long lost classic. The last Sid Meier title to be resurrected from the grave was Pirates, and many of us have spent long hours on the high seas, remembering the days when we sailed our Commodore 64s and IBM PCs into the wee hours of the morning. Pirates had been gone far too long, and it was great to have it back.
Railroads is back now too, though it does not feel like it has been gone that long. This history of the game is a bit different than with the Pirates franchise. The original Railroad Tycoon game was released in 1990 and enjoyed a lot of success. Then the rights to the name was sold to PopTop software, which created Railroad Tycoon II and eventually Railroad Tycoon 3 (yes I got the punctuation correct, they switched from Roman numerals to alpha characters). The entire series was basically a hardcore economic simulation, which while off-putting to those that want to jump right in, suited simulation buffs just fine.
All the literature and promotional materials (like the giant banner at E3 last year) proclaimed that Railroads was a return of the classic. I am not sure if Sid could not get the rights back to the Railroad Tycoon name or if they did want to be directly associated with the series anymore, but this game was named "Railroads!" for whatever reason. Truthfully, it seems like they might be trying to play it both ways, stressing in user forums that this is not Railroad Tycoon IV (or 4) but also playing up to the fact that this is the first railroad sim that Meier has had direct influence over since 1990.
Make no mistake that this is not a Tycoon type of game. In Railroad Tycoon 3 the game was pretty difficult at times. For example, goods would not have to take your trains, or any trains for that matter, to get to market. There were also roads and waterways to contend with. If your trains were too slow or ignoring them, the producers of goods would find a way to get to market without you.
That is not the case with Railroads, as trains are king. If you or one of your competitors don’t zoom over and grab a resource, it won’t get to market or it will simply sit in its existing market. Depending on how you look at things, Railroads is either a great game to play that lets you jump right into the action and become a rail baron with very little practice, or too simplistic to be taken serious as a simulation given its predecessors.
Much of the fine details present in Railroad Tycoon 3 are not here. Laying track is very easy. You simply plop it down where you want and the game will put it in place, even moving city buildings out of the way so your track can get through. With RT3, you had to have the right technology to build bridges and could not run track through existing buildings or industries because they were there first.
That said, I would like to try and review Railroads in a vacuum. In other words, when was the last time we dinged a simulation game for being too easy to get into and play? But that is exactly what the hardcore sim players are saying in a lot of reviews. They have a point, but Railroads follows the new trend of easier to play games that even kind of approach the casual gaming market. Look at the re-made Pirates as an example. The gameplay there essentially comes down to a series of mini-games on a single fixed map. Yet the game is fun to play. With Railroads, I think warning off those expecting a hugely detailed sim should be sufficient.
Lets then start fresh and talk about the graphics. It should come as no surprise that they are pretty amazing. They use the same engine as with Civilization IV. That means the cities are pretty much icons representing cities and the units are out of proportion, but trying to see a train compared to a city in reality would be impossible. So instead Railroads has kind of cartoon-like graphics that resemble a model train yard type of setup. The engines are all very detailed with little smoke curls coming out of the steam powered ones, sparks for the electrics and all the little industries moving and dumping supplies into your trains as they stop near them. It’s all pretty neat and a nice visual feast that really makes you want to play the game more just to see your creation come to fruition. It’s not exactly photo-realistic, but the graphics are awesome for a sim game.
The way the sound is setup is similar to the graphics. Each city that you pass over seems to have its own soundtrack, which not only helps you zero into them when scrolling across the map, but gives each one a distinct flavor. Here, the sound is top notch and keeps up with the high-quality sim graphics.
Gameplay is a bit of a mixed bag. I’ve already written about how easy Railroads is to play. A nine year old can grasp the concepts and get cracking on it in under a half hour. However, this simplicity can be a bit maddening for those that want just a bit more. For example, in one scenario I was sending raw wood into a paper plant at one town. A competitor put a track down and started doing the exact same thing. So I figured I would buy the plant outright. The opponent AI wanted it as well, so a big bidding war started. I eventually won that war.
But the situation did not really change. I got a small amount of money each time one of my trains or my opponent’s delivered wood, but the competitor still was able to deliver wood. He set up a special train to just grab all the trees and shove it into the plant, basically over-mining the wood resource. Then he would grab the finished product and shoot it off to another town. Granted I was making a little money, but he was able to basically ruin my business at the same time cause there were no more trees for me to send. I could have done the same thing, but then neither of us would have gotten anywhere. As the owner of the plant, I should be able to say "only take products from our trains" and be done with it. What is the point of ownership if you can’t control your business, other than the tiny fee you get when a load is delivered?
Train routing is also very poor. If you lay down double track, for some reason the game insists that you make little switchovers all over the place so the trains can jump from one to another. Given how simple the simulation is, why they would get militant about this one aspect of realism is beyond me. And the problem is the AI is not smart enough to use the switchovers properly. As an example, I have one train on one side of a double track moving from Las Vegas to Phoenix and another on the other side of the track going the opposite direction. Sounds good right? Well the Las Vegas train for whatever reason will cross over so that it is plowing head-on towards the Phoenix one every time. On easy level one train will gray out and wait for the other to pass (increasing your time to destination and lowering your profits) but on hard they will both sit there waiting for you to solve their dilemma, which is only accomplished by building even more switchovers that the AI can’t figure out how to use.
Stations can have up to three tracks running through them, but you will often find two trains jammed up inside, which should not really be possible when not only do they each have their own track, but an empty one in the mix as well. But they insist on switching into each other’s way, creating a maddening traffic jam. I recommend never playing on the hardest routing level unless you want to spend all your time getting stupid trains to switch back to obviously empty tracks. At least on easy, it’s just an annoyance.
The concept of buying out your opponents in Railroads has the opposite problem as the double track routing. Here, it’s just too simple and unrealistic. I have lost games because the AI bought me out, which should not be possible when I owned 100 percent of my company. I could see if I owned like a 30 percent share or something. But excuse me, if I own 100 percent of my company, shouldn’t I have some say on selling or not selling it to someone else? Duh. You can’t perform a hostile takeover in real life when someone else owns ALL the shares and does not want to accept your offer. But in Railroads you can and that is just silly. Why even add company ownership into the mix if you are not going to do it correctly?
I did very much enjoy playing Railroads, but much more so when in single player mode and not wrestling with the AI players. If you like simulations were you don’t have to think very much to get started, then Railroads will be hours of fun. And of course if you are a train buff, then the realism of the train models and their performance make this one a no-brainer must have.
For everyone else, it depends on what you like. Hardcore simulation lovers who thrive on complexity should avoid Railroads entirely. If you like your sims good-looking and easy, then the dazzling visuals and atmosphere of the game will certainly win you over.