I’ve Been Playing on the Railroad . . .

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Let us get one thing straight from the beginning: I love trains. My family has been involved with trains and the railroads for five generations, from my third great grandfather down to my dad. That’s not to say I know very much about trains, but there can be an argument made that it is in my blood.

When I discovered that Microsoft had created a Train Simulator, along the lines of their successful Flight Simulator franchise, I was as giddy as a schoolgirl. I would finally get my best chance to test my mettle and see if I had what it takes to control a 4,400 horsepower diesel-electric locomotive capable of hauling 105,000-pounds at speeds up to 74mph. Short of going down to my local train yard and trying my hand at train-jacking, that is.

The folks from Redmond were nice enough to send us a pretty full-featured beta that I proceeded to load up as soon as I got it. The game’s "minimum requirements" specify a Pentium II 266-MHz powered machine, but of course if you attempt to run it with anything less than a Pentium II 350, you’ll be sorry. You’ll also need a video card with 3D hardware acceleration, a minimum of 32MB system RAM (again, what they really meant was 64MB RAM), Direct X 8.0a, and about 500MB free hard disk space.

With all the boring technical stuff out of the way, it was time to start up Train Simulator and . . . deal with more boring technical stuff. Well, not exactly boring; as with Flight Simulator, this software title abounds in nitty-gritty technical specifications for the trains, the routes, and the esoterica of train operation.

If you’re not interested in the down and dirty details of dampers, couplers, and psi, there is a simple control option you can use, but it seems a damn shame to get a title like this and then not use it to its fullest. There are some very helpful tutorials included with the game, and help is never very hard to find. In fact, in a short amount of time I was able to start up all the different types of trains offered with the software.

And there is a wonderful bounty of train types offered. Everything from the famous steam-powered Flying Scotsman, to the workman-like diesel-electric Dash 9 and onto the Amtrak Acela Express, a high speed state-of-the-art electric locomotive recently introduced in the U.S. north-east corridor.

There are also a number of routes to take these trains on. You can take a train through the Marias Pass in the Montana Rocky Mountains, or ride the rails along the route of the Orient Express through the Austrian Alps, and even experience the wonders of Japanese rail travel between the Tokyo and Hakone prefectures. There are other routes, and you can count on Microsoft making more available as time goes on. In addition, you can use the editor software to create your own routes.

But this game is about more than just going from point A to point B. There are "activities" or missions that you can attempt. Everything from trying to drive your train in normal passenger service to taking a freight train through difficult weather is available.

It can be engrossing to try one of these activities, trying to beat the clock, heavy train traffic or the track conditions. But it’s not exactly what I would call exciting. I mean I tried to feel a little of what my ancestors must have felt, and I realized I already was. Unlike Flight Simulator and its ability to fulfill dreams of flying, Train Simulator feels like a job. At times a technically educational job, but a job nonetheless. And while there are lots of hobbyist pilots or potential pilots who enjoy Flight Simulator, how many people do you know who drive trains, or want to on the weekend?

The fun part was learning how to drive the trains, but once that was mastered, the game lost a lot of its luster. I mean you basically have to learn to control your speed and not derail, but it’s not like you have to handle navigation. You’re on rails! The only really interesting trips were the ones involving the steam locomotives. Keeping a firebox stoked, a boiler filled with the right amount of steam, watching your speed and being aware of the track requires some serious multi-tasking ability. If you think people a hundred years ago were stupid, try driving this train and see how well you do.

The activities with the electric trains were very boring. For example, on the Acela Express, there is no gearing or engine to monitor. You tell it whether you want to go forward or reverse and how much power you want to apply to the wheels. Automobiles are more complicated than this!

All in all, Train Simulator might be great for the guy who has turned his entire basement into a miniature train set, but not necessarily. After all, most of the model train enthusiasts I know get a kick out of assembling elaborate landscapes to take their trains through, the authenticity of their trains and they enjoy their eagle-eye view while running four trains at once.

Train Simulator is an entirely different experience, and not one I suspect many people will choose to invest the time required to master. It was mildly fun for me, with a family heritage tied to lines like Union Pacific and events like the hammering of the Golden Spike. However, being a much more controlled environment, it lacks the sense of release and freedom that taking off in a Lear jet and buzzing the tower that Flight Simulator gives you.

So while it gets points for being a very accurate and detailed Train Simulator, no one will ever get confused and call it a Train Stimulator.

Beyond the issues of the excitement of gameplay, the game itself hardly feels like a technological marvel. Sure there’s 3D graphics, but they are only so-so and poorly utilized. As can be inferred from the screenshots, you have the ability to select night or day, time of year, and weather conditions. However, when we chose "snow" all we got was snow about twenty feet in front of the train and then nothing. You would think with the minimum hardware requirements for this game, they could inject a little bit more realism than that into it.

External views only reveal small sections of landscape, and internal views of gauges and controls all look realistic, but flat. In fact, that’s the perfect distillation of how to describe Train Simulator, realistic, but flat.

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