OK, I’ll admit it. I quite like trains! There goes the street cred then. Never mind. I mean, obviously not those Network South East electric train thingies, they’re about as exciting as milk floats, but I’ve got quite a soft spot for old steam trains, of which there are quite a few still running around on various restored railways in my little corner of England. And yes, if someone were to offer me ‘a go’ on one, or indeed any train for that matter, I would be quite up for it. After all, it must be quite nice being up at the business end, pulling the occasional lever and dreaming of the next union negotiated 50% pay rise while the scenery slides pleasantly by. So when (take a deep breath) Trainz Railway Simulator 2004 Passenger Edition (snappy title, or what?) arrived on my doormat, I was quite looking forward to taking a look.
Well, it’s been a long look, because TRS2004 is a big game, with lots of features to get to grips with, some of which I have only been able to scratch the surface of in the time available. Essentially there are 3 games in one here. Firstly, you get a Train Driving Simulator, similar to Microsoft’s Train Simulator, where you get to step into the cab and take the controls of various different types of trains and drive them on lines from all over the world. Within this game there are various challenges, or scenarios, such as keeping to a tight passenger schedule, stopping at the correct signals and stations, or moving freight around to keep various industries supplied. If you’ve always wondered what it is like to drive a train, this is a pretty good simulation. The graphics, while not exactly state of the art, are good enough, with loads of detail along the various routes, such as moving cars on roads, farm animals and lots of different types of trees, animals, buildings, stations and other trackside scenery. All the railways have working signals, points, turntables and sidings, and many routes have other rail traffic on them besides yourself, making it critical that you stop at red lights and signals to allow other trains to pass.
The designers have very thoughtfully provided two driving modes, a full-on realism mode for the techies, where every lever, valve button and God-knows-what can and must be operated properly in order to get the train moving. If that all seems a bit much, there is an easy driving mode, where you have an onscreen dial, a bit like a typical train set controller, where you twist it one way to go forwards, and the other way to go in reverse. To be honest, with all the watching out for signals, other trains, and trying to keep to different speed limits, plus all the button pushing and lever pulling, the easy mode is a welcome break from the complexity. New to this edition is the ability to pick up and drop off passengers (hence the sub-title ‘Passenger Edition’), who dutifully appear and disappear on the platform when you pull up, while the doors on the carriage open and shut, to simulate the effect of gettin’ on and gettin’ orf. They don’t swear at you when you’re late though. All of this is quite diverting for a few hours, but TRS2004 goes a lot deeper and further, as we will see.
Once you get tired of just driving trains, you can try your hand at running the infrastructure of an entire virtual railway system. The various industries on the different layouts are dynamic and interactive, and you have to keep them supplied with raw materials, in order for them to continue to operate. For example, power stations will need regular deliveries of coal or oil, and lumber mills will need to be kept supplied with logs. In order to do this, you can allocate drivers to various goods trains on the layout, and send them off to perform various pick-ups and deliveries to keep your industries running. This Resource Management aspect of the game is quite absorbing, and runs quite smoothly. It is nowhere near as complicated or wide ranging as ‘full-on’ resource management games such as Transport Tycoon, but as a game within a game, it works very well. It is quite neat to watch all your trains chuffing off to do their various tasks, and stopping dutifully for each other at the various signals and junctions around the layouts…
Finally, we move on to the World Maker aspect of the game. Here you can either modify the existing layouts, or design and create your own virtual railway, complete with multiple tracks, rolling stock and dynamic industries from scratch. To be honest, I was absolutely dreading this aspect of the game. It looked horribly complex at first glance, and about as interesting as going to a Liberal Democrat Conference. Well, I go to the foot of my stairs! - Following the included tutorial, I managed to build a decent layout with interactive industries, stunning mountainous scenery, and multiple trackside objects in under half an hour! 2 hours later, I was still fiddling around with it, snaking my railway around and over hills, creating the filthiest, most environmentally-unfriendly looking complex of a factory site you’ve ever seen on the other side of the layout, and generally having a pile of fun. Haha. Basically, what you’ve got here is the virtual equivalent of your good old Hornby train set – with big shiny knobs on – and you don’t have to dismantle it and put it back in the box when your mum calls you for tea! All of this is sooo unbelievably easy to use. If there was an Oscar for ‘most user friendly and intuitive in game interface’, the guys at Auran would be serious contenders – great stuff.
Finally, finally, since they make such a big thing of it on the box, I should just mention the, as they state it, “More than 15,000 different routes, locomotives, scenery objects, rolling stock and more available to download from the Trainz Download Station” Well, yeah, kind of, but, after all the glowing stuff, lets get a few moans in here. Firstly, registering for this service is a tad fiddly to say the least, and worst of all, if you have broadband, and want to download some of the fairly large files at broadband speed, you have to cough up £6.99 a year for a so called ‘First Class Ticket’, otherwise you are restricted to slo-o-o-w dial up speeds, along with the great unwashed. Now, call me a scrooge (I mean. It’s only 7 quid a year after all) but I blooming well resent having to pay Auran to use the greater speed of my broadband connection wot I’ve already paid for once! Also, by nature of the fact that the extra add-ons are designed by the community as a whole, and are not official, some of them just don’t work as they should, or indeed at all, in some cases. This is a bit of a pain when you’ve spent half a day downloading at snail speed. To be fair, many of the extra trains, layouts, etc. are of excellent quality, and Auran have done their best to make the download and installation of additional components as easy and straightforward as possible.
OK, let’s try and wrap this all up. Auran are to be commended for producing a package that does pretty much what it claims on the box, and does it well, with an excellent, user-friendly interface which gets you straight into the game with the minimum of head scratching. For a simulation of this complexity, that is highly commendable.
IN conclusion, Trainz Simulator 2004: Passenger Edition occupies a pretty lonely place in the games/simulation market, as Microsoft have pulled out of the race, so Trainheads will be relieved to know that the only train sim on the block is a piece of work, without a doubt. As for the rest of us, well, if you fancy a go but you’re worried about your street cred, you could always hide it behind your copy of Doom 3, your friends need never know…