I was curious about how realistic-looking and fun a train sim could be to play on console, so when Train Sim World (TSW) 2020 became available on Game Pass earlier this year I dived in. I immediately found it to be interesting, fun, addictive as hell and annoying in equal measures. Little did I know how difficult it would be to extricate myself from those deep waters, well… rails. Enough of the mixed metaphors, let's get back on track. (Sorry.)
Now TSW 2020's sequel, TSW2 is available on Game Pass and features three distinctly different railway experiences; the famous London Underground Bakerloo Line, driving the familiar 1972 Mark II Stock LU "tube train" was where I started.
The Bakerloo route, which runs from Harrow & Wealdstone to Elephant & Castle in central London, is roughly half above ground/half underground, and so often feels claustrophobic, and yet is strangely fun to play–it's like driving a bus on rails! Frequent stops mean you never seem to be at full speed for more than a few minutes, and the tight tunnels mean 35mph feels like you're breaking the sound barrier! I expected this to be my least favourite of the three, but it didn’t turn out that way as I got to see some familiar stations from the driver's eye view, as well as landmarks like Wembley Stadium.
Next I tried the slopes of the Sand Patch Grade, a route known for its steep grades and curves through the beautiful Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania and Maryland. This route couldn't be more different to the Bakerloo, and you get to drive the mighty CSX AC4400CW, the iconic CSX GP38-2 or the best-selling CSX SD40-2 diesel-electric locomotives, pulling massive, heavy trains up and down its tricky gradients.
Last but definitely not least came the Schnellfahrstrecke Kőln–Achen route (high-speed inter-city German route) with the spectacular DB BR 406 ICE 3M high speed train, or the futuristic DB BR 442 Talent 2 for more local runs through the pretty North Rhine-Westphalia countryside.
You simply have to experience them all to appreciate just how varied rail travel can be, and bear in mind that if you like, you can just hop on a train at any station and ride along as a passenger or grab a cab ride on a freight train!
TSW2 has a plethora of other routes and locomotives available as DLC, and apart from the BR442 Talent 2 DB and the BR406 DB, the 767.2 DABpbzfa DB, the BR143, the BR185.2 and the BR146.2 were available in Timetable routes for me because – thanks to my earlier addiction – I already owned the TSW 2020 Collector's Edition. They came along with the Main Spessart Bahn and Ruhr Sieg Nord routes and were added to the TSW 2 roster as part of the 'Preserved Collection,' which is a nice touch from the developer, because they basically updated old routes to the new game engine free of charge.
TSW2 was released a little over a year ago but has been given a recent upgrade with a large update, a 3-route DLC pack (Rush Hour, to be reviewed by Gamecell soon) and various updates to fix some minor and not-so minor issues (especially if you own the game on PlayStation.) The update also upped the number of passengers to a possible 200 on Series X/S/PlayStation 5 & PC (100 on Xbox One and PS4) at any station, so now stations rarely look deserted, more passengers hop on/off the trains and their animation and variation in their clothing has been improved too. This adds to the immersiveness immeasurably, particularly on the Bakerloo line, which was previously a bit too quiet.
It's been an interesting period to be so 'in' to a game, as I don't think I've ever seen a developer so intent on improving and evolving; Dovetail Games' roadmap for the game is absolutely fascinating, especially when you take into consideration the number of free upgrades and updates already completed.
While the DLCs for TSW2 seem rather pricey to me, when analysed it's hard to deny that they give good value and supply hours of gameplay, and they do have regular sales on the Xbox Store, so you can often hunt down a bargain if you keep your eye on the TSW2 DLC collection by putting them on your Wish List in the Xbox Store. I also think it's a shame there are no steam trains, but that exciting prospect hasn't been ruled out as a future project.
I've mentioned a few problems already, now let's get critical. The recent update has improved the draw distance but pop-up still occurs. It's a real shame they couldn't push it out a bit further as your natural focus is the vanishing point where the rails appear to meet in the far distance. The worst instances of pop-up are really jarring as distant hillsides sometimes fill in far too late. Tunnels are also not very convincing, as longer ones 'build up' on the draw distance limit, so you may think you're nearing the end of a tunnel only to see it extend into the distance.
Some services in the Scenarios section have kept me waiting at a red light for 15 minutes! Don't get me wrong, I'm all for realism but surely there's an average patience limit that Dovetail's service/timetable designers step over time and time again. Some scenarios are extremely long, and unless you think you can devote 2 hours or more to a session (which requires a certain level of concentration) you're going to want to save your progress - probably more than once. Therein lies another problem, as saving the game seems to bug up a route sometimes, meaning red lights that never change; consequently, quitting and restarting is the only option. I have no idea why a game in 2021 has no checkpoint autosave and neither do some people at Dovetail, although they've promised to investigate and fix what is an intensely annoying bug.
Going by forum threads, Facebook posts and messages from online friends a lot of people jump straight into a locomotive in the Timetable mode and wonder why it won't go anywhere. The in-game Training modes – which leave a bit to be desired to be honest – are absolutely essential if you actually want to learn how to drive each different locomotive. I've found during my "TSW Journey" that you'll learn even more by joining Dovetail's forums or TSW2 Facebook group, and can get tips and advice easily and quickly. The fact remains that TSW2 is a simulation, locomotives are complicated machines and learning their ins and outs and individual systems and setup procedures isn't, and shouldn't be simple. TSW2 isn't a Thomas the Tank Engine game, after all.
As I mentioned, the tutorials are pretty much mandatory if you actually want to get a train moving, because the pain of sitting there with your wheels spinning (this is quite common if you're pulling a freight train) or even worse, not spinning at all, is intense. The tutorials will show you how to operate each vehicle, but after a few services the visual prompts get reduced to zero, and sometimes a loco is nearly 'ready to run' but on other occasions requires a more complete setup procedure, which can be daunting, interesting, confusing, annoying and frustrating if you think you know how to operate a particular engine but actually don't. Experience is the key, which means practice and patience – two things which seem in very short supply among today's gamers.
Some locomotives simply refused to work for me, despite following the tutorials to the letter. The instructions seem barely adequate at times and only cover the basics, and I often find as I advance that I am no longer receiving any prompts, no help and have no clue why the darned thing won't go. Sometimes simply restarting the route or scenario solved the problem, and sometimes just fiddling with the controls and setting everything up in what is to me a logical sequence worked – in fact, that seems to be the key to fully enjoying TSW2; accept that sometimes these incredibly complex machines won't always work as expected, relax, think, adapt and overcome – or just reset and start again.
Once you've managed to get a train moving you then soon realise that you have to slow it down and stop it too – and often also stop in just the right place as well. This isn't as easy as it sounds because every locomotive has a different feel and various different braking systems, and on longer trains, particularly freight trains, brakes don't react very quickly as the brake pressure has to travel a long way back down the train. You need to stop as close to the marker as possible because the closer you get, the more points you get awarded and these add up along with your punctuality to the timetable to decide on your ranking for a service, from bronze, silver or gold.
As a complete change of pace, the three routes each have a large number of 'collectibles' some of which can only be found when exploring on foot; you'll need to repair damaged fences, deliver newspapers to news stands, fix CCTV monitors, find hardhats, put up posters, safety signs, clear fallen tree branches, replace route maps, place safety cones or replace snow poles.
The Livery Editor allows you to paint most locomotives and rolling stock however you may want, whether you want to replicate a real-world livery or make up your own. The editor may not be overly sophisticated compared to some (like Forza's,) but customising a train to your own colour scheme is a very cool feature. I'm reliably informed that cross-platform sharing is planned for the future too, which, given some of the talented creators out there, will be amazing.
TSW2 also features a Scenario Planner, in which you can set up a locomotive and a variety of rolling stock, with obvious limitations on the formation of the train, on any of the routes in the game. You can also set the start point, as many or few stops as you want, and the end destination. Crazily enough, setting the scenario to 'Off the Rails' mode allows you to run the huge US locomotives on the Bakerloo line (they wouldn't actually fit down the tunnels) and you can even run the 72 stock Tube train up the Sand Patch (which in real life is equally impossible, but fun nonetheless.) Next I need to try the DB BR 406 ICE 3M high speed train - everywhere, FAST!
TSW2 certainly isn't a game that's going to appeal to everyone, simulations never do, but Dovetail Games have produced another remarkable game which, on console at least, has no equal. The game certainly has its problems but I've come to love it anyway, and I've never come across a more communicative developer who willingly connect and engage with their customers, listen and actually try to fix issues wherever possible. If you've read this far then you know I recommend at least trying this sim-game if you have Game Pass, and if you fancy a challenge that's a bit different from the norm, or have simply always wanted to be a train driver, then here you go, you need to look no further – TSW2 is the best train set in the world.