The fun and excitement of running a toy train around your living room... When I was a kid there was nothing unusual about that, but nowadays it's almost unheard of. While it's a bit of a departure from the norm, Dovetail Games' idea behind Holiday Express is clear; make running a train fun, accessible to all while giving you some simple objectives to complete. This is perfect for a Dad (or Mum) to play with their kids.
It's no surprise that the Locomotives included are two bright red EMD F7s, an iconic locomotive which, while lacking a livery, has all the detail of the real thing that runs on the Cajon Pass and Clinchfield Railroad routes in TSW3. You can of course use the livery designer to paint it however you want and make any train you have in TSW3 toy-sized with the scenario planner. Also included for use both in scenarios and sandbox play are a selection of rolling stock and two cabooses (cabeese?) Wisely they have simplified the controls and it's easier to set up, making train driving more accessible for kids and n00bs alike.
The setting is a homely family living room that is loosely based on Roseanne's living room from the long-running US sitcom. The missions you are given (Scenarios) are inspired by the well known children's book, The Elf on the Shelf and you'll be able to spot the Elf and return him to "the naughty step" with the train at some point. There are all kinds of scale details like playing cards and books for ramps, Hot Wheels track for bridges and worn/chewed edges on the building blocks.There's even an 8-Bit games console that you can turn on and check out what appears to be a pixellated version of Train Sim World running around TSW3's test track on the TV!!
A thing I noticed during one of the scenarios was that although the controls are simplified and labelled in a similar way (sun visors are marked "Flappy Thing") couplers work as on real routes, which surprised and pleased me, but may add some confusion to newcomers who don't know how they work (if one is locked it will not couple to another locomotive or railcar and they will just 'bounce' off each other.)
I'd be surprised if DTG don't use the Holiday Express game engine and setting as a testbed for ideas that they'd like to incorporate into full-size TSW, such as visual effects like heat haze, driveable vehicles and more on-foot first person activity that we see here. I was rather disappointed by the lack of a 'jump' button when on foot–you have to find a sloping surface to climb anything more than the tiniest step and jumping is such an integral part of first person games these days. While you could never accuse DTG of slacking on the realism side, they have never taken themselves too seriously, and this shift away from being just a po-faced simulation may be inspired by the huge popularity of sandbox games and more arcade-like train games such as Derail Valley
There are 7 scenarios but no timetable, so it's highly questionable how much entertainment you're going to get from Holiday Express–although there's a complex track layout to play with, 2 locomotives and trucks to shunt around until the toy cows come home, there are no passenger coaches, which seems daft as there are a couple of stations. There are 20 collectibles in the form of chocolate gold coins, which as you're in scale with the train and therefore tiny (approximately one inch tall we think) are HUGE, so they won't take you forever to find, and they also glint. Being so small obviously means that getting to lofty positions (such as the sideboard and mantlepiece) requires a lift or elevator, and some thoughtful soul has modelled them beautifully out of Lego-like bricks and cardboard, with string and a pencil for the winch. Once atop these dizzying heights it feels like you're hundreds of feet in the air! Fortunately, being so small and light, if you take a wrong step off the edge, you just float gently to the floor!
A price tag of £7.99 seems reasonable to me, but would I have bought it? Probably, it's yet another new string to TSW's bow and anything that allows for some variation, experimentation and makes the game easier, and more welcoming to newcomers is a good thing in my book. Hopefully they'll expand on the idea at some point, there are some interesting possibilities...
Someone at DTG has lyrical talent and wrote all the scenario descriptions in rhyme, so I thought I'd finish off the review in a similar fashion...
Dovetail's Christmas offering is a Runaway Elf,
I hope catching him won't adversely affect your health,
Instructions are arranged in lines that rhyme,
Which, to me, seems like a waste of time,
A special Christmas release might be dicy,
Some may think it's a bit too pricey,
But playing trains in the living room can't be beat,
So go on Grinch-McScroogeface, give yourself a treat.