Possibly the longest awaited DLC in Train Sim World's history, Spirit of Steam: Liverpool Lime Street - Crewe (to give it its full title) is finally here, so am I stoked with it or less than chuffed? Well… From the off you're going to have to accept that nothing happens very quickly with a steam locomotive–apart of course, from a red signal rushing up on you when you're cruising along without a care in the world and ruining your day.
The Liverpool to Crewe route is 36 miles in length and has 12 passenger stops along the way, but the size and complexity of Crewe junction and the rail yard at Edge Hill are what really stand out. Many a happy hour can be spent shunting trucks around and perfecting driving skills thanks to a a player-friendly sandbox scenario. Leaving or arriving at Lime St. is an unforgettable experience too, as you descend or ascend the steep, frighteningly deep 4-line cutting to Edge Hill, which was originally built in the 1800s at the height of the Industrial Revolution.
When you drive either of the locomotives in Spirit of Steam: Liverpool Lime Street - Crewe (referred to as SoS from now on) all the dirty work is done for you, there are 2 locomotives to choose from; the LMS Jubilee and the LMS Stanier 8F, and whichever you choose is cleaned out, fired up with a full head of steam and ready to go.
Once you've done the Liverpool-Crewe route introduction you can get on to the basic training for the two locomotives. The Stanier 8F (a 2-8-0 configuration) comes first and was designed for freight duties, then there's an introduction into the confusing world of semaphore signalling, and then the LMS Jubilee (a 4-6-0) which was designed to pull passenger trains. More than ever before in TSW2 the training modules are just the beginning, and you'll learn more through trial and error and lots of practice than listening to instructions or watching tutorials or anything else. One of the game's scenarios, entitled "Moving Around The Mersey", is a sandbox and is the perfect place to practice your driving skills. Here you can push & pull trucks and coaches around the massive Edge Hill railyard with the Stanier 8F or the Jubilee until the cows come home, but a few less red signals would have improved things.
TSW2 veterans will notice that there are 5 new gauges on the left side of the HUD that you really need to pay attention to. Boiler pressure, the steam chest (like a power reserve gauge) and indicators for the cylinder cocks, the blower and dampers. There's a ton of videos on YouTube about what they all do so I won't go into that here, but basically turn the reverser to 75% forward, release the combination brake, open the cylinder cocks, fully open both dampers (they're handily placed way down on the right side of the cab), open the regulator to 20-25% (less than 15% if wet, snowy or on an up-gradient) and OFF YOU GO!
Once you're moving you can shut the cylinder cocks, open the regulator right up, open the large injector (to charge the vacuum brakes, for the next time you need them) and move the reverser back incrementally. Once the vacuum gauge reaches 20-ish PSI you should close the large injector. It's a lot easier than it sounds, you soon learn the 'feel' of these wonderful machines, and a few extra levers and gauges shouldn't put anyone off this remarkable experience as many of the controls are mapped to the controller buttons (i.e. opening the regulator (to go faster) is mapped to the right trigger, just like the throttle on an electric or diesel train.)
Unfortunately at launch the game has various problems. Most immediately noticeable are issues with the fireman (the man or woman who shovels coal into the loco's firebox—a wonderful, if totally unrealistic in 1958, bit of feminist inclusivity by DTG), they are sometimes invisible, or hyperactive, meaning the boiler is frequently blowing its safety valve, and they also shovel through a closed firebox door with absolutely no coal on their shovel.
The other big problem is that some freight train's trucks/wagons/cars have their brakes locked on. Originally it was thought that this was due to the consist being ordered incorrectly, but this isn't the case. Another problem was "unfitted" (with brakes) trucks that would catch up to a braking locomotive and violently derail it with anything but the most delicate of braking sequences, but either I've got much better at braking or they've fixed this already. Possibly related to the traction and braking issues is a wheelspin glitch, which allows the speedometer to indicate 300mph+!
There are the usual Xbox sound issues too with a few brand new SoS specific ones thrown in. The sound has been fixed regarding the "jackhammering" problem across all TSW2 routes (dubbed so by DTG themselves, although it sounded more like a small diesel generator running to me). However, when driving from the cab view the amount of what I presume is meant to be wind noise and hissing (as the boiler safety valve blows off) means you can't hear the engine "chuff chuffing" as much as I'd like or expect to—but this isn't a problem from the outside cameras. Another problem is that AI locomotives seem to lack any steam-related sound effects, although I’ve heard that is to be fixed with the next patch.
There seem to be a few technical errors too, with the blower not really having as noticeable an effect as I'm reliably told the real thing does, and a few dodgy red signals. I found one that fails you when you have a yard to go! On another route there's a red signal no more than 3 yards after a "go via location" icon! Add to this a mission end marker that overlaps a stop signal, so that if you reach it with the driver's position the front of the loco will SPAD (Signal Passed At Danger fail) you, and SoS clearly needs a bit of attention.
Another gripe is that they've rather "changed the rules." The stop points have almost always indicated where the driver should stop the cab of the locomotive, and now in SOS it seems to more often than not refer to the front of the locomotive or the rear of the train. This change adds confusion and caused more than one SPAD while I was playing SoS for this review. Driving steam locomotives in TSW2 can be a demanding and confusing experience—possibly more so than the real thing because of speed limits and brake problems.
Another noticeable change are the requirements for a Gold medal-worthy performance on a service. Used to being in a rush to get the train set up and on its way for any of the existing diesel or electric passenger services, SoS seems to give you all the time in the world, and I've been as late as 29 minutes past the indicated arrival time (the wrong sort of rain on the track) and still been awarded a Gold!
To their credit DTG have lavished extraordinary attention to detail on the locomotives and rolling stock, and this is always where TSW2 really shines. Whether it's the mechanical side with the detailed cabs or the smoke and steam puffing from the stack, cylinders and the whistle, the trains look magnificent in SoS. The animation on the wheels, pistons and valve gear is remarkably good–I could watch it all day (well, maybe not all day.) The way the chuff-chuff-puff-puff sounds are synced with the mechanical movements of the wheels and pistons is also spot-on. There are also nice touches like the driver's window opening automatically as you take your seat, and the driver and fireman leaning out of the windows as the loco cruises and you watch from an external camera. The smoke and steam look really good, whether it's billowing out of the smoke stack or the pistons, and you even see steam shoot out when the loco's whistle is blown, so I'm probably expecting too much but I think the smoke, steam and shadows disappear a tad too quickly, but this is probably limited by TSW2's inconsistent and always disappointing draw distance.
On your travels you’ll see a lot of the common 20-ton brake Van, which includes the ability to change the tail lamp arrangement, light a stove, apply the brakes and various other subtle features. Wouldn't it have been cool to be able to invite a friend in to act as the guard or conductor? This is surely a co-op feature that needs to be considered in TSW2's future, or maybe the inevitable TSW3.
I don't think DTG's simulation of a steam locomotive can possibly be as complicated as the real thing, but it's darned close, and gets close enough to that feeling that you're driving a juggernaut that's more like a living, breathing creature than a mere machine.
Overall, you have to be impressed by Spirit of Steam, the looks and sounds are almost perfect–only a few technical flaws let it down. If Dovetail fix these promptly I see this DLC winning awards‐it's that good, and if/when they do I'll amend my score upwards to a perfect 10. The options and possibilities it opens up of a treasured bygone era are huge–HUGE, and I can't wait to see where Spirit of Steam leads future TSW2 DLCs.