One of the awesome advantages of computer game for hobbyists of all types is that a developer can squeeze a lot of different pricy parts that make up a hobby onto a disc. While playing a computer simulation is certainly not the same thing as having the actual card, model, action figure, pinball table, sailboat, private plane or sports car, a game is also less expensive and capable of providing the hobby’s joy, at least until the money’s there for the real thing.
Such is the case with Trainz Railroad Simulator 2004, Auran’s meticulously detailed train simulator that lets the player drive trains from a variety of eras, transport goods, and create their own rail line complete with working industries. Sure, playing Trainz is not quite the same as lovingly placing a $670 Union Pacific Big Boy steam engine model on the tracks, but it’s also not $670, plus it has the Big Boy and over 50 more authentic locomotives that a player can directly control. It also has intuitive tools for creating an entire railroad empire. For model railroading aficionados, it’s an awesome package that gives a good sense of what it’s like to be behind the throttle of transportation’s biggest land-based luggers. It is, however, pointedly targeted at that niche market. It’s a game that involves driving and routing trains, such that gamers expecting railroad racing or a tycoon-style simulation may be disappointed.
Trainz Railroad Simulator 2004 adds further features to the established Auran Trainz franchise, the most exciting for fans being the addition of fully-operational steam locomotives. The other major new feature includes interactive industries that require deliveries from one’s locomotives, bringing a dynamic game play element to running the railroads.
It’s been awhile since I played a simulator, and coming into it with the typical gamer mentality (what do I kill? who do I save? where are the stats? combos, anyone??), it took a little mental gear shifting to understand Trainz appeal. The game is about driving trains and/or watching them chug or whir around the tracks – nothing less and nothing more. The view inside and outside is easily adjustable with the mouse, and 2004 introduces a Free-Roaming camera view that allows a player to quickly move to a new area with a click.
As far as actual gaming goes, Trainz 2004 consists of two game play modes. In the first, Driver mode, players take control of the locomotives and set out to do what trains do: deliver goods and remain on time. Trainz 2004 features more involving game play with its addition of interactive industries. These industries request materials via Waybills, and the player must direct or drive their trains to pick up and deliver the goods. The strategic challenge involves routing the trains to make timely deliveries, but the game’s thrill (at least for railroad fans) will more likely come from getting behind the engine’s controls.
The game includes a simple, one-dial control scheme, but the more realistic control option puts the player in the trains cab to firsthand control brake and throttle levers – authentic and unique to each train. The realistic controls provide a fine sense of immersion, such that I couldn’t help grinning when lapping the brakes to ease a fully-loaded full speed train to handle a curve before speeding on. Diesel and electric trains generally involve simple brake and throttle controls. More involving are the steam engines, which demand that the player balance the fire’s heat (provided by an animated coal shoveler), steam pressure, and water level.
As a simulation, it should be expected the Trainz has a learning curve, particularly for those who want to play the realistic driving mode. The in-game tutorials can be awkward, but do enable a player to pick up the realistic controls (and pick up some railroad jargon) in an hour or two. For the realistic driving, most everything within the train can be controlled with the mouse. Because the view within the cabin doesn’t always take in some controls without moving the view, the keyboard controls work better but require more experience getting the hang of it. For the railroad fans that the realistic driving experience is targeted toward, this should be no problem though.
Once players get the hang of driving the train, they can then get their train to work making deliveries. The interactive industries, which include animations of the train’s rolling stock being filled or emptied as deliveries are made. These driver tests are one part strategy involving where to route the trains, and one part driving skill. For players less interested in directly controlling the locos, driver AI can be easily set to accomplish most of the train activities. Aside from the Driver mode, the second game mode in Trainz 2004 are in the nine set scenarios that challenge the player to meet objectives. These scenarios have more of the feel of the Rollercoaster Tycoon style games, but the game would have benefited from more of them.
Model railroading is as much about creating the world as it is running the trains, and for this dimension of the hobby Trainz 2004 has an improved Surveyor mode that gives the designer an amazing variety of intuitive point and click tools for building a railroad system. Trainz 2004 also gives players the “keys” to join Auran’s extensive online community which includes thousands of downloads worth of new free content.
Even with its driver and scenario games, Trainz 2004 is less about mental or reflexive challenge as it is about experiencing what it’s like to drive a train around. As such, it may be more unadorned simulation than a casual gamer or strategy fan will want. For model railroad fans or simulation buffs though, it delivers an impressive sense of commanding trains from all ages.
The new graphics engine paints a beautiful world for the trains to run through. The trains themselves are exceptionally detailed. Some fine animations such as timber felling at a logging operation, plus graphic effects such as bodies of reflective water, rain, and steam emissions add to the sense of being in the miniature world that model railroading creates.
No music in Trainz, but sound effects, from the chug of a steam engine to the whine of an electric engine, add to the immersion.
For players interested in model railroading, Trainz has enough design tools and features in itself and in its community to last for months. Had there been more scenarios or game play modes that challenge the player to design an effective railroad system, it would have had more appeal to casual gamers or those with only a passing interest in trains. Even lacking these, there’s a certain relaxing quality to playing Trainz and watching a pretty computerized landscape roll by, so it has some lasting appeal to sim fans who aren’t interested in destroying targets or managing finances.
The Final Word: A niche simulation for railroad fans, Trainz’ authentic rendition of trains throughout the ages has a lot to appeal to casual simulation fans or those – young, old and otherwise – fascinated with railroads. Even with its new dynamic industries, it lacks the depth to its game play to keep the attention of players expecting a challenging economic or building simulation.