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» Rail Simulator (PC)

 

 

 

Picture a field in your mind and scale the size of it according to these phrases. Number of PC gamers in the world... BIG... number of PC gamers who love simulation titles... quite big... number of PC gamers who love trains... getting smaller... number of PC gamers who love simulation titles about trains. Okay, you get the general idea - it's a small market but one that's certainly worth a publisher having a go at. Microsoft thought so too, and seven years ago they commissioned UK-based Kuju Entertainment to produce their first Train Simulator game. They had planned a sequel but things went wrong for Kuju for a while, forcing the cancellation of the deal. However, the plucky developers soon got back on track (groan) and ploughed full steam ahead (even worse) with their own Rail Simulator - "an authentic railway experience."

That's what the box claims anyway - in fact, it goes so far to claim it has a "family-friendly interface". As a child born into the British rail industry (my father worked his entire life for British Rail), I can tell you all now that the number of families that are all keen on trains or, more specifically, train simulator games, is pretty small in number. The reason for this enthusiastic approach to the marketing is because of the publisher: EA. It has to be said that the much-maligned media giant deserves praise for taking on this title; vehicle sim games not only have a niche appeal to them, but they're also notoriously difficult to develop well.

Basically, Kuju have taken what they did for Microsoft's Train Simulator (MST) and tweaked it somewhat, with various attributes being heavily influenced by the train sim community. For example, their first title sported six routes from around the world, but this time there's only four, with just one outside the UK (this being the British version of Rail Simulator reviewed here - other regions will have routes similarly localised). This decision was based on the fact that the fans didn't like the shipped routes in MST all that much, criticising them for being inaccurate, and instead spent more time creating their own content for the community, than playing with Kuju's. So rather than using a good portion of the game's development time-budget to make routes, the coders put a lot of effort into the built-in editor.

Although it's clear that a decent amount of effort went into appeasing the nerds... sorry, train simulation fans, it's rather less obvious if one wishes to ask the same of tackling the wider market. The lightweight manual is one such concession but it lacks any real information about driving a train, or being a professional driver. In fact, there's a complete dearth of "beginner missions" or simple guides to getting started; compared to what can be in Microsoft's Flight Simulator X, it's embarrassingly unfriendly to the beginner and casual sim fan. Kuju, I'm almost certain, would claim otherwise, highlighting their simplified control system as proof: yes, a two button approach to handling a several hundred ton locomotive is certain basic, but how is one supposed to learn about speed limits, the points system, braking for a station and so on? The answer is that you don't: you either know it in the first place or you'll just have to learn it as best as you can, whilst playing the game.

This isn't Thomas the Tank Engine

In the UK version reviewed, the game offers 4 routes, around 80 to 90 miles in length, set in (roughly) 4 different eras: steam locomotives in the 1950s chuff-chuff their way along the South-West of England, electric and diesel-electrics roam two East Coast routes in the 70s and the present decade, and for some reason, a line in West Germany is included too. Each line sports five or so scenarios that demand various tasks and deadlines to be complete by the player. Not exactly overwhelming in terms of content but given the amount of detail that each route boasts, it's not too surprising. The relative sparseness continues with the variety of trains available (just a handful of each type) but Kuju do provide additional machines for download, from their site.

Although the game's documentation and packaging offers just the merest nod to the beginner, at least one can just jump onboard, hit "go" and watch what happens. Controls even have a difficulty level, ranging from two buttons for stop/go, to a whole host of water, steam and fire controls. The system works well enough, as the basic arrangement allows one to get used to how rail networks operate: there are no "road signs" for train drivers as such, so one needs to pay close attention to signals and maps at all times. Until you're used to the route, one cannot simply switch into "autopilot" mode and therein lies the challenge in Rail Simulator: paying attention to the small details. With everything set to expert mode, managing an old steam train on a busy line, keeping to tight schedules, is a thought-consuming affair.

The problem is that I don't have any experience in driving locomotives (although I've been in the cabs of a few during operation), so I lack of sense of knowing whether something is being modelled right or just faked. However, for some intangible reason, one doesn't quite get the feeling that this is really a several hundred ton piece of machinery moving about, but it's close enough though.

It has to be said, though, that the surrounding world feels somewhat dead in places - there's plenty of traffic on the roads, birds wheel around, storm fronts roll by and other trains zoom past you, but it's the stations that really kill the ambience. Scenarios often start in a busy train station, which should be packed full of waiting passengers and other trains, but this is rarely the case. I suppose we should be grateful that at least there are people on the platforms (unlike in the original MST) but they're so poorly animated and modelled, phasing in and out like Star Trek characters, there's little sense of "being there" at all. And where are the tannoy announcements? In the real world, they're completely unintelligible anyway, so some background chatter could have easily been incorporated.

Don't like what you see? Then change it... all of it

However, if one has the time, patience and skill, just about everything in Rail Simulator can be altered. A fully-functional world editor comes shipped with the title, and additional tools can be downloaded (after a simple and free registration) to open up the complete editing packages. Ignoring all of the instructions, I dived in to see how easy it was to create something from scratch and it's remarkably pain-free. The basic editor ensures that one cannot create rollercoaster routes, unfortunately, but there's no doubt that the non-enthusiast will spend most of his or her time just trying to make trains crash in the most ludicrous of ways. For the "full-on" geek, one can create new locomotives, landscapes, scenarios, physics, signalling networks and so on. Hypothetically, there's no limit to the size that a route can be, so one could have a go at creating the Trans-Siberian Railway (all five thousand miles of it) if it were not for the fact that the logistics and CPU workload of managing such a signalling and active network as this would be too much for a desktop PC.

Sadly, despite the editor's ease of use, realistic train physics and uncanny accuracy of the route modelling, Rail Simulator just lacks the magic ingredient needed to pull in new players to the genre: the wow factor. Flight Simulators can do this with aerial stunts or sun-rises over mountain tops; car sims with frantic action and glorious sound effects. Train simulators, by the very nature of the object they're replicated, are far more limited and linear. Perhaps if the community or Kuju made something like the Hogwarts Express or Thomas the Tank Engine downloads it would be a different matter.

Watching the hills roll by...

Simulation games rarely push the technological barrier of PC gaming forwards - instead, they typically rely on what was well-tested and understood from the previous few years, and use them thoroughly. Rail Simulator is no exception: the engine is somewhat multithreaded, physics is provided by Ageia's PhysX libraries (CPU processed only) and the graphics are firmly basic DX8-level (even though they require Shader Model 2.0 graphics cards, as a minimum). On face value, it's all very competent but at the same time, it all feels a bit underwhelming.

Certainly, the physics of the trains seems to be appropriate; each carriage is separately modelled and the bogies appear to be more than just static meshes. Travel too fast over a set of points and derailment can occur, producing effective-looking accidents. Not wishing to dwell on the morbidity of such incidents, but there's scope for Rail Simulator to be used as a learning tool for investigators, engineers and reporters.

Alas the overall effect is diminished by the very functionary graphics - they're certainly an improvement over Kuju's first rail game, and the preset routes are painstakingly well modelled, but bit-mapped trees, low resolution textures and matchstick-men animations belong in another era altogether, sim game or otherwise. When a good part of the charm of rail travel is just being able to sit back and admire the views, it's a shame that more wasn't done in this area; considering that reasonably modern graphics card easily cope with the workload, even at high resolutions with anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering, there's certainly room for it to be more graphics-intensive.

The publisher's minimum hardware requirements are pretty low by today's standard: a 1.7GHz Pentium 4 equivalent CPU, with 512MB and a 64MB DX9 graphics card. Unfortunately, it's also unrealistic - using the suggested NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200, the resolution needs to be kept right down (800 x 600) and most of the details setting pushed to Low or Medium. Hidden away in the ReadMe file are the recommended specs, which do allow for a much better gaming experience. Proper suggestions for the minimum hardware needed to enjoy Rail Simulator require a much stronger CPU, more RAM and, naturally, a better graphics card - the reasons for this are simple: at busy junctions, with multiple points, the CPU workload is quite high and a decent graphics card will ensure that one can using anti-aliasing to smooth out tracks, wires, etc and anisotropic filtering to make the best out of the weak textures.

One aspect of the performance that couldn't be removed by using better hardware was the persistent "jerking" in the frame rate, every minute or so. A 3GHz quad core CPU, backed up with 4GB of RAM, shouldn't have any problems just trundling along a route but when the frame rate routinely crashes from 70 to 8 fps, for no apparent reason, you just know that something's not right with the engine.

You already know

There's little point in making a protracted conclusion to this review. Railway enthusiasts, with a decent enough PC, will thoroughly enjoy this, and should totally ignore the scores below - it's simply a far better product than MST and Kuju appear to be strongly committed to a long-term support. As for everyone else, even keen sim fans, it's unlikely to float your boat straight away: the learning curve is vertical, thanks to the dearth of starter missions; the graphics are several years old; the scenarios are rather simple. However, MST's community supported that game fanatically, with a multitude of add-ons, and there's no doubt that Rail Simulator will be treated in the same manner. So although it might not be a great game now, give a year or so and the content should be substantial.

EA should be given a fair bit of credit for having the guts to take on and publish a title with such a limited audience, especially given many of their other 2007 titles have been clearly developed for the mass market. Hopefully, Rail Simulator will sell enough copies to convince everyone involved that another train game is worth doing, allowing Kuju to correct the flaws in this one.

 

Gameplay
76/100
There's little to interest a casual gamer, even one with more than a passing interest in trains and their operation. For the enthusiast though, there's a wealth of entertainment to be had, after plenty of practice and tweaking though.
Graphics
70/100
Functional at best but can be quite poor, especially compared to what can be achieved with Flight Sim X. An improvement over the previous train sim games though.
Audio
82/100
Train effects are gloriously rich and life-like, but stations are deathly silent. The lack of tannoy announcements and general hub-bub spoil the realism somewhat.
Technology
72/100
Scales back down to a low level but looks awful like this. At the highest settings, it's rather jerky, even on the best PCs, and one is limited to what one can achieve with the editing package.
Overall
(not an average)
71/100
Ultimately, there's just not enough of a game here for most players. Rail enthusiasts, with the time and patience to tinker with the editor, will adore it; everyone else are likely to be bored within minutes.



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