Sid Meiers Railroads Review
|Release Date:||October 26th, 2006 (UK)|
|Reviewer:||Daniel Scott (Junks)|
Railroads! is the latest RTS in the popular RailRoad Tycoon (RRT) series, and brings back the titular Sid Meier - the original creator of the first RRT game that spawned the whole Tycoon sub-genre. Having been a fan of the original RRT (I think there's something therapeutic about creating neat networks of track and then watching your trains chug merrily between destinations), but not a particularly huge RTS fan, I approached this review with mixed feelings, my main train of thought (sorry, couldn't help it) being whether it would be interesting enough to hold my attention.
To my surprise I found that it was - at least initially. Two things are immediately clear when first playing Railroads. It's very polished graphically, and very easy to use. After going through the tutorial and booting up your first proper game, it takes very little time to get to grips with the controls necessary to start building your railroad empire.
Track is easy to lay and navigate, and connecting the towns and industrial facilities is simply done. Hovering over each place brings up clearly defined (and very handy) icons that show you what it supplies, demands and converts, and even gives you arrows and distances to the the nearest places that can meet those demands. You can even create you own factories in each town to suit the industries surrounding it, and although expensive to create, this is a key factor later on in making your business better than the competition.
Many of the features are similar to those in previous RRT games. Better trains are invented and available to buy after every few years, and railroad-type patents appear for auction to all players for 10 years exclusivity (such as sturdier tracks and cheaper tunnels). A newspaper-style screen appears periodically to inform you of stock market crashes, grain shortages, coal surpluses and so on. There are 30 trains, 20 different goods and 30 different industries that all need to be linked together to make your business as profitable as possible, so there is plenty of variety to keep you interested from that point of view.
Graphically, as I said, Railroads! looks very nice, and a huge attention to detail has obviously been paid to all areas of the game environment. Your stations have pedestrian bridges over them to link platforms, with actual animated passengers walking over them. The farm that supplies grain has a tiny red tractor chugging across the fields of corn, and your trains are loaded by each industry in the finest detail. This does have its downside however, as when the map becomes covered in trains and big cities, my pc struggled to handle the load, making the game slow and unwieldy on my rig (p4 3.2, 7200GT, 1GB ram). I do wonder whether being able to zoom in so far is worth the strain on the PC - although it looks nice when you're up close, you cant really play the game like that, you need a wider view.
As you'd expect, the sound in Railroads! is good, but nothing amazing. This type of game doesn't really have a need for top-drawer sound effects and music - it's just not that type of game. The effects are cute and do the job, and the odd few bars of music to introduce some event are good enough, but nothing above that.
Of course, just like the British railway system, while Railroads! does most things right, it does have its fair share of irritating features too, which need to be worked around once you understand them. For instance, all your track must be connected to the original piece you start with. Unlike the original RRT, you cannot create several completely separate lines in different parts of the map, your empire has to expand outwards from your starting point (this is necessary however when playing online). Also, each station has a maximum of 3 pieces of track allowed, which becomes very congested later on when your town becomes a metropolis and the demand for goods and passengers is huge. You need to be very careful in these circumstances that you do not have trains waiting to get into a station to load/unload for long periods of time, as this can dent your profits.
However by far the most annoying feature is that you can't delete a section of track if it has any train that uses it as a route, which pretty much means all of it. As your empire grows, you really need to delete and rebuild sections and junctions as your demand for more trains increases. To do this, you end up having to delete actual trains so that sections of track become redundant. Only then are you allowed to delete the track, redo it, and recreate the trains. All at your cost, of course.
One other small moan is that the game scenarios only take you up to 1980, some scenarios even less than that, so you don't get to play with any modern or futuristic trains. Railroads! is supposed to reflect the 'golden age' of trains, but some ultra-modern trains would have been cool.
Once I got used to the game and into it, I realised that Railroads! lack of real depth meant it had little long-lasting value. The game is simple to play, probably too simple. You have to be a pretty poor tycoon not to be able to make money quickly, and after a few tries I found it boringly easy to take my computer opponents out by buying up all the shares in their companies within around 50 game years (about half hour of real time). Increasing the financial difficulty just means it takes longer, but it's still not difficult.
High profit trains are the key, rather than train numbers. Once you have identified a lucrative area (such as coal to a steel factories, and then a steel to automobile factory - the most expensive commodity), you realise that this is the most important factor in beating your opponents. A high profit automobile train can make you far more than most of your other trains put together. Of course, getting the right situation for such a line to be possible means dealing in other commodities of course, so there is a balance.
Playing online typifies this. After single player modes became tedious, I decided to take my skills online and take on some other budding tycoons. Like most games, online play is much harder than against computer controlled opponents, and I spent my first few games getting my shares bought up at a frightening rate until I was unceremoniously dumped out of the game as my company was taken over and liquidated. But at least it wasn't easy.
After a few goes however, you get used to it and start to hold your own. Expensive commodities become the absolute grail, and players fight tooth and nail over the resources than can create these. Eventually, as players empires expand, stations and trains are put in certain cities deliberately so that it takes away profit from others, even though the train your putting in will run at a loss itself. Nice, neat sets of tracks go straight out the window in online play, as the need for cash-flow and profits drives you to carve up the landscape ruthlessly, and without any regard for aesthetics. An ironic parallel to the real world there I think? In short, online play is better and more demanding, but if your looking to create nice scenic railroads for your viewing pleasure, I would not recommend it.
I do like Railroads, it's an interesting game that has clearly had a lot of effort put into it. I do feel though, that it has been made too easy, with many aspects automatically managed that maybe it would have been better to leave to the player (or give them the option to switch on and off). I am certainly not a hugely experienced RTS player, yet I found it too easy to master the computer opponents, even on difficult skill.
Online is much better, and games between several good players can be tough, demanding and ruthless, though not without an element of repetitiveness as all players desperately try and grab the expensive resources. Those that love the tycoon series, and of course those that love trains, will not be disappointed by this release. It's a good modernisation of a classic, but if you want something to really get your teeth into, I think you may end up feeling a little short-changed.
- Polished graphics and animation
- Easy to pick up
- Feel good factor
- Good variety of trains and industries
- Good online play
Not so good stuff
- Too easy to master and beat the computer opponents
- No real lasting depth
- Annoying track and routing issues
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