Never before has a game made me feel like I’m harbouring a filthy secret. A secret so disturbing it has driven me to spend the last four weeks deceiving those dearest to me, waiting until my wife and daughter have left the house and drawing the curtains before sitting down to indulge myself. Fear not friends, you won’t find me dancing to Lady Gaga wearing pvc hot pants and a ball gag, no its far more serious than a little harmless gimp dancing, the truth is… I have become a secret train driver.
That’s genuinely how I felt at the start of this journey as I stumbled upon a copy of Rail Works 2 whilst meandering in HMV. Feeling like an embarrassed 12 year old boy buying his first copy of Razzle I scurried to the counter and handed over the money, the unwashed emo behind the counter giving a subconscious head shake of disapproval as he asked ‘’anything else you need today?’’ ‘’Yes, a bag to put it in, and make sure it’s not see-through!’’
Thankfully though that’s all in the past now, the misconceived shame I felt has subsided and with the support of my friends I have found the strength to stand proud, put my fingers to keys and type out a review.
So first things first , Rail Works as you may have diligently deducted is a train simulation series with DLC add-ons available for the PC. The first iteration was published by Electronic Arts in 2007 under the title Rail Simulator… genius! The licence was taken over by Rail Simulator Developments Ltd with the release of Rail Works in 2009 and Rail Works 2 in 2010, followed in September of this year by the version I am reviewing here Train Simulator 2012.
After a trouble free installation, the game presented me with a clinical but functional menu. Think Teletext. There is no extended story mode, no big budget dramatic intro sequence and no train showroom to view the stats of a BR Class 55 whilst stroking your gentleman’s pipe; just a scrolling menu listing the available tutorials, scenarios and career modes to meander your way through. Once they are all completed there’s also a wealth of both developer and user created DLC which adds everything from new trains and scenarios to cars and cows.
So starting at the beginning and knowing next to nothing about trains, other than Henry is the red one, I fired up the tutorials. Through text instructions you’re introduced to the mystical art of manoeuvring diesel and steam engines, changing line points, reading signals and coupling loads. It also does a fairly good job of helping you get to grips with the schematic track maps and explains how to follow the list of tasks which must be met in chronological order to successfully complete each scenario. Inevitably I started each tutorial by putting the throttle to maximum and seeing how quickly and dramatically I could derail the train, from multiple camera angles, in slow motion, over and over and over again. Thankfully though after an hour – ok ok a day or so - the novelty of derailment wore off and I was qualified to attach my extended sideburns and hit the scenarios.
Before I go on I should really pay homage to the graphics engine. With all the video settings on high it’s an absolute joy to behold. The trains are draped in glorious high resolution textures and present pixel perfect replicas of their real life counterparts. The smoke particle effects are superb and the environments are genuinely immersive. All the trackside landscapes and buildings have been created as exact duplicates of the real world locations, and travelling along the routes feels very authentic as landmarks drift into view. There’s a wide selection of internal and external cameras, I found my favourite to be the drive by view accompanied with a frantic honking of the horn… Steam says I have honked my horn 143 times… I think this may become an issue. In all honestly the only real omission is a blatant lack of no ‘’Craig is a bum lord’’ vandalism on all the signal boxes and a proliferation of dog shit on the station platforms.
Upon first inspection the scenarios sound quite dull, consisting primarily of collecting stock or carriages and then arriving at and departing from locations in accordance with timetables. However as you progress things get more interesting, moving carriages away from a spreading inferno and high speed test drives are a nice distraction. in truth though, the real challenge comes from the base mechanics of the game. You see every journey is interspersed with numerous hazards; this can include a variety of things ranging from livestock and workmen on the track, dynamic severe weather events, late signals changes and points which need to be switched right through to asteroids hitting stations (there are no asteroids but there should be).
Scenarios can last for up to 90 minutes and it’s rare to have the opportunity to take your eyes off the screen for more than a minute or two without something needing your attention. Anticipating signal changes, thinking ahead and being in a position to stop promptly means you have to maintain precise control over your speed. Passing just one signal at danger can mean the failure of a 60 minute scenario and it quickly becomes apparent that your understanding of the interaction between acceleration, brake and direction controls, all of which operate on a percentage scale, needs to be much more precise than simply ‘on’ or ‘off’.
Despite all these charming features the game has one glaring omission. It’s now in its fourth iteration yet still has no multiplayer beyond the simple career leaderboards. It needs an online free roam option, a ‘’Burnout Thomas Tank Engine Land’’ system where my driver levels up with perks like louder horns and bigger sideburns as each scenario is successfully completed and the trains I pass are being controlled by a man in a donkey jacket from his spare bedroom in Barnsley rather than the computer. I appreciate this would have to be done carefully; the game is mainly enjoyed by true enthusiasts who would be appalled by my love of high speed derailment. Perhaps the answer is a dedicated ‘Role Play’ server for the enthusiasts and then a ‘PvP’ server for numpties like me who would squeal with glee at the chance to engineer high speed head on collisions whilst passing over a 100ft bridge deck with a fellow Midlife Gamer community member.
During the 20 hours I have put into the game so far I have discovered a few other irritating issues. First and foremost, the extended load times for each scenario, some of which can take three or four minutes, need to be patched because it’s just so bloody tedious. Secondly, the world scenario builder is interesting and seems very flexible but in its current state is too complex, you need to be prepared to spend a lot of time getting to grips with it to produce anything of quality. It doesn’t feel intuitive, it’s sort of like trying to learn AutoCAD without a manual, and thus my ‘Platform Pensioner Suicide’ scenario currently remains a pipe dream.
In summary then, rail simulation is a very niche market and certainly not for everyone. Without the intervention of Daren’s exuberant gushing on the podcast it’s not a game I would have ever tried, but I’m genuinely pleased that I have. I usually stick to RTS, FPS and RPG games but there’s something inexplicably gratifying about spending a relaxing couple of hours bumbling through the Yorkshire countryside in a perfectly modelled steam engine ticking of the criteria of the mission and seeing your control, ability to anticipate hazards and understanding of the rail network increase with each scenario completed. There seems to be a growing number of Midlife Gamer members jumping on board, if the term ‘’Super elevation’’ causes inappropriate arousal in your trouser area then go buy it now! If not, hang on for a Steam sale then give it a dabble… you may well be pleasantly surprised, I know I was!
MLG Rating: 8/10
Platform: PC Release Date: 23/09/2011
Tags: Train Simulator 2012