It could have been legendary… instead it’s just good. That’s how I’d sum up Sid Meier’s Railroads. It’s not that the core game isn’t fun: in fact, I’d say that for the most part, the core game is what shines. Unfortunately, the game was rushed out, and it shows: the first version is buggy, a little light on content, and lacks several key gameplay features that would make things much easier. Despite all of this, the game is quite fun, and I am confident that within 2-3 patches it will be where it needs to be. And it was only $40, instead of $50, so I guess that’s why we got 80% of a game.
What I Love
The core game engine of Sid Meier’s Railroads is excellent. Cities are placed throughout the map, with their starting supply/demand determined randomly. From here, your job is to connect the cities and meet their needs. Laying track is very, very simple, and connecting industries much the same. Most industries just have two steps of processing: the raw material, and the processed good (example, coal and steel), but there are some three step industries (automobiles and weapons, which are both made from steel). Logically, the more processed a good, the more you are paid for deliveries. Additionally, it is possible to make a healthy profit from purchasing industries, which gives you a cut of every delivery–both your own, and your competitors.
Purchasing key industries often pays off big, but it’s important to acquire them early, when they’re cheap. Having this alternative to strictly laying track for your fortune allows for some game depth. However, industries don’t come for nothing: any purchase attempt leads to an open auction amongst all players: meaning your opponents can bid up, or outbid you. Keeping tabs on your opponents cash supplies is critical when acquiring industries to make sure you don’t end up screwed (like Jay’s mom on a Friday night).
One excellent feature is that as you utilize industries, resources, and cities, they “grow.” Over the course of long scenarios (and the focus of one of the scenarios), you will watch tiny villages that are just comprised of one industry turn into metropolises demanding everything and churning out passengers. Accordingly, resource points have sizes and can grow as well, as will industries that process resources (allowing them to convert faster and store more). One of my favorite features is watching the key cities you choose to connect and serve grow as time goes on, and exploiting the opportunities that grow as a result.
The auction system is also utilized for patents. Periodically, patents are put on the market for everyone to bid on. These patents can give bonuses to deliveries (the Pullman car, or refrigerated cars), or speed bonuses to your trains. Due to the fact they’re auctioned, you need to carefully weigh the benefit of the patent, as they can get quite pricey quite quickly. Winning a patent gets you 10 years of exclusivity, after which the patent is applied to all players as it becomes part of “public domain.”
Another aspect of gameplay is stock: the lifeblood of your company. The way you “lose” definitively is by being bought out. Each player has 10 shares of stock which can be freely traded. Another strategic tradeoff you can make is the decision to invest in stock (either your own or someone else’s) early. Later on, it can be sold at a large profit. Alternately, you can attempt to completely buyout your competitors, acquiring all of their track trains and depots.
I never played the original railroad tycoon games, so I’m not hung up on them or comparing this game to them. What I like is that this is a fun train sim with a solid, but streamlined, economic engine. It’s fun to play, and isn’t too taxing on the brain. Those looking for an intense economic simulation might want to look elsewhere, but those looking to have fun should enjoy the game. If you love trains (like me), you’ll love it that much more.
What I Hate
Bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs. This game should have been dipped in Raid before being shipped, or more realistically, not shipped so soon. Although there is a patch in the works, this game has HORRIFIC bugs. I would say I average a crash every 45 minutes while playing. There are numerous graphical glitches. I have had, at times, cities which were connected but unserviceable for no reason I could discern. Which brings to another problem: lack of information to the user.
Since trains are well, on tracks, they can only go where the track takes them. Accordingly, without proper track placements and connections, you can’t always service every station in your rail line. However, rather than tell you WHERE the problem is, the game simply tells you that a train can’t go to stop X from stop Y. Early game, this isn’t a problem. Late game, when your tracks are all over the place, this gets to be a real pain in the ass. Something that would indicate potential problem points would be a huge help. And I can’t believe the QA department didn’t figure this out, or perhaps the programmers were too lazy to put it in.
Another problem I have is that the maps feel too crowded, especially with three competitors. This becomes a big problem when servicing major cities. After the first two competing rail lines goes in, the third usually has to construct a horrifically awkward bridge over the existing rail lines to get to a depot. Forget a fourth. This means that your trains come into these cities at extremely slow speed (due to the incline) and makes the route fairly worthless.
I understand the “competitive advantage”? of getting to a given city first, but look at real life: train tracks are tiny compared to cities. But the game makes tracks disproportionately large. I find that in most of my games my rail line expansion is limited to the section of the map I started in: not a problem, really, but I hate that my routes are shackled by the track graphical interface. I’ve also taken to only playing against two competitors to limit this problem: it seems to strike a good balance.
Train decision making AI seems to be fairly sub-par as well. Trains often pick the wrong tracks and can get exceptionally confused at major intersection cities. This can lead to some fun bugs such as trains being permanently stuck occupying a rail line, only fixable by deleting the train.
Another problem is the massive system resources needed to run the game. I have one of those, “my computer is awesome because my penis is small” computers, that’s only about six months old and was top of the line when purchased. I run the game at max resolution and settings–and later in scenarios, I find myself having slowdown problems. If my overcompensation computer can’t take the game at these settings, I feel bad for the rest of the users who are probably running at low settings (where my guess is the trains look like squares and the people look like stick figures).
On the same rant, although the graphics are awesome and the details neat, there are certain silly things that they didn’t attend to. For example, if you have a double or triple track over a resource point, say, a coal mine, the coal drops from the loader into the train. On a double or triple track, there are as many loaders as there are tracks–and they all dump coal at the same time (meaning one coal loader is going into the train, and two are dropping into nothing). Yeah, it’s a nitpick, but come on, this is intern work for them to fix.
Lastly, the scenarios in the game are good. They are fun. They cover interesting regions and time periods with somewhat unique resources depending on the scenario. However, there are not NEARLY enough single player scenarios (and probably not enough multiplayer, either). Yes, you can randomize the locations and landscape, but that’s just a cop-out for replayability.
I wish there were more scenarios, because it’d be fun to see other regions of the US and Europe, or alternate time periods. It is VERY clear that this part of the game was skimped on, which is frustrating, because what’s there is really good. It reminds me of this time a few years ago we got some strippers. They were hot, and awesome, but they definitely shorted us on strip time. If they weren’t so hot, I wouldn’t have been really pissed about the shorting. The same concept applies here.
Stuff I might care about, other people do, but I’m on the fence
One thing that is driving the internet fanboys into shooting spree-like rages (if only they could find daddy’s gun and weren’t morbidly obese) is the fact that automobile factories are available in the 1800’s to deliver resources. I don’t really care, to be honest. But some people do. On the whole, I am fairly satisfied with the selection of resources and industries, but I am very OCD about these things (read my Civ 4 reviews), and would be happier if there were more resources, more industries, and more “multi tier” industries like automobiles.
Another odd thing is that scenario objectives can be completed at any time, even though most scenarios have 3-5 time “periods” with which you have to get things done. Some of this is OK–like objectives that require connecting multiple cities on the map. Others don’t make sense: such as delivering carloads of troops from city to city. It’s very odd when you complete this objective in 1899 France, when it needed to be done by 1945 (that whole World War II thing). The logical solution would to have certain objectives achievable in any time period, and others that had to be done in certain time windows. Of course, that’d require an attention to detail and time commitment that we have established this game lacks.
Overall, this is a good game. It is fun, solid and based on a great engine, but it’s completely undermined by the fact it was rushed out. Despite the numerous flaws (which I expect to be patched up over time), the core game engine is sufficiently entertaining and strong enough to carry the day. However, had more time been spent building out the scenarios and resources, and fixing the numerous (and obvious) bugs from the start, this game would have seized the opportunity to be truly defining in the genre and in reviving the railroads simulation class of games. Instead, what I think it’s done is tee up a series of expansions, which will most likely ride off a stronger core engine (after many patches), and ensure a steady stream of expansion income. I wish this weren’t the way developers sold their games–but I think at this point it’s something we’re all used to.