Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 Review

Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006, developed and published by Auran.
The Good: Interesting scenarios transporting goods in real time, agreeable tutorials, novice and expert train controls, loads of user-created downloads
The Not So Good: Sound issues, more difficult than it should be to install custom content, above average graphics
What say you? An fairly decent simulation for anyone with an interest in trains: 6/8

As computer games can attest, people like doing things they don’t normally do. From racing cars to flying planes to ordering commands to troops, gamers enjoy walking some steps in other’s shoes and living vicariously through their games. I’ve always contended that if your job is a game, you have a pretty fun or interesting job. An example of one of these jobs is train engineer, piloting large behemoths carrying important, dynamic items like coal. Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 is the latest update to the railroad simulation series, one that I’ve encountered before. The game features both driving trains and designing layouts, just like the train sets of the olden days before people had superior forms of entertainment. Will the latest Trainz provide enough improvements on previous titles to warrant a new purchase for old and new owners alike?

Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 has some pretty good graphics, featuring both detailed trains and scenery surrounding the trains. All of the train models are well detailed and have good textures, looking great from both close and afar. The environments included in the game are also high quality, with lots of details in the terrain and structures. Some of the models (especially people) have low polygon counts, but overall the game compares well against other simulations in the graphics department. The sound, on the other hand, has some problems. The effects are OK, but the sound routinely cuts out, switching to mono instead of stereo or sharply switching between left and right speakers. Also, the train horns are very wimpy, not the loud and proud blares I was expecting. The developer needs to do some work improving the sound through future patches; most games do not have problems in this department after the game has been released.

Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 has two separate parts: driver and surveyor. In driver, you drive trains: surprise! In a smart move, there are both novice and expert driving modes available. The novice mode features simplistic physics and easy speed controls, just like those used in a train set. The expert mode is driven from the cab and has all the confusingly realistic controls found in real trains. Luckily, there is a set of tutorials that teaches you how to drive the trains in the game, and it does a pretty good job of doing it, although sometimes the directions (especially in later lessons) were a little vague. It does take a little practice finding the correct levers, but you can use keyboard controls to circumvent this difficulty. If the tutorials don’t explain it enough for you, there’s the 300-page PDF manual you can browse. Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 has some interesting scenarios to play with, especially those that deal with delivering goods around the map. There can be a fully working industrial model, with businesses needing specific goods from other businesses in order to operate. For example, you can transport coal from a mine to a power plant, or timber from a lumberyard to the paper mill. This is pretty cool, and gives this train simulation some purpose to driving, other than just driving for driving’s sake. You can also assign AI drivers to pilot the trains and even issue them commands to get the industries up and running. The content could be better organized, however, as the game separates it according to the map, which results in a little bit more clicking than necessary. Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 has in-game chat software called iTrainz so that you can talk to other users and even send trains to games they are playing.

The other half of Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 is the Surveyor, where you create new layouts. This is of grand focus in the game, and really the main purpose of the program. Once you get the hang of it, it’s fairly easy to design a decent looking map, assuming you dedicate the appropriate amount of time to the project. The developers seem to be relying on user-created content to expand the game, as you can run through all the included scenarios in under 15 hours. In theory, this has no real problems, especially since Trainz has a pretty dedicated fanbase. In reality, downloading and using new content is a royal pain. The game uses the Content Manager to integrate an online library of files into the software. Supposedly, the Content Manager shows all the layouts, trains, textures, and objects you can download, although its functioning is spotty at best. In addition to that, almost everything you download is faulty or missing dependencies (other files used by the layout) and requires way too much work to become functional. For example, I downloaded one layout from the Download Center. After it was completed downloading it and all the files it needed, it was still missing six files that couldn’t be found on the central server and fifteen were broken for some reason. I’m not about to go looking around the vast Internet for a couple of files that should have been there to begin with. It’s not the fault of the developers that users have created busted content, but Trainz is built with the user content in mind. Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 relies on this user-created content too much, and it’s too much work to get it functioning correctly for all but the most dedicated users.

Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 has lot of potential, but falls short because of limited included content and faulty user-made downloads. The graphics are really good, but the sound is buggy and the utilities are not the best functioning pieces of software out there. Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 is not n00b-friendly, and most people who’ll enjoy the game have a background in Trainz or other simulation games. Trainz has a good premise and could be great, but because of some rather important shortcomings, all but the most interested players will probably be turned off by the bugs and arduous labor required to get everything working well.