Sunday, September 17, 2006

Traffic Review

Traffic, developed and published by INtex Publishing.
The Good: Real world cities, numerous operating options, custom map editing
The Not So Good: Tremendously hard to maintain a profit, lack of simple tutorial cities, user interface could be better, can’t change game speed
What say you? An intriguing public transportation simulation, but steep difficulty makes the game too frustrating: 5/8

Roads and highways are things we take for granted. We use them everyday, and then complain when the traffic is bad or there is too much construction. Well, Mr. Whiny Pants, why don’t you design the transit system, huh? See how you like it. That’s the premise behind Traffic, which lets you control the bus and train systems for several large cities around the world. Think you could do better? Let’s find out!

Traffic is played entirely on a 2-D map, and as long as you weren’t expecting SimCity or City Life 3-D graphics, then you won’t be too disappointed. The game looks like a bus or subway map you’d find posted as stops along the route, and has icons representing the vehicles as they move along their route. I think it would have been extremely difficult to model all of the world cities believably in 3-D, so I’m fine with the map view, plus it opens the door for modders to add their own creations to the mix. My only problem with the graphics is that a lot of the information would have worked better as overlays on the map (like the information presented in SimCity) instead of separate windows where you have to match up the corresponding locations. Other than that, I feel that the maps work well. The sound in Traffic is barely present: just some traffic sounds and some notification warnings, and that’s it. The real focus of the game is the underlying simulation, so not surprisingly the graphics and sound of Traffic aren’t the best, but they are adequate.

In Traffic, you are charged with maintaining a profitable transit system in the world’s largest cities. You may play each city as an open sandbox mode, or in a development mode where you work on a different part of the city and work your way onward and upward. Traffic features a good number of real world cities, but the game doesn’t offer an easy starter city or have a tutorial, so you’ll have to read the online manual like a sucker. In the game, you make bus, train, and subway routes, add vehicles, and maintain the overall system. Tracing the routes could have been easier: you need to click on each individual piece of road along the route, and each time the road makes an intersection or turns, you’ll need to click again. Plus, the game randomly selects adjacent roads without you clicking on them, which requires the user to delete part of their route. Once a route is placed, you must assign vehicles to them, which range from small (but cheap) to big (but expensive). You can also change the times the route is active (daytime only, weekends, et cetera). The game indicates which areas of the town have the most passengers, which takes some of the guesswork out of laying down some routes. You can set up buses, trams, metro lines, tram trains, and commuter trains, but most of these options are so expensive it’s not worth it unless the scenario requires it.

Once you’re done making the perfect route system, the game quits because you’ve gone bankrupt. You see, it’s extremely difficult to maintain a profit in the game. In fact, I’ve never made it past the second week of the game because I keep losing money. If you have a route that’s always full with good spacing between buses, why shouldn’t you make money? It’s the most confounding thing I’ve ever seen. In addition, it takes time for a route to make money (why?!?), so by the time you realize a route is no good, it’s too late and you’ve lost the game. This is enormously annoying, so much so that most people will just quit playing and never go back. The game requires you to make a boatload of money from the beginning of the game. This wouldn’t be as bad if the game let you pause time, but the game marches on at its fixed pace. It takes the first two game days just to lay down one route (because of the difficulty in laying routes); that’s two days of profit you’ve missed and a lost game is the result. The online manual offers some tips, but they are of no help. I’ve tried building one line at a time, increasing the ticket prices (this causes people to stop taking the bus), running only one small bus at a time, and a host of other unrealistic solutions, but nothing has worked. If I’m running an efficient system that’s transporting a solid number of travelers, why should I lose? The world may never know.

Traffic is a good idea gone horribly, horribly wrong due to excessive difficulty. I like the basic premise. I like the mechanics. But the game is so hard that I don’t see anyone really enjoying playing the game unless the figure out the trick to turning a profit. In all of the game I’ve played (and I’ve played a good number since I always have to restart because I keep losing), I’ve had one profitable line. Of course, the other six lines were unprofitable, so I was screwed. I’m connecting the most heavily demanded areas and the buses are all full: what’s the problem? I think the economics of the game and the arbitrary “payments” that must be made each Monday are the problem. Of course, since neither the game nor the manual explicitly say what the “payments” are, it’s all speculation on my part. Traffic really needs a small city where you can learn the game before you move on to the large metropolises, where victory is almost assured if you know how to build a line. But Traffic offers almost no help to the user, a death sentence if you are a tricky game to begin with. All but the most interested in public transportation will be turned away by the challenging nature of Traffic. Who knew designing bus lines would be so hard?