Saturday, July 14, 2007

Loco Mania Review

Loco Mania, developed by 7FX and published by Atari.
The Good: Good premise, semi-random routes, central score list
The Not So Good: Cumbersome camera with no usable overhead view, inadequate controls, boring and tedious, few scenarios and no level editor, no multiplayer
What say you? A train dispatching game that’s frustrating due to a poor user interface and dull to boot: 4/8

Trains are always a popular choice for computer gaming. From the venerable Railroad Tycoon franchise to Trainz, people love to watch locomotives motive their locos. In addition to conducting, there are also people entrusted with making the world’s trains run smoothly. Loco Mania (Spanish for “crazy mania”) is a game that simulates the exciting world of train dispatching in a strategic envelope.

Loco Mania renders its world of trains in a 3-D environment, which, as we will see, actually hinders the gameplay. The game doesn’t look as good as other contemporary train games such as Railroads! and the aforementioned Trainz. The environments are blandly rural: just a basic array of environments to play in with some hills, small towns, and the like. Loco Mania has sporadic detail; this shows the potential of the game, but it’s not executed to the fullest. The locomotives themselves just look OK; they don’t contain impressive amounts of detail and most of the time you’ll be zoomed out so far it won’t matter anyway. For a budget-price game, Loco Mania looks about average, but it could provide a much more convincing and dynamic environment. The sound is very basic. I have yet to hear a train whistle (blasphemy!), the effects are understated (no crossing bells), and the bad music will be turned off quickly by most users. In most train games, the sound is one of the highlights of the title, but the music drowns out the sound so much you can’t hear anything. When you turn it off, you can then enjoy some of the sound in the game, but it’s still too modest for a train title.

In Loco Mania, you will guide trains to their destinations around your map by changing lights and switches. The game comes with twelve scenarios; while they do last a while, it’s not much content and the game lacks an editor. This is a mysterious deletion since it seems that creating maps would be straightforward. There are multiple game modes available for each map, although it’s either directing a set number of trains successfully or playing within a time limit. You must successfully complete each map before unlocking the next one, and your score can be uploaded to a central server and compared against other players from around the world. The train paths are semi-random: although trains spawn at the same location, their destinations and stops may be different. Still, Loco Mania has a relatively limited amount of content, and the lack of competitive multiplayer means you’ll be finished with this game quickly.

Each train has an assigned exit point and sometime special attributes like stops, timers, or biohazards (they can’t be stopped) to make things more complicated. The game sometimes doesn’t play fair, sending in trains at the exits for other trains. You can click on a train to reverse its direction, and along with controlling lights and switches, this is the only interaction with the trains in the game. You can right-click on a train to show its path based on the current switch arrangement, which makes controlling your trains a lot easier. While it would seem that playing Loco Mania would be very straightforward, the user interface and camera controls make playing the game so frustratingly. You have to constantly wrestle with the camera; when you click on a train to zoom to it, the view is way too close and at a weird, unusable angle. This means you have to adjust the camera every time you select a train; as Nancy Kerrigan would say, “WHYYYYYYY?!?” The lights are realistically small and you must click directly on them; this is bothersome in the heat of battle. You’ll need to manipulate the lights near each station, as apparently the conductor is too stupid to know their own stops. Loco Mania gives you an overhead map, but you can’t do anything from it, and the game prevents you from zooming all the way out. I think there is a decent game in here somewhere, but it’s buried underneath all of the interface issues. Loco Mania would have been so much better in 2-D, played from an overhead perspective. There’s a requirement if you go to 3-D: you must make the game easy to navigate, and Loco Mania does not.

I can see the potential in Loco Mania, but there are just too many problems to recommend it. The mechanics could make for an entertaining game, and good puzzle and strategic elements are in here somewhere. However, the game’s lack of features, such as multiplayer and the limited suite of scenarios, and the poor user interface makes Loco Mania too cumbersome to be enjoyable. I had absolutely no fun playing this game, wrestling with the camera and interface instead of worrying about my trains. The game is tedious and each level lasts just a bit too long. “Exacerbating” is a good way of describing Loco Mania: a good concept very poorly executed.