Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Train Giant: A-Train 9 Review

The Train Giant: A-Train 9, developed by Artdink and published by UIG Entertainment.
The Good: Features both transit management and urban development, custom map and scenario editor
The Not So Good: Inadequate or confusing feedback with an obtuse interface, tedious scheduling process, arbitrary road layout restrictions, same objective every scenario, oversimplified materials production, no tutorial, no multiplayer, lacks randomly generated maps
What say you? This train and city management game is lost in translation: 3/8

A city simulator is something you would think would be a niche product, but the wild popularity of the SimCity franchise has made it a well-known genre. The same thing goes for train simulators, such as the RailWorks series, which would seem to have narrow appeal, but $1800 worth of DLC would argue otherwise. Now in its ninth (!) iteration, the A-Train series is being brought to the West from Japan in the form of The Train Giant, a game that combines both city and train management into one package. Will The Train Giant successfully transport its load, or derail in a fury of ineptitude?

The Train Giant looks and sounds dated. While there are some solid aspects to the graphics, namely the decently varied buildings that light up at night, most of the game appears like it came out five years ago (it might have in Japan). The game’s scale doesn’t even approach the actual scale of a small city, with only a handful of high-rises and apartment buildings for each town rendered in the game. You never experience a truly dense city environment thanks to the complete lack of other cars (not directly owned by you) and people milling about. Even the original SimCity, with tiny white rectangles depicting traffic, creates a more bustling metropolis than The Train Giant. The textures in the game look fine when viewed at a distance but become blocky messes when up close. The trains look good, although the trucks and buses are far too small to notice details. The transition from day to night and the water effects look nice, but it’s far too late to salvage the graphics in The Train Giant. The sound effects are frankly rare, with only notifications of some in-game events and music that appears when the scenario loads but never is heard from again. You are certainly not going to purchase The Train Giant on looks alone.

The Train Giant gives you fifteen scenarios (including five not released in Japan, developed by members of the community) in which to develop a successful train company by laying rail and constructing buildings. Each scenario comes with a difficulty rating (which the list is sorted by) to access the level of challenge. Every scenario has the same objective: accumulate a lot of money. This makes each scenario play out exactly the same, although with slightly different starting conditions. I would have preferred some alternative victory conditions, like transporting citizens or goods, or developing certain types of buildings, but this level of sophisticated is beyond the scope of The Train Giant. The maps aren’t the most realistic, either: there are commonly “floating” roads that do no connect to anything, and a “large” city simply consists of a handful of city blocks. There is not an in-game tutorial: there is a really brief “getting started” at the end of the PDF manual and a link to a more extensive HTML manual, but nothing more hands-on to ease you into the game and teach the occasional odd conventions of the simulation. While The Train Giant lacks random maps, there is a custom map editor with eight starting templates, so you can create the city of your dreams…OR NIGHTMARES. Finally, The Train Giant lacks multiplayer for those who like to compete against others in the same city.

One artifact of being a foreign import is the unconventional interface used in The Train Giant. The camera controls are strange: the game uses the keypad (instead of WASD) to move your view (or by left-clicking and holding and moving the mouse) and you can’t move the camera by moving the mouse to the edge of the screen. The minimap must also be moved using the left-click-and-hold-and-drag method, which is fairly inefficient, and arrow keys are used to rotate objects (instead of Q and E). You can bookmark viewpoints, though, which can make it easier to find things. The game comes with a lot of menus full of data (budget, stock market) and object placement (roads, rails, stations, buildings) options, but no colored map displays to display demand or traffic. The Train Giant lacks useful feedback: what should I build, why isn’t anyone riding my trains, why aren’t my factories producing any goods, why aren’t my trucks loading any goods, do I need to purchase more buses? Most transit games give citizen-driven feedback to direct players towards success, but The Train Giant makes most of your decisions complete guesses.

Your primary task is to develop and maintain a mass transit network, and The Train Giant makes this task more difficult than most management games. You first need to place train stations, and then connect those stations using rails. You can choose the station size, length, and number of platforms based on the class (small, medium, large). Once that’s done, you click endpoints to lay rail, choosing elevation and adding switches if desired. A couple of rules make laying roads and rail less satisfying. First, tracks and roads must meet at right angles, which results in square, boring layouts. Second, you must place the rail lines before roads, as you can’t place a track on top of a road, even if you have the room for it. This makes adding rail lines to existing cities a real pain. It’s also difficult to tell if buildings are actually connected to roads; it turns out this actually doesn’t matter, as stations and loading bays serve a radius around them, no matter if they are connected by road or not. You can also change traffic light settings to give your trucks and buses the fastest travel time possible; since there are no other cars in the game to worry about, you can keep the light green for your direction of travel most often. Placing buses, trucks, and trains on a schedule is tedious process: you must define a timetable by following a vehicle in real time (ignoring all other aspects of the game) and choosing which direction to travel at every intersection. Without a guide map, this can be very difficult and truly dull, especially in larger cities with lots of roads. It would have been much easier to just draw routes directly onto the map (like in Cities in Motion), but I guess The Train Giant is passionate about making things as time-consuming as possible. Trains and trucks that are not given a specific schedule will wander aimlessly around the city and stop at any station they happen to encounter, which is a great way to lose money quickly. Beyond a vehicle-specific schedule, you can also define settings for individual stations (wait length, time of departure, wait for another vehicle) for each day of the week, if you are really obsessed with maximizing profits. While The Train Giant gives a lot of options to define your transit system, it does so very inefficiently.

The Train Giant does not stop at simply setting up mass transit. You can also place factories to build materials to construct new buildings like apartments, shops, hotels, offices, and attractions. A factory produces generic “goods” which must be transported to a warehouse (even if it’s next door) by placing a loading dock near the factory and one near the warehouse and then running a truck between them. Then, once a lot of time has passed and enough “goods” have been slowly transported, construction can start near the warehouse, allowing you to earn profits from areas beyond your transit empire. If you’d like to cut one step out of the good manufacturing process, you can also import goods from other cities if you send a road or rail to the map edge. With only one item to construct, interest and variety in this part of the game is very low.

Keeping tabs on your budget is an important aspect of any management game, and The Train Giant offers a needlessly complicated budget sheet with lots of constantly changing values. A lot of things go into computing your budget, which is fine, but the budget display isn’t useful: you can’t click on a budget item (like “multi-storey buildings”) to see where these things are located; you might be losing money on offices you didn’t even know you owned. Instead, you have to go to the market/real estate menu and tab through each category to find what you are looking for. This kind of disorganization makes playing The Train Giant too much work. If you’d like, you can also play the stock market to (hopefully) make some extra cash. Finally, there are apparently AI competitors in the game that will buy up neutral buildings, but I didn’t even notice if they were taking part in any of the scenarios.

The ability to adjust traffic light settings speaks a lot about the amount of detail that’s present in The Train Giant. Accessing, processing, and using this detail, however, is a tough, almost insurmountable task. While you can place rail lines, construct factories, transport goods, and make profit, finding the less efficient parts of your empire is more work than it should be, buried under a pile of number-heavy displays. I sorely miss the clear color-coded map displays from SimCity, where you can see buildings with no power, traffic jams, and other assorted minutiae clearly and easily. In The Train Giant, you are never explicitly told why people and goods aren't using your trains, trucks, buses, stations, and factories that are placed in locations where they should be turning a handy profit. Heck, you're not even told if you need to build more trains, trucks, buses, stations, or factories: there is never a “build more of this” suggestion at any time during the game, so many players will be wondering what exactly to do next (or first, for that matter). Contrast this to the obviously clear happy/sad faces from Cities in Motion and you can see that The Train Giant leaves a lot to be desired in the feedback department. There are also silly limitations in expanding your train business: roads can only meet at right angles and you can’t place track on top of existing roads, requiring you to bulldoze first. This results in a tedious process that removes most of the fun associated with layout out intricate designs to maximize the space you are given. Purchasing trains, trucks, and buses and assigning schedules are also important, as the vehicles will not automatically define their own route using the nearest stations. Instead, you must manually define which direction a bus must turn at every intersection it encounters: a dauntingly dull proposition. You can expand your wealth (supposedly) by manufacturing and transporting your own goods and constructing housing, office space, and leisure, although some businesses will never turn a profit or even do anything for unknown reasons. You can also play stocks or spend time starting at all of the numbers ticking away in your budget, where clicking on a specific value does not give you any detailed information. The interface is an odd import, with keypad scrolling (making the game annoying to use on smaller laptops) and other weird camera controls. The fifteen scenarios offer the same objectives in lifeless towns that have no traffic and no people. At least The Train Giant gives you a map editor to expand the game if you wish. Though you can forget about having a tutorial to explain the basics: instead, you’ll have to rely on the unevenly translated manual. In the end, The Train Giant seems to hate the player, giving insufficient feedback and using inefficient techniques in every aspect of the game; an interface overhaul would make The Train Giant a lot more approachable. You would think that after nine versions of the same game basic usability issues would be worked out, but that is not the case for The Train Giant.