Game Review - by James Allen
With the invention and later implementation of the wonder of flight, the realm of railroading has been in a steady decline. In the modern day, rails are commonly just used to transport large quantities of goods between locals, and more efficient means of transportation have taken over. So, this seemingly antique form of hauling has taken on an image of mystique, which is captured in the recent train titles. They fall into one of two categories: simulations, like Microsoft's Train Simulator, and strategy, like Railroad Tycoon and Rails Across America. Initially, I thought that Rails Across America was just a modern version of Railroad Tycoon II; it deals with the same subject, after all. So, will Rails Across America capture the minds of railroading strategists the world over, or just derail?
Rails Across America has some impressive features for a game of this type, having both single and multiple player modes of play. In the lonely realm of single player games, there are skirmish-type games called "regular" games, and an impressive number of historically based scenarios (22, to be exact). The regular games can be customized to the fullest extent, as you can choose the skill of the AI players and the starting position of each baron. Thankfully, these can be randomized to permit infinite replays. Also, you can alter the technological options by changing the starting and ending date, initial cash for each team, the difficulty, and the frequency of computer-lead attacks. The options for multiplayer are the same, except that you are confronting humans rather than bits and bytes. The customizable options included in Rails Across America further the ability to play the game totally different each time, and makes the game last a long period of time without any repetition.
The sounds, like the graphics, are very basic in Rails Across America. Of course, since the sound section is first, I should use this comparison in the graphics section, but I wrote that part first, so tough! The world in which you play the game is filled with enough train sounds to give the impression that railroads might be present, but that's about it. You can hear the exchange of money, finishing of track, and signature of loan applications throughout the game. The weirdest sound is the "smackdown" effect heard during influence actions. Why the developers chose this specific sound byte for this action is beyond me. Them's the breaks (boy, did spell check enjoy THAT sentence).
I was pleasantly surprised that the focus of Rails Across America is refreshingly different when compared to Railroad Tycoon II. Although the end result is the same (develop the best railroading empire), the methods of getting there involve some interesting ideas and fun gameplay. When you start the game in your city of origin, the first action is to lay track to the most profitable adjacent metropolis. This is done in very simplistic fashion, as you just need to select a city and then choose the tradeoff between cost of build and time of travel (tunnels cost more but take less time to traverse). Once you designate you new line, you can choose the passenger and freight engines for your journey. There are engines just for passenger travel, cargo transportation, or both. Also, engines that require electrified track are also available, once the technology is developed. Then, you can sit back and watch your empire grow.
Except not. The rest of the game includes pissing off and eventually eliminating the other players in the game. First, the economics model is fairly simple, as you can request loans, the interest rates which are based on your credit rating (from AAA to College Student). Also, you can ear part of your income toward dividends to your stockholders, which increases your prestige. Prestige is the real goal of the game, as the player with the most wins once time runs out (unless you are playing a scenario which has a different goal). Prestige is calculated by seeing the influence of your rail system on the continent of North America. So, having the most extensive network of the most money will not win you're the game, although they don't hurt. You can get prestige bonuses by completing transcontinental railroads or other firsts in the game. This is an interesting concept which leads to making sure that profit is not the only bottom line.
During the game, you can manipulate the number of cars on each track to maximize profit on each, which is depicted in an easy to use array of lights. The interface in the game is very easy to use, and is necessary because of the quick pace of Rails Across America. If there is too much traffic on one of your lines, you must add improvements like multiple tracks and signals. Also, improving the engines used can assist in winning the game. The most interesting and original aspect of Rails Across America is the influence feature. Every so often, each player is dealt a card in one of five categories: government, money, publicity, labor, and dirty tricks. These cards can be combined to form specific actions against other players, such as stock raids and strikes. If you have one too many of a specific category of card, you can trade them in for a cash refund; this is especially important because you are limited to the size of your "hand." Once you perform an action on an opponent, it matches up the appropriate cards and see who has more to determine the winner. In addition to influencing other players, you can influence shortlines (independent rails) or individual pieces of track. This is a really neat adaptation of politics, and, like most things, works well in Rails Across America.
The graphics aren't exactly the most revolutionary pictures we've ever seen, but they do accomplish the task at hand very well. The game world is depicted exactly as a map, viewed from the top down. There are little instances of detail here, from the progressive modernization of the cities themselves to the trains and oil derricks. With the continual evolution to include all three axes in computer games, it may seem striking that a game released in this day and age would restrict itself to two dimensions. In Rails Across America's favor, however, the graphics work for the computer game, rather than hindering its gameplay. So, even with the unimpressive representation of North America and its associated railroad system here, we can forgive it for being simplistic and easy to use, which is a tradeoff that is usually taken to the wrong side of the equation in other games.
Rails Across America is a really interesting strategy title. Featuring innovating gameplay surrounding the shady world of railroading, Rails Across America, although it has sub-par graphics and sound, delivers in a big way. The replay ability of the game even furthers its laurels. The similarities to Railroad Tycoon II are few, if any, which makes this title reject any notion of being a rehash. Any fan of railroads or strategy games should check this game out: you will not be disappointed.