Game Review - by James Allen
As the computer gaming industry keeps getting older and older, new areas in which to branch out to are needed to keep gaming fresh and innovative. Recently, we have ventured into the realm of railroading, primarily with Microsoft's Train Simulator. There is another aspects of trains that many people occupy their time with, and that is model railroading. I'm sure that we've all seen intricate and extravagant scaled displays of railroading empires during our days here on this oblate spheroid that we call Earth. It's kind of surprising that no computer programs have attempted to simulate this hobby, but that's until now! Trainz, despite it's total lack of grammatical accuracy, is an attempt to faithfully recreate a pastime that has been gaining steam of late (get it? HA HA HA!). Will Trainz show all the beauty and historic splendor of railroading in all its glory, or derail, spilling its radioactive contents on an unsuspecting public?
There are three components to the game: my collection, the driver, and the surveyor. Firstly, Trainz comes with an impressive selection of real-world engines and boxcars and the like, from flatbeds with logs to coal and salt containers. Each of the engines has their own attributes, like maximum speed and mass. There are enough components here to satisfy most railroading buffs, and you can download more trains from the Trainz website.
You design each of your areas with the surveyor, where you start with the default flat, featureless board. Trainz prides itself on expandability, and this shows in the surveyor section. Firstly, you can import your own greyscale elevation maps, so I've downloaded many USGS DEM data files and imported them into the game to create realistic elevations with none of the hassle. Each of your maps conforms to a specific geographic region: Britain, Australia, and the USA. This dictates the texture sets and objects that would be most appropriate for your design. You can alter the elevation of the maps with the topology options, paint ground textures to your liking, and place many objects, including buildings, people, cars, train stations, and much more. You can also import your own textures, or use the included gmax 3D editor to create your own objects. You can even set the water clarity and cloud cover. Laying your track is also easy, as the game automatically curves your designs, and you can set the ground to the level of your track, or vice versa. It takes some getting used to, but it's very powerful once you get the hang of it.
Finally, you can drive your track, selecting a consist consisting of trains from your collection. You can add as many consists as there are starting points on the track (set in the surveyor), and you can have the AI control the trains in real time that you are not. The AI does a good job of controlling the trains, as long as your map is designed well. You can set the derail level of the trains, from none to realistic, along with the weather. With all the options available in designing your maps and driving on them, Trainz certainly completes the train experience with precision.
Trainz features some basic sound effects, which almost brings the environments alive. The sounds that accompany the trains are realistic, from the blaring whistles to the clickity-clack of the wheels gliding over the tracks. You can hear birds and other fauna while you are in the appropriate niche, and the crossing informing the public of an oncoming train. I guess the reason that the sound is just average is because it's very understated, and the lack of a soundtrack of any kind also hinders the ratings. The importance of good railroading tunes can never be understated. So, the sound in Trainz does have it's high points, but overall it's just another typical attempt.
I mentioned all of the features of the game in the section titles Features, appropriately enough. Most of the "gameplay" in Trainz results in designing your environments and driving trains around them, so I'll relate my impressions of the ease and fun of these two aspects of the game here. First, the Surveyor is very easy to use, and it consistently tries to make designing complex environments as painless as possible. You can spend a couple of hours making a pretty good landscape (as I have on many occasions), or spend weeks and months on a single, gigantic environment. It takes a couple of initial tries to comprehend the best way of designing your land, and realizing the powerful nature of some of the features, such as automatic gradients and adjusting spline heights. I'm continually impressed by how easy to use, yet powerful the editor is.
After you design your landscape, you can jump into a train and take it for a test drive. This can be done in two flavors: realistically and easily, depending on what your draw is. You can drive the trains with just a speed dial (like real model railroad sets use), or delve into the world of braking pipes and realistic engine physics. The cabin mode is similar to that found in Microsoft's Train Simulator, offering more options of control: this deviates slightly from the model train leanings of the game, moving toward more real-life control methods. But, different strokes for different folks, so the method you prefer should be satisfied by the game. Sadly, crashes between trains are less than spectacular, as explosions and the like are not included; this is one of my only gripes with the game. Now, some people will be turned off by Trainz, as there ARE just two aspects to the gameplay. There aren't any "missions" or objective-based games here, which eliminates any structure to the game. This has both good and bad points, as you are free to do as you wish within the structure of the game, but you're limited to designing landscapes and then driving them. Trainz does these two things very, very well, but if you are looking for more in a train simulation, Trainz may not be for you.
The level of detail in Trainz is very astounding, and this more that any other aspect creates for a realistic atmosphere in the game. First, the trains themselves are rendered in very precise detail, which is especially evident in the undercarriage: you can even pick out individual gears, pipes, and wheel assemblages, which is very nice. None of the textures on the trains are blurry in any aspect, especially when the detail level is cranked up to the maximum. Secondly, the environments are given many touches of realism that add to the realism. Cars drive around on the roads, stopping at railroad crossings, livestock move around and eat the grass, and the water level constantly fluctuates from incoming waves. It's not often that you see a dynamic environment such as this, and it goes a long way toward convincing you that the world is alive, and that you aren't the only person present in the game. The static objects in the game are also well done, from skyscrapers to mills to trees galore. Truly, the graphics in Trainz is a venture through the aesthetically pleasing, and is a definite plus of the game. Much care was taken in rendering the game, and it shows. Be forewarned, however, that nVidia cards are the only ones supported in the game, so Voodoo owners are out of luck. Thankfully, both DirectX and OpenGL support are included, as the OpenGL support (at least for me) is slower than molasses (read 1 frame every 5 seconds, even for movies and the intro screen). This caused some disappointment coupled with screaming at the computer the first night I had the game, but these problems were resolved with a quick stop to the message boards.
If you are into designing model train environments and then testing your maps, Trainz is a great title in which to do so. With so many engines, trains, objects, and features, all that you could ask for in model railroad design is here. This is a much more cost-effective investment in the hobby, and it has the added bonus of constant animation as you drive around the tracks. If you have even a passing interest in model railroading, and you don't mind the lack of structured scenarios, Trainz is a wonderful simulation that should be experienced.