I am sure I was not alone in my disappointment when Microsoft announced it was canceling Train Simulator II a while back. Train Simulator was a niche title, but had a strong following and was very enjoyable to play, especially as a rainy day change from the typical fast paced and labor intensive games I typically play.Admittedly, I was tagged for this review because I am generally the only one who enjoys simulations. However, I was genuinely excited to receive the title, especially because I was not aware that the railroad sim genre was alive beyond the Trainz titles. And to make matters even more interesting, this title is being brought to us by the folks at EA. Clearly they realize what Microsoft did not.Rail Simulator is a game with a title that speaks for itself. The game is a simulator. In it, you control a variety of trains.The hardware available to drive is fairly complete. There are steam, diesel and electric engines. For my money, the steam engines are by far the most fun to use, as the micromanagement involved can become overwhelming. Using these monsters certainly makes one appreciative of current day locomotives.Unlike most games, Rail Simulator basically has no story and, honestly, no point beyond learning to become proficient at driving a train and, perhaps, learning to read railside signals. I do not mean to insinuate that Rail Simulator is pointless, just that it is not particularly tough to understand.The game begins with a fairly tedious install process and borderline unbearable load times. I honestly thought my system was locked up on the first few starts. Do not be surprised to wait minutes for the game to load. I guess I can understand the need to take some time, but several minutes to load scenery for train routes is not a good plan in my opinion. I have played many games with significantly more detail, including some flight simulators that take a fraction of the time.You basically have two options for play, a free play mode or a goal oriented scenario option. The scenarios are not particularly engaging, but, if you need an objective in order to enjoy a game, this would be your cup of tea. In free play, you have your choice of train types to drive and you just click and go. The scenario mode, obviously, requires you to submit to a more rigid game, traveling from point to point as directed.For me, the beauty of simulations is getting to a position where I feel I can enter a vehicle, no matter how large or complex, and operate it in real life. I have never thought of trains as particularly difficult to operate (although I have never done so outside of my many model trains).
On its easiest setting, this game certainly does not present trains as all that difficult to move, and it actually oversimplifies the process, in my opinion. There are three difficulty settings which affect the control scheme. In the most simple, you basically use a forward and reverse key to get going or to stop. Intermediate makes the process a bit more complex and the expert mode tries to bring it to a true simulation level.I once read that a flight simulator is more appropriately called a scenery simulator. I agreed with that statement when I read it years ago, but have come to understand that it is no longer the case. Scenery is certainly an important aspect of a good simulator. With the current level of physical modeling that has appeared in recent years, however, physics accuracy has become a necessity.In a train simulator, this boils down to the mass factor. How much does a train weigh? A lot. Because of that fact, any train should be slow to starts and, once moving, take a long time and distance to stop. In reality, a fast-moving fully loaded train can take miles to come to a complete stop. Rail Simulator does a fine job of presenting this aspect. The initial jerk at the start of motion is present and, even at full brake and reverse, stopping a slow-moving train takes some time.Rail Simulator comes complete with an editor. This is a no brainer in the sim community. Any developer that does not have this vision is destined to frustrate his community. If you are into creating terrain and routes, you will have a blast with the editor. It begins with a flat piece of terrain and you can manipulate the mesh to your heart’s content. The editor is not particularly hard to use, but I did not find it something that I wanted to spend a lot of time with. The editor seems very complete and I cannot think of any pieces missing from it. I look forward to the user created routes that will be available on the Net in the months to come.The graphics are a mixed bag. The engines and cars are well detailed and the varied viewpoints are nicely designed. Some of the environmental effects, especially trees, are not all that appealing. I quickly get sick of repetitive textures as they remind me that I am in a digital world when I use a sim. The more natural things look, the better the experience. I am sure there will be some user created textures that will arrive in the near future, and I definitely will install anything available.The sound is good. I am a bit of an audio snob, and yes, I can actually hear fidelity differences in games. The manual spends a good bit of space explaining how to get the most out of the HD sound it employs. I was not blown away by the sound, but it certainly did not lessen the experience in any way.Rail Simulator is a welcome addition to my simulation library. If you have been craving a follow-up to Microsoft Train Simulator, or if you have never enjoyed a train sim before, pick up this title. Outside of the incredibly lengthy load time and a few graphical issues, I really enjoyed the experience. It is a complete package and certainly has the potential to provide many hours of engineering fun.