Train Simulator 2014 – Review
There’s a cute girl reading Catcher In The Rye across from me on my train. I know her name as it’s written on her Starbucks Espresso cup that she keeps rearranging because I’m hogging the space with my laptop. We keep making accidental knee-contact when we go to change how we’re sat and it’s a bit awkward but no one’s said anything yet. The train running on my laptop, however, has only a few passengers, all sat perfectly still with lots of leg room. Perhaps that’s what Train Simulator 2014 is missing – awkward knee touching with cute girls.
Or perhaps I’m missing the point. Train Simulator 2014, the latest in the series of popular train simulators, is more about actually driving the train. Handing you the keys to ten different trains with three routes from across the world to try them out on, you’re free to just mess around driving up and down the rails, or take part in a host of challenges that RailSimulator.com have designed for you. It’s been going from strength to strength with each new release – you may have seen my previews from the last two Gamescoms – but from the minute you load up the new edition, it’s clear that this is something very special indeed.
The main aim of this edition is to make the game, quote, “sexier”. After watching the opening cutscene – a flashy demonstration detailing what to expect, backed by a thumping dance track – you’ll land on the game’s sexy new menus. Being excited by a new set of menus may seem bizarre but, trust me, the improvements are very noticeable. Previous editions were simple lists which required their own tutorial just to find your way around. This year, however, we’re treated to big blue boxes that jump up as you mouse over them, with pop-ups giving extra information about each section should you need them. It’s flashy and modern, and makes the game a whole lot more appealing to the less-hardcore train-fan crowd.
One of my main problems with previous editions was trying to find my way to a tutorial; the game is relatively easy to pick-up and play, but if you wanted to learn more advanced manoeuvres you’d have to wade your way through menu screens to hunt them down. Thankfully, tutorials now have their own section in the game’s “Drive” section, so newcomers can quickly get started with learning the basics before they just dive in and end up crashing a train full of innocent people. Standard and career scenarios are also separated, so if you don’t want to be graded on your driving skills for all your friends to see, but are still looking for a set challenge, you’ve got a good place to start.
Once you get through the sexy new menus, however, you’ll find that this is the same game that you’ve been playing the past few years. In fact, when loading up my route just now, I was mildly amused to see the old Train Simulator 2012 logo pop up on the loading screen. To call this a new edition would be a mistake – people who already own the game will be updated for free, so it’s more a title update than a new game in its own right. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course, since the changes are very noticeable in some areas, but don’t think this is going to provide any new twists on the gameplay.
For the uninitiated, driving a train is fairly straightforward, even in the “Expert” control setting. You have three levers in the form of power, direction and brakes, and have to fiddle with these to keep your train under the speed limit as you travel along the route. You can’t just have your power up on full at all times; speeding comes with a penalty to your points, and that penalty keeps adding up based on how fast you’re travelling. Instead you have to build up power, and then ease off to keep your train at a steady pace. The power lever can be a little finicky however, since the button on the HUD is just a simplified portrayal of what’s actually happening in the cab, and simply saying “50% power” doesn’t necessarily accurately tell you how much power is really being used. It’s there to be a guide and to provide some continuity between trains, but don’t fool yourself into believing that it’s telling you the whole truth.
Serious train enthusiasts will head straight for the Career mode, which gives you a selection of scenarios to take on and be graded on your performance. These scenarios are tough, and pretty harshly marked; speeding, as previously mentioned, will completely destroy your points, while hitting the brakes too hard will also see a penalty and something called “drive quality”, which I think just means that I’m ‘bad at trains’. You can earn yourself some points by being on time to pick up passengers or connecting coaches well, but if you dare to run even one red light it’s game over and you have to start all over again. I suppose that’s fair for a simulation, but typical game logic dictates that being thrown back half an hour because of one small mistake is ridiculous. Watch your speed and keep an eye out for signals, however, and you’ll find the experience actually rather rewarding, even if it does set you back a long time.
Time is probably my main concern with this game. Almost every scenario takes a minimum of twenty-five minutes, and to be frank, there isn’t a whole lot to do between locations. You’ll be fiddling with the levers for a while, but that starts to lose its shine and you’ll be looking around for things to do. You can switch cameras about and look at the environment, but there’s usually just a collection of trees and then a vast expanse of nothing. You can hang out with the other passengers, but as I mentioned before, they simply sit there. I found myself playing Train Simulator in windowed mode while I did other things on my PC, and this is probably the best way to play; you can keep an eye on your train’s speed while messing about on a social network, such as the new Engine Driver website designed specifically for this game, but more on that later.
If you’re not particularly career-oriented, or you just don’t have the time, you can always use the Free Roam to drive around to your heart’s content. This lets you choose your train, route, and the conditions you’re driving in, and then drops you in and lets you go. It’s one of the most strangely serene things you can do; there’s no need to keep an eye on your speed, and you can just put the camera in a coach and watch the world rush by. I’m doing just that while I write this review, in windowed mode, watching the world go by in the real world and virtual while getting work done. It’s good that the game is not entirely focused on harsh realism, and that you can just stick the power to max and let yourself go, and it’s a feature you’ll find yourself coming back to time and time again, just to see the routes available and experience the calm pleasure of being on a train.
For those people who like to do things completely their own way, you can use the Build section to make your own scenarios and tracks, and this time around the developers are offering their advanced suite of tools that they themselves use to create the official courses. There’s plenty on offer here to keep you occupied and fine-tune your track the way you like, and once you’re done you can share or sell your routes on Steam. It’s a bit daunting to just dive into however, and there doesn’t appear to be any in-game tutorial, which makes things trickier, but you can click around aimlessly for a while and create something approaching a length of track (although, admittedly, mine was covered in dead geese). The scenario sharing has been in since the last instalment, and from what I can see there’s a small, helpful community of people making and sharing scenarios, so hopefully the ability to share home-made routes will be taken up by the community.
The aforementioned Engine Driver isn’t really part of the game experience, and is more a separate entity in its own right. You can access it through the game, but since that opens in Steam’s web browser and thus completely overlays the game, you’re better off going on in your own browser as a separate action. Engine Driver is a place where train enthusiasts and Train Simulator fans can join together to talk about trains, with regular articles written by the staff at RailSimulator and the ability for users to submit their own articles, tutorials and general train stories with others. It’s still early days for the service yet, so there isn’t a lot of content available, but I did find an incredibly detailed explanation of how to get custom foliage into your world editor which was truly fascinating. If the quality of the content is kept up, then Engine Driver will definitely be a great place to be for all those who like trains or just simulating driving them.
As with most simulators, the graphics aren’t exactly a strong point. The trains themselves are well-detailed, faithful recreations of the real thing, and the team have made sure to get every detail right. The interiors aren’t so good as the exteriors; the carriages in particular look fairly blocky and low-resolution, and the people who occupy them hardly even look like human beings. The environments are also fairly bland, with usually nothing more than some trees to look at as you whizz by. There are some urban areas to travel through but, again, these aren’t exactly high-detailed. The focus was always going to be on making the trains look accurate, of course, but it would be nice to see some more attention put in to the world around the train as well.
The sounds in the game are practically non-existent. The thumping dance song in the opening cutscene changes to a quiet, uplifting classical piece in the menus, and then it all disappears when you get to the game itself. What replaces it is the endless whirring of the electric engine of your train, which can sometimes do some sort of weird sonic boom thing when you switch to an outside view of your train. There’s little incidental noises here and there, such as unintelligible radio chatter, that does add to the overall experience, but you might want to source your own soundtrack if you grow weary of the endless noise of the train.
On a final note, I feel the pricing of Train Simulator 2014 should be mentioned. Conventional game logic dictates that any game with one hundred times more DLC than there is game is plain wrong, particularly when some of this DLC costs more than the game itself. To that end, Train Simulator 2014 seems like an absolutely ridiculous waste of money, given that to get access to the more recognisable trains and routes, you’ll need to fork out the same price as a new game on a console. The developer’s reason is that the main game acts as a starter kit that you can add to as you see fit, and that does make a lot of sense; this game is aimed at train enthusiasts, who will be used to doing this. But for regular gamers such as myself, it might be a bit of a hard sell. Not a major issue by any means, but certainly something to note if you do think about picking this up.
At the end of the day, this game is meant for people who like trains and want to drive them. The average Joe who uses trains to get places and look at cute girls will look at this and see a harsh career mode, aged graphics and a sparse soundscape. But for train enthusiasts, or just people who like simulators, Train Simulator 2014 remains the best simulator on the market. The new menus make it feel modern and fresh, the creation tools will appease any would-be modellers, and Engine Driver looks very promising indeed. It’s not a great game, as it were, but it’s definitely one of the best simulators on the market.Pros
- The new menus are sexy and easier to navigate
- Advanced creation tools are powerful and intriguing
- Engine Driver looks nice and has lots of potential
- Sparse environments and blocky train interiors
- The sound of a train can get very annoying very quickly
- Incredibly harsh difficulty in scenarios
Train Simulator 2014 was never going to be for everyone; one glance at the name will tell you that. Its dated graphics, almost non-existent soundtrack and tough gameplay will turn off the gamer crowd faster than a speeding bullet train. But for the train fans out there, and already firm fans of the series, this is the best update so far. The new menus are delightful, Engine Driver will probably be great, and for the 30% of users who currently make their own routes and scenarios, the new tools are a real treat. It's at times dull, and yet weirdly calming. If you're curious about simulations or trains, then this is a great place to start.
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