There are too few moments in gaming that match the beauty and serenity of a crisp autumn sunset viewed from the cab of your modern locomotive. The golden, sunlit trees coming into view and then leaving just as quickly. The sound of the engine a humming melody that serves to relax you even further. A tranquil, peaceful scene only occasionally broken by shrill alarm bells that sound for no apparent reason before emergency brakes bring the train to a screeching and abrupt halt. This is not a forgiving experience.
Train Simulator 2014 is the latest iteration in the RailWorks series from RailSimulator.com. As if the name wasn't a sufficient hint let there be no confusion over the fact that this is very much a simulator, although the latest version has received a nice friendly interface that makes it feel like a game. This is entirely an illusion.
The main difficulty when it comes to reviewing a simulator such as this, is choosing which audience to review it for. People who have been keeping with the series for years are going to have a much smoother experience when moving to 2014 than those who are less familiar with the series. Fortunately RailSimulator.com has made this a little easier by supplying this release as a free update for those people who owned the previous version. In other words, if this really is the game for you, then chances are you probably already own it. If that does apply to you, then you'll find the update process is relatively painless and much, if not all of your previous DLC will be available to use from day one. There's enough that's new here to be worth making the transition, and enough that's familiar to get you driving around in no time. Just be aware that the reason you are getting this for free is because they will try to sell you DLC at every conceivable opportunity.
So what about everyone else? As mentioned, the interface is nice and friendly and the player is urged smoothly into trying out the tutorials to begin with. Although one of these failed to work because the correct map wasn't installed, the remaining two acted as a gentle introduction to the simple and expert control systems. Even using the the advanced control setup the simple act of accelerating, maintaining a consistent speed and slowing to a stop at a train station seemed simple enough. This is a lie, however, and the game is viciously lulling the player into a false sense of security.
The first scenario involving the same modern train used in the tutorial seemed simple enough. Open the doors for the passengers to get on, and then drive off into bad weather. While getting passengers on board was easy getting the train to move was another matter entirely. Before long those alarms were sounding and the game gave no indication of what was wrong or how it could be fixed. It's fair to say that, for the newcomer especially, the learning curve in Train Simulator 2014 has more than its fair share of brick walls. Fortunately there are other scenarios and trains which were built before the introduction of infuriating security alarms.
The most calming of these involved an older diesel engine and a map based on the Donner Pass. This scenario is perfectly suited for gaining an appreciation for this game. The train didn't have electric alarms, the scenery was beautiful and the route was slow paced with few surprises. Controlling the train has several options to suit all tastes. While keyboard shortcuts are there to memorise, the game can be played entirely using the mouse with a HUD style interface with on-screen representations of all the buttons and levers available. For the most authentic experience that doesn't involve buying dedicated hardware, the HUD can be turned off entirely and all the usable functions of the cab can be interacted with using the mouse. The nicest nod to the casual user, though, is the inclusion of full controller support which worked well with an Xbox 360 controller connected, right down to the on-screen buttons looking correct and rumble support adding a different level of authenticity by letting the user feel each jolt and shake of the train. Using the Controller, and turning off the HUD, is a great way to relax and enjoy the scenery.
And there is some beautiful imagery to be found in this simulation. While individual elements such as trees or the mannequin-like humans seem to be a generation out of step with other gaming experiences, everything comes together to create rich, living environments that (with the exception of excruciatingly long load times) ran smoothly on my system (3.4GHz i7-2600K, 6GB RAM and NVIDIA GeForce GTX590)
In fact it’s this sense of authenticity that’s the big draw for enthusiasts and the biggest hurdle for newcomers. Returning to the scenario with the modern train it was quickly apparent that the game isn't going to simply give the player the knowledge needed to progress. Fortunately there is a wealth of expert advice on the internet which can be found both directly linked through the game’s interface, and through some careful Googling. After investing some time it is possible to learn more than you ever thought you wanted to know about modern trains, from the translations of track signs in bad weather conditions, to the dead-man’s switch that applies the brakes if the user doesn’t press a button every so often to prove they’re still awake. To anyone who wants that authentic experience these are all realistic touches; to newcomers though, they’re a range of problems all of which result in a loud alarm and the train’s emergency brakes being applied.
The simulation is unforgiving, but that also makes it all the more rewarding when you do finally finish a scenario. And while there doesn’t seem to be a lot of content in the base version there is enough variety to make it worth playing through each of them, and enough challenge and depth to each scenario to encourage repeat runs. The lifetime of the game is further expanded by a level editor that can be as simple as selecting the stops, trains and weather conditions for a pre-existing route, to the limitless possibilities provided by the incredibly detailed world editor.
Unfortunately though, this world editor is about as unintuitive as it could possibly be. First attempts will easily end up small, ugly and incoherent. This is another area that demands a significant investment of time reading and watching tutorials in order to produce anything even remotely usable, but it can be done. One feature that’s particularly noteworthy is the fact that Google map images can be placed over the terrain if you want to create your route with exacting precision. There’s even the option to distribute your creations through Steam Workshop which is a nice addition given the overwhelming drive to encourage the purchase of paid DLC. The sheer volume of DLC at launch, predominantly in the form of routes and new trains does seem daunting at first (Steam puts the collected value at nearly £1800 at time of writing) there’s no need to buy everything in one go and they can be bought according to the player’s interests. It’s a reasonably sound investment too since previously owned DLC works with 2014 and will likely continue to run should you upgrade to the inevitable 2015 edition. Most importantly, though, is the fact that this is on Steam, so look out for heavy discounts during sales.
Train Simulator 2014 is the best at what it does, and those familiar with the series will find enough here to go back for more. Newcomers, though, will find the price of admission unusually high both in the sheer volume of expensive DLC that the game will try to sell to you at every possible moment, and the investment of time the user needs before they can really begin to appreciate what this software has to offer.
Train driving not made easy.