“More powerful than a locomotive” is a phrase that, for some, only evokes nostalgia for old Superman adages. For others, it harvests childhood recollections of model-railroads spanning entire living rooms. Another classic image is of a train encircling the base of a Christmas tree. Combine such boyhood wonders with my ruthless aspiration to become a corporate mogul and—voila—Railroad Tycoon 3 (RT3)
my cup of tea.
RT3 rewinds to the Golden Age of railroading, circa early-1800s, and extends beyond the year 2015. You are the chairman of a fledgling railroad company, although “you” will be playing from a pantheon of historically relevant characters in railroading history, like: William Wheelwright, J.P. Morgan, General Gentaro….If you’re like me, then you probably only recognize one of those names. Never fear; each character is accompanied by a few unobtrusive lines of biographical info. While your chairman obviously adheres to your own playing style, these biographies are more relevant while gauging your competition’s strategy. For example, Cecil Rhodes is a ruthless expansionist, while Jay Ghould spends most of his time assessing the stock market. You aren’t here to make friends and neither are they.
The features that made the Railroad Tycoon series a success are still intact. New and improved features take player requests and graphical advancements solidly into account. The new 3D engine unbinds the stoic building development of the previous Railroad Tycoon installment. A reasonable level of detail is stretched over clean terrain; expansive forests grow relevant to their climate; and even abbreviated day and night cycles keep the world turning. Tunnels and bridges ensure that mountains high and valleys low are no match against money and progress. An automatic consist manager (your cargo manifest) keeps the administration of transporting people and goods at a painless level. With over 60 industries, over 180 buildings and over 40 cargo types to whet any micro-manager’s appetite, the movement of cargo is thankfully simplified. The interface (although somewhat blocky and unattractive) has been streamlined to minimize the degrees of separation between you and the important info. RT3 also boasts an enhanced multiplayer mode and a better map editor.
The tutorial is broken into two major sections: Operations, and Money Matters. The Operations segment lays a foundation for getting your trains up and running: familiarizing yourself with the interface, starting a company, choosing suitable starting points, laying track, and placing stations. The Operations tutorial is sufficient for tackling the easy and medium difficulty levels.
Attempting the hard level should have you at least entertain the Money Matters portion. I experimented with money matters on my own before taking the tutorial—but this only reinforced why I’m getting a “D” in my Accounting class this term. Thankfully, the designers got that memo and made a system easy enough to put E*Trade out of business. Issuing stocks and bonds, measuring profits, adjusting annual dividend payments, and even declaring bankruptcy are accomplished with point-and-click efficiency. This segment is a bit dry, so if all that bookkeeping hoopla doesn’t float your boat then you’ll get along just fine without it.
Because it’s all about the trains, right? The RT3 game box comes with an attractive pullout that details every locomotive that will appear in the game. While you engage in campaigns that span the centuries, the locomotives that are available will stay true to their time reference. Starting with the steam “Planet 2-2-0” making its entrance in 1829, to the introduction of the electric engine as early as 1904, then the diesels that begin to intersperse in the 1940s. Top speeds will climb from around 30 mph all the way up to 300 mph with the E-88 electric engine making its conceptual debut in 2012. The E-88 will apparently have ‘instant’ acceleration. I bet that will make you pay attention to a ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign, eh? You’ll definitely notice as newer engines get your trains whipping from station to station at impressive speeds. Every locomotive has a grade climbing ability from ‘atrocious’ to ‘mountain king’; initial costs (the train cars are free—you only pay for the engine); annual maintenance fees, and even passenger appeal that rates from ‘ugly’ to ‘ultra cool.’ Don’t discount that last feature: passengers will pay a premium to ride on more attractive trains.
Placing track in RT3 is a handsomely laid-out process…in the flatlands and around waterways. However, negotiating more mountainous regions is going to test your patience—as it should. Cargo was already moving along the world’s rivers and oceans with reasonable efficiency. The railroad’s most impressive feats were measured by crossing previously impassable barriers; and doing it more effectively and efficiently than anything else.
The game technicalities, however, will likely have your finger on the ‘undo’ button until you gain a solid grasp of the mechanics. There is a ‘turning radius’ that will have to be adhered to when bending around obstacles, and there is also a buffer zone on each side of the track that makes negotiating through dense cities particularly trying. Learning these nuances comes cheaply (thanks to the addition of the ‘undo’ feature) and soon you’ll stop reaching for that damnable ‘bulldoze’ button.
RT3 is not for the simulation purist. The developers’ last intention was for gameplay to get bogged down with ultra-realism to leave you vacillating over technicalities. A train may crash, but not into another train. If two locomotives are steaming toward one another on the same route, ‘Train A’ will simply fade momentarily and come to a complete stop, then allow ‘Train B’ to proceed on its way. ‘Train A’ then accelerates toward its own destination. This train fading also automatically happens when pulling into a station to load and unload. No worries, no mess. This, thankfully, keeps your focus on the transportation of goods rather than on exhaustive layout and design problem-solving.
Unfortunately, some of the track renderings don’t pan out properly in mountainous terrain. Especially when creating bridges over valleys, the track will frequently disappear into the side of a hill and spontaneously emerge a few track lengths away. Visually, it’s disgusting. But the trains don’t seem to mind so much and will continue on their merry way moving goods and making money.
Because it’s all about big business, right? RT3 would have to remove the word ‘Tycoon’ from its title if not for the game’s expansive industrial and money-making side. Manufacturing and city-growth is virtually stagnant without railroad connections. The easiest route to clocking capital gains is by moving passengers and cargo between cities. As you place stations within city limits, the station will naturally pick up some in-town industries (a tire factory or a distillery, etc.) Small, medium and large stations each possess an increasing area of effect.
Another one of the few complaints I have come from this unruly area of effect tool: it hops around, four grid squares at a time. This is chiefly upsetting when placing your small stations. Several one-star towns would suffice having a small train station, but with such a clunky control it’s rarely possible to fit a town properly inside the effective radius. You’ll likely have to upgrade your idea to a medium station, spending $50 thousand more than you should have to.
Industry is a complicated business. You want some cheese with that whine? Then you’ll need a connection to a Dairy Processor, which needs shipments of milk from a Dairy Farm, gaining a boost in production if supplied with corn, corn that grows faster from loads of fertilizer, coming from a Fertilizer Factory that requires chemicals from a Chemical Plant (which, incidentally, don’t appear until 1905.) Thankfully, that same poster detailing all the locomotives in the game has a flip side: and a comprehensive industry flowchart is there, setting you up for success. Later, once you’ve stacked up a decent pile of cash, you can actually buy up industries. Perhaps that Pittsburgh steel mill has fallen on some hard times: buy it, make a railroad connection to its doorstep, then watch your profits swell exponentially. You don’t have to micromanage each factory’s production rates; all you have to do is collect the paycheck.
You can also get ready for some excellent bluegrass music. Look, I wouldn’t immediately label myself a fan either, but tunes that should come off as annoying (“Oh, Susanna”, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”, et al.) wonderfully portray the mood and the spirit of the day. Although it doesn’t scream of the authenticity of a soundtrack like “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” it will have you toe tappin’ more than you’d ever admit to your Limp Bizkit lovin’ buddies.
Railroad Tycoon 3 is, without a doubt, an impressive title. The campaigns and scenarios drive together a cohesive theme, and the quintessential ‘old geezer’ narrator polishes off the package with some superb voice-acting. There’s an unexpected variety of the challenges to be faced, with few of them ever resorting to superficial barriers like blanket penalties on profits and such. You’ll unknowingly learn some history along the way since the introductions and interludes never come off as preachy or pretentious. They establish an atmosphere with substance rather than overwhelm you with textbook diction. Besides, as a kid, all I really needed was the definitive control of pushing my train around a living room railroad.
With its track record firmly established, the latest installment in the Railroad Tycoon series sets itself on par with most top-of-the-line strategy games. Gathering of Developers fine-tune a balance of simulation and strategy without derailing fun factor.