Developer : PopTop Software
Publisher : Gathering
Release Date : October 24, 2003
Buy 'RAILROAD TYCOON 3': PC
From the original Railroad Tycoon--created by the legendary Sid Meir in 1990--to PopTops successful continuation in 1998, I've been a big fan of this series. I eagerly anticipated Railroad Tycoon 3, and I'm pleased to report it didn't disappoint. This game has done everything a good sequel should: keep what was great and improve what wasn't so great. There are a few hiccups, but by and large Railroad Tycoon 3 is a tremendous improvement over Railroad Tycoon 2.
The first improvement you will notice is the new 3D engine which allows you to fluidly go from a satellite view of your entire rail empire, down to a trackside view all with one spin of the mouse wheel. Since the game was designed to run on lower-end machines the graphics are likewise low-end. The terrain has a low polygon count which translates to blocky mountains and hills. Graphics don't make or break Tycoon games and the 3D engine solves more problems than it creates. The sounds are likewise well done. The trademark blues soundtrack is back, and there is a narrator who's got that Wild Wild West "Howdy Pardner" twang going. The ever-familiar "ka-CHING" noise when your train makes money is also back for an encore. The sounds aren't going to make you run out and get a 5.1 speaker system, but, like the graphics, do the job well without being overbearing.
Railroad Tycoon 2 had a very simplistic economic model: there were cities that supplied cargo; cities that bought cargo; and passengers that would get on any train leaving town. Also, you had no real competition, save the other railroads. That's significantly different in Railroad Tycoon 3. Now, shippers will go for the best price, even if it's not a railroad, and passengers have specific destinations in mind. In Railroad Tycoon 2 the best way to get your company going was to connect two cities and run a passenger service between them. The money you made was directly proportionate to how far away it was; you'd earn more money for hauling nuts and bolts to a mountain town than a hot cargo to a close port. Now, passengers will shun your railroad until it's economically viable for them to use it, and it may take years before you see your first passenger run. If you are running trains between Boston and New York and a passenger wants to go to Philly, they aren't going to get on your train; they'll just take the bus. The shippers are likewise cost-minded. If there is a railroad between two cities and the water route is cheaper, the shippers are going to move their cargo down the river causing you to look for areas those current transportation modes can't service. I found the best way to get my company going was to connect two or three cities to a port and haul cargo to and from the port.
Railroad Tycoon 3 eliminates most of the micro-management that plagued its predecessor. Managing consists was a nightmare as you had to tell the train what cars it was dumping and adding at each station stop. Thankfully, now you have the ability to have the game automatically handle consists. The Station Master will determine which cargo will pay the most and automatically load it onto your train. You can micro-manage at this level if you desire, but having the game do this allows you to focus more on the big picture of plotting your company's growth, and less on the day-to-day operations. This feature has relieved a lot of frustration, as well as making it more realistic. After all, you don't see the CEO of Union Pacific telling the San Francisco Yard Master what to put on a given train, do you? Express cargo still pays the most, but with the auto-consist option I was able to build specific trains, tell them to load only express cargo and forget the rest. Special Interest groups, like the Produce Growers Union, will also give you a bonus if you move a certain amount of their cargo per year. I dedicated a train to running only produce in this case, and it paid for itself in one year. You can also buy industries; if there is an excess of grain at one station, you can buy or build a brewery at another station so you make money hauling the excess cargo. If you're feeling particularly unethical, you can tell your trains not to deliver what the industry needs, lowering their profits and your purchase price. Once you own it, you can crank the faucet back up again.
There is one area that Railroad Tycoon 2 handled much better, and that is the resource maps. In Railroad Tycoon 2 you could bring up an overhead map that gave a nice graphical overview of who sent and received different items. The new version only lets you show the senders and receivers for a specific cargo, instead of multiple cargos. Also, even though the game knows that a passenger doesn't want to go from Point A to Point B, but rather to Point C, you don't have any way of knowing that. In Railroad Tycoon 2, each station had a sphere of influence, and if an industry wasn't within that sphere, the game would ignore them. This would force you to make a satellite station whose only purpose was to haul some small amount of freight, even if it was just up the hill from a metropolis. In Tycoon 3, the shippers know where you are, and if rail is the most economical way to ship their freight, they will come to you. The sphere of influence now only affects passenger and mail traffic.
The new 3D engine frees the game from the restrictive grid-based track laying model in RRT2, now you have much greater flexibility when it comes to laying track. It's still challenging to lay track; I found getting the stations lined up particularly troublesome, frequently placing a station nowhere near the tracks. You can now undo all your mistakes, however, so the days of you accidentally laying miles of useless track because the cat jumped on your desk are gone. Not that that ever happened to me, mind you. You also now have the option of tunneling through mountain ranges, eliminating the need to try and lay track over the Swiss Alps.
The single player campaign is excellent, offering a nice variety of scenarios. In one scenario you might have to connect two cities and earn a certain amount of money, but in the next one you might just be trying to meet a haulage goal on existing track. Each campaign scenario has different victory conditions for bronze, silver, and gold medals. You might have to connect two cities for the bronze, earn $10 million for the silver, and then $25 million for the gold; all by certain dates. All of the campaign scenarios are unlocked at the start of the game, so if you get stuck on one, or just don't find it fun, you can just skip ahead. I found the goals challenging, yet manageable. While there were scenarios I'd have to repeat or load a saved game on, I didn't find any I didn't think were doable. In addition to the campaign scenarios, there are a handful of individual scenarios as well. Each scenario thoroughly sucked me in, and I would gleefully spend hours working my way through the scenario, many times thinking only an hour had gone by, but find instead three or four had passed. One thing I did miss from Railroad Tycoon 2 was some of the whimsical scenarios, like the one where the Mediterranean had dried up. The game does ships with a map editor though, so we should expect maps (hopefully some of the less serious ones!) from the community soon.
The AI seems a bit suspect. I noticed that my competitors, to use the term loosely, didn't do much to impede my progress in the scenarios. I noticed they were there, but what they did largely didn't concern me. Sure, they might buy and sell some of my stock, but they come nowhere near the level of cunning the real tycoons of that era showed. It would have been great for some of the connection scenarios to have the AI either competing for the prize, or doing more to stop me. As with the other issues in the game, it's a minor annoyance since the individual scenarios provide enough challenge, it just would have made the game all that much more greater if the AI was more than window dressing. In most cases, the hidden competitors (river, air and truck) get in your way more than the other railroads. The Board of Directors for your company, who represent your investors, has a schizophrenic personality. One year you might earn the company 150 thousand dollars, and they cut your salary by $2000. The following year, you spend most of the company's cash on expansion, and they give you a raise. This makes me think that the game places a disproportionate amount of emphasis on the size of the railroad, as opposed to the profit margins.
In addition to the scenarios, there are two more game play modes: the sandbox and multiplayer. The sandbox mode lets you build and run trains without financial constraints. While it's fun to be able to pick from all the locomotives and lay miles of track, this mode didn't hold my interest for very long. It's definitely more fun to play through the scenarios, where you have specific goals to meet.
The multiplayer is hosted via the Gamespy service, where someone hosts the game, and the other players connect to their machine. I'd like to be able to tell you of my experiences playing this game multiplayer, but every time I tried there were only a handful of players online. Not one was interested in actually hosting a multiplayer game or connecting to the game I was trying to host. Apparently, the draw to playing this game multiplayer just isn't there.
It was obvious to me after playing through the first two scenarios that PopTop had created a good game. It was when I had gone to bed, found myself mulling a scenario over and then got up to replay the scenario, I realized this was a instead a great game. Even now I loaded the game to get the last few screenshots I needed and ended up spending an hour playing the game. I'm a big believer in the theory a great game always has that "just one more game" feeling, and Railroad Tycoon 3 delivers that in spades. While there are things about the game I didn't like, they only stop a great game from being even better. None of these problems will impede me from continuing to enjoy the game.
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