Genre: Simulation/Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Firaxis Games
Release Date: October 2006
It's Like Going to Robber Baron Camp
It will soon be time once again to join the ranks of illustrious industrialists as you build a network of rails and trains to feed economies, fatten your own purse and otherwise spread the wonders of progress via locomotive. Tycoon genre fans know Sid Meier as the sim-strategy kingpin behind the original Railroad Tycoon from way back in 1990 and subsequent big-name titles like the Civilization series. Now the master has turned his attention back to the realm of engineers and cowcatchers, and his updated take on the unique convergence of innocent nostalgia and claws-out capitalism will arrive this fall in the form of Sid Meier's Railroads! for the PC.
Fulfilling the first part of that promise looks like it will be quite straightforward this time around. The developers giving us our E3 glimpse of Railroads! talked up how easy it will be to build a great rail system quickly. Familiar promises of being easy to learn yet challenging to master aside, what I saw at E3 did show off an easy-looking drag-and-drop system for laying track. When nature dares obstruct your path to riches, tunnels will excavate themselves, and bridges will span bodies of water automatically with minimal intervention on your part. As one of the Firaxis developer guys described it, Railroads! will deliver "the fastest track dropping." Ever.
Of course, laying track for track's sake isn't enough to fuel enthusiasts' obsessions all by itself; the trains themselves have a certain star power. Railroads! will deliver over 30 period-appropriate trains from the 19th century through the 1960s, including basic chug-alongs to beefier modern models and ranging from 0-4-0 to 4-6-6-4 in Whyte notation terms. You won't be limited to what team Meier starts you out with, either, as plenty of customization options will let you paint your locomotives with unique graphic designs and logos for your own railroad dynasty. If you end up with a train that's prettier than the surrounding countryside, you'll also be able to create your own lay of the land with the map editor.
Once you begin winding your tracks through the landscape, civilization will follow as the economics of rail-building – bringing inhabitants for your towns and things for them to buy – allow communities to develop around the commerce you've made possible. Farmers will fill surrounding fields when your trains give them a way of transporting their produce to market, and passengers will fill the train stations as your network becomes a desirable way for them to commute between cities.
While Railroads! may go out of its way to make it easy to start working your way to railroad dominance, the realities of a brutal market economy promise to make it a challenge to get there and stay there. You'll be able to dabble in Train Table mode if you want to stick with making an elaborate miniature train world, but market dominance, on the other hand, isn't for the idle dabbler.
In single-player campaign scenarios, you'll have to navigate the game's new market system that's subject to supply-and-demand fluctuations as well as random events that affect market conditions and, therefore, the need for your services as a transportation magnate. You'll need to manage 20 types of goods that have to be brought to market and nurture 30 industries that depend on you to feed them raw materials and ship out finished goods. As you progress, you'll make more money and develop more powerful equipment, but maintenance costs will rise, too. If you fail at achieving a profitable balance, you'll risk hostile takeover at the hands of the very titans of industry you're trying to emulate with your own railroad business.
LAN and Internet multiplayer will support up to four players, and this is where Firaxis suggested Railroads! will leave behind the days-gone-by sweetness for the rigors of human-on-human strategic competition. Those truly deserving of being called "tycoon" will take advantage of opportunities to buy out competitors, or at the very least, try some good, old-fashioned sabotage to get a leg up. You'll also be able to take refuge in co-op play, should the competition prove too cutthroat.
The look they're going for, said the developers, is bright and colorful, and I'd supplement that description by adding that, beyond colorfulness, the visual approach to Railroads! is that of an idyllic look back. Blossoming cityscapes, green fields and spotted cows form a somewhat flat-looking – at this point a few months from release, at any rate – but gentle and tonally fitting backdrop for your empire-building. Grain elevators, factories and other installations operate with unique animations to keep the world lively and even the pollution of advancing commerce is prettified in the form of smoke streaming from locomotives and smokestacks. A businessperson likes nice things, after all.
Side Meier's Railroads! will try to combine the best parts of model-train enthusiasm with the competitive possibilities of business simulation and online, head-to-head strategizing. The brief look at E3 spoke well to the promise that it'll be simple for train aficionados to create an impressive spread, but the strength of the campaign scenarios and online modes require hands-on time to get a proper sense of where those elements are headed. Hearing tell of a design aesthetic that values providing something for everyone induces a bit of skepticism, though, raising fears that the potentially more challenging and compelling aspects may get watered down and leave more strategy-hungry gamers wanting. On the other hand, if Railroads! lives up to the promise of "ruthless" competition online, it might actually convert some fans of the more relaxed aspects of simming to the more competitive ways of real-time strategic gaming.
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