Summary: PopTop took control of a moribund franchise and brought it back to life with Railroad Tycoon 2. However, lacking a significant period of time to distance the sequel from its predecessor, will Railroad Tycoon 3 impress as much? Jakub think so, and he goes over the changes that have kept this wonderful, charming franchise so fresh.
My love of trains is boundless. Two of my greatest regrets stem from this fact. Firstly, one of my dreams is to have been around in the days when steam giants like the 6-4-4-6 S1, 4-4-4-4 or the colossal, famous 4-8-8-4 “Big Boy” plied the steel arteries of the world. Second, my immigration to Canada as a 6-year-old has removed me from the fantastic railroads of Europe, whose memory still lingers.
Thus, the Railroad Tycoon games have always held a special place in my heart. The first was a classic that I thought could not be surpassed, and it was with great trepidation that I bought the second, only to discover that PopTop got the formula down pat. Thus, imagine my consternation when I heard that they dared mess with the delectable mix of trains, stock markets and tycoon goonery. A new economic model? Custom scenario rules? This new-fangled ‘3D’? Bloody murder fermented in my mind, O my brothers and only friends.
Not to worry
First of all, unlike previous games that suffered a terrible collapse in the transition to 3D, Railroad Tycoon 3 has only benefited from it. The 3D engine allows players to lay track in natural curves, rather than angles of 1/8th or 1/16th of a circle, as was true in the previous games. This also means that it’s possible to wind your way through the valleys among hills, rather than brute-forcing over, or paying for an expensive tunnel. Most importantly, the transition to 3D allows players to get up close to the locomotives and enjoy some fantastic scenery.
Of course, you’re also presented with the opportunity to own industries. Why not buy the lumber mill for a dirt cheap price, and force your trains to carry logs to the city, in order to make a profit off the mill. Then you can buy a furniture factory and use the supply of lumber to make a further profit. That, however, is not even a beginning to the deviousness you’ll see in multiplayer, especially on the stock market.
SIDEBAR: The system requirements are laughably low on RRT3, with a P2/400 and 128MB of RAM with a 16MB 3D card.
The graphics are actually a bit disappointing. There’s nothing wrong with the terrain and day/night cycle, which are beautiful. The water has nice pixel shader effects, but the focus of the game, the trains, are horribly neglected. The basic details that identify every train are readily visible, but the small touches are gone. Wheels are not actual 3D objects, but pairs of flat, animated textures.
The terrain engine is really rather impressive, able to display huge mountains as ably as deserts, forests, plains and oceans, but the most important gameplay change this allows is the way track laying is handled. Being able to control the exact path of the track using minute angles allows one to minimize the severity of the grades faced by his trains, thus improving delivery time, but while the graphics and the game support this, the tool to do so is not conducive to it. The track laying tool is very biased towards long, curving tracks, and absolutely hates allowing track to come off at small angles from a main line. It’s often necessary to create a 90 degree turn and then delete the extra track before proceeding with the new, slight angle. It’s a minor quibble, but it’d save time and money; and those are the two things a railroad company always cares about.
All in all, the graphics engine feels like a jack of all trades aimed at a lower denominator, than an uber-l33t visual machine. RT3’s low system requirements support that hypothesis, and when judged on those merits, Railroad Tycoon 3 has a rather splendid engine.
The sound effects are much better than the graphics, relatively speaking. PopTop provided a multitude of sound effects for the various trains of course, but also present are background sounds for rivers, coasts, the wilds of nature and the hum of civilization. Of course the trains coming into stations still make those pleasant video lottery terminal-like dings and beeps.
Music has been very important in PopTop’s version of Railroad Tycoon and that certainly carries over to RT3. Unfortunately it seems most of the tracks are repeats from the previous games. Maybe the tunes are all genuine, and it’s a little tough to go back in history and make some more railroad songs, but it’s not as if anyone would be put off in original scores being created.
SIDEBAR: Locomotives inter-city passenger transportation for a couple of decades after the invention of the car, as cars were unreliable and servicing the early, rare models, was difficult. The Ford Model T changed all that.
Railroad Tycoon 3 is fantastically good. The curious economic system works really well, and unlike previous games it’s no longer a chore to transport goods to cities that specifically request them. Indeed, with the default settings, trains will simply carry the cargo that pays the most.
The campaign confronts the player with about twenty scenarios with specific victory conditions for bronze, silver and gold medals. These are complemented by general scenarios on the same maps, with different conditions. Conditions generally aren’t too difficult, however we caution anyone from allowing the USRA to run their railroad during WWI… it’s not a pretty sight. A typical requirement is to connect cities A, B and C by such-and-such date for Bronze, have a company value of X also by that date for silver, and haul 20 cars of product Y by an earlier date. In general they’re smart and challenging, adding a sense of purpose to a map, but they don’t mask RT3’s two greatest flaws.
But before we get to that, a few words on multiplayer: if you manage to find a game, it’ll be vicious and cut-throat. While the stock market and tycoonery in general take a back seat in the singleplayer campaign, in multiplayer it’s a completely different story. Everyone runs the ragged edge of safety on margin buying and (occasionally) short selling, because to do without means financial ruin, but going too far into debt exposes one to the risk of margin calls and short squeezes.
AI? What’s that?
Railroad Tycoon 3’s AI is just plain terrible. One of the warning signs we should have caught onto is in the difficulty levels, which merely seem to affect the economics of the game. On Easy, the player gets a bonus; on Normal, things are even, and difficulty levels after that simply penalize the player and/or give benefits to his competition.
Other minor problems affect RT3; there’s a rare crash to desktop error that comes on without warning, for example. There are gameplay issues like having to put both maintenance stations and water/sand towers along all routes, even though one would think that a facility equipped with the gear to repair a train would be able to spare a little water and some sand. We’d like to be able to play more expansive scenarios, such as the entire map of the US or Europe, rather than dealing with small, no-name towns in Texas or Germany.
SIDEBAR: The Baltimore and Ohio railroad was the first in the US.
SIDEBAR: The fastest train in RRT3 is capable of 300mph.
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Choo choo! Jakub really shows his Euro roots with that love of trains, doesn’t he? But what do you think of his review? Have you played RT3? Got a different opinion? Let us know, Sound Off! in the news comments.
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