Just like Tycho “the joy will most likely burn me alive” Brahe, I have longed for and craved the release of Sid Meier’s Railroads! from the moment its pale shadow entered my field of vision.
You’ve seen me wax on about trains and other train-related program activities, so my inbuilt, practically genetic, biases on this subject are well-known. I want nothing more than to tell you that Railroads!, with Sid’s return as the head conductor, is everything that Railroad Tycoon 3 almost was, everything that a railroad simulation can be.
Unfortunately — and it has taken me three days to reach this conclusion, a testament to how profound and inconceivable is my disappointment — the game is sadly misdesigned in some areas, and unpolished in others. It is a ghost train, coasting along on the power of its undeserved reputation, onlookers weeping as it rolls slowly past, speaking in apologetic whispers about the train that never was.
Let’s just tackle these things in a systematic fashion. I have adopted an easy-to-understand pro and con system:
+ The game is beautiful, exquisitely beautiful. There are no complaints on that score.
+ Some aspects of track laying are outrageously improved: you can control the grade, choosing to spend more on terraforming now rather than suffer slow trains forever, or vice versa; you can place curved bridges and tunnels; there’s almost nothing, short of running out of money or a turn that’s too tight, that can stop you from laying track wherever you want. Bridge to nowhere that ends in the middle of a lake? Check. Soaring steel contraptions that brave an impossibly steep climb up forbidding Widow’s Peak? Affirmative.
+ The economy is less complicated, which at least makes it less infuriatingly unpredictable. When you connect a farm that has corn to a city that wants corn, you make money; it’s not rocket science.
+ When you buy out another company, it gives you the option to liquidate the competitor. This is huge. I often avoided a total buyout in RT3 because it meant that I had to absorb a shitty, failing railroad.
+ I like that the buildings and industries move out of your way, just like real buildings in our age of overreaching eminent domain. It makes it much easier to lay track.
+ I like the Annexes a lot. In RT3, you would build a depot in a city somewhere, and hope that the farm nearby would send their grain to your station, rather than ignoring you and your gateway to the vast commodities markets that you represent. In SM’s R!, nothing moves until you build an Annex on the farm, and then you can tap directly into the supply.
+ Maintenance sheds and water/sand stations are a thing of the past, for which I am grateful. That level of micromanagement did not interest me.
+ It declared me “Master of Beef” for my prowess at moving livestock, and when a man is right, I tell him so.
- There is no undo button. Make no mistake (zing), this is fundamental flaw number one. It is simply not always possible to tell whether a given track lay will accomplish what you want until after you do it.
And don’t give me the “but real life doesn’t have an undo button!” nonsense. If it had a planning and layout mode that would let me set everything up, evaluate it as a whole, and then say “ok, build”, that would be just fine. But it doesn’t.
- You can only lay track that connects to your existing rail network. Why can’t I operate two networks, one on each coast, where the best opportunities lie? It profoundly alters the early game, when you need to be hand-picking the best opportunities on which to spend your scarce resources, but can instead only choose what’s local.
- In SM’s R!, you have to manually lay crossovers between your parallel track segments. I hate this. It might be OK if they always worked correctly, but I’ve managed a couple times to create complex crossovers that trains inexplicably cannot traverse. It also doesn’t appear to support diamond crossings, which requires me to do the same thing in a very space-inefficient manner. It strikes me as fairly mindless busy-work, made triply painful by the lack of undo.
- It’s sometimes impossible to select certain segments of track. A few times I’ve created little bits of crossover track that I then couldn’t select, and therefore couldn’t destroy. If I just laid that track then I can reload, but if I want to expand or change a routing that I’ve had for a long time, I’m fucked.
- It’s too difficult to destroy some track, even if you can select it. You can apparently only destroy a piece of track if there’s no train on it or on its way to it. So once you have a busy stretch of railway, if you need to tear it down to expand it (like destroy a branched switch, to replace it with multiple tracks), it becomes basically impossible. You can’t stop trains (like you could in RT3), so your only option, as far as I can tell, is to destroy as many trains as it takes, fix your track, and buy them all again. Not an option.
- You can’t destroy depots. After you buy out another company and merge operations, it’s not uncommon to have some duplicate operations, and in some cases, their usefulness is outweighed by their unfortunate placement. Why can’t I destroy these?
- You can’t zoom out nearly far enough. Finding things or making long-term, strategic plans is very difficult when you can only ever see a small slice of the map.
- It lacks the wonderful financial graphing options of RT3. It also lacks any indicator of a company’s book value, so you have no way of knowing, before you commit irrevocably to spending millions of dollars in a buyout, whether liquidating the assets will be a net gain.
- It lacks the also-wonderful ability to overlay certain supply/demand indicators on the main map — which would of course be of dubious value unless I could zoom much further out.
- It lacks the “stop waiting” button, which in RT3 would tell a train that is supposed to “wait until full” to just go ahead and start moving without the rest of its cargo. Even changing the train’s orders doesn’t make it go. It’s just not possible.
There are some problems that most would agree are simply programming defects:
- It’s a little too crashy. Not so bad that you give up — and the auto-saving certainly puts a band-aid over the worst effects — but crashing about once an hour is not good. It would probably be infuriating in a multiplayer game.
- A particularly unfortunate bug involving multiple depots: some scenario objectives require you to have a Terminal in a city (which you get by upgrading a Depot). If you have two or more depots in a city because of a merger, you seem to get credit only if you upgrade the depot that you most recently received. That’s an expensive $250,000 lesson!
- Sometimes the keyboard commands (like un-pause) don’t work; it seems to be related to whether there is a pending pop-up window that will appear when the game starts running again.
And finally a few points that are not serious problems, but rather game design choices that we can reasonably disagree on:
- The less-complicated economy also seems to be somewhat less fun. I haven’t run all the numbers, but it looks like it is almost never worth it to ship anything — passengers, mail, goods — any further than you have to. You make a little more money, but it almost certainly costs you at least as much to get it there.
- Why can’t I place multiple depots in a city? Sometimes a huge hub city has more traffic than three rails can reasonably support, or the track layout is such that it would be nice to have two depots servicing lines that run in perpendicular directions. Obviously the code supports having multiple depots, since you can acquire them through mergers, so just let me build them.
- While you can still buy industries in the cities, you can’t buy farms, oil wells, or other producers of raw materials, which I miss. I also liked the old economic model better, where as a farm or industry owner, you were responsible for the costs of producing your good, but then reaped the entire sale price of the product. The new model is not bad, but it’s less compelling.
Unfortunately, because the game wasn’t made by StarDock, I have almost zero faith that any significant issues will ever get addressed, even the bona-fide bugs. If you’re not familiar with StarDock, and their unbelievable track record of post-release support — bug fixes, new features, even significant design changes if they hear from users that there is A Better Way — then you are doing yourself a tremendous disservice. StarDock is, from a consumer’s perspective, the company that the others should be aspiring to be.
It’s hard to say whether or not I recommend it. The things that infuriate me the most may very well be the things that only a train enthusiast or long-time fan of the series really notices. If you didn’t play RT3 or didn’t play it much — in which case, I demand to know what the fuck you are waiting for, or why you think this will be any different; maybe you spent four years dead for tax reasons — you might care much less about the things that set my soul aflame.
Despite that enormous laundry list of dislikes, I’m still not yet sure which train game will become my new go-to for when I crave an afternoon sorting out transportation logistics. I reserve some hope that the crashes will be improved with patches, and I haven’t had an opportunity yet for a multiplayer game, which could fulfill or dash some of those remaining hopes. The improved track laying and more straightforward economy are very compelling, perhaps even compelling enough for me to overlook the manual crossovers and associated problems. It will take more time to sort out where my loyalties lie, and see whether Firaxis makes any attempts at reparations.