Mac OS X: 10.6.8 |†CPU: 1.8 GHz Intel | RAM: 3 GB | HD Space: 1.5 GB | Graphics:†128 MB, (ATI): Radeon HD 2400 XT; (NVidia): GeForce Go 7300; Intel HD Graphics
Ah the railroads! Building those ribbons of steel, crossing continents, creating industries, becoming a robber baron and running your competitors out of business. If any of those things sound attractive to you, youíve either played with actual model railroads or have probably played some version of Sid Meierís/Poptopís Railroad Tycoon. Originally created by the legendary Sid Meier then taken over by Poptop for Railroad Tycoon 2 & 3, Railroad Tycoon is a legend in the simulation genre. It seemed to strike the perfect balance of railroad building, economics, and business, with enough flexibility for most people to concentrate on the part they liked best.
As you may be able to tell, Iím a fan, having spent many hours on Railroad Tycoon 2 & 3. So imagine my delight when I heard that Railroad Tycoon was back, and with Sid Meierís name attached. Released recently for the Mac as part of Feralís Legends series of older Windows games being ported to the Mac, the game was originally released in 2006 for the ďotherĒ platform. Sid Meierís Railroads! (SMRR) is a reboot of the original series, rather than a Railroad Tycoon 4. Designed for a more casual gaming crowd, it features larger graphics, simplified (in theory) gameplay, and a more limited set of economics and business options. So does it still strike that perfect balance of gameplay? Read on to find out.
While the original Railroad Tycoon series could get a bit overwhelming between the railroad building, company finances and game world economics, SMRR has attempted to simplify the game while maintaining the essential elements. I find the results to be at best a mixed bag. The basics are still there: you pick a scenario, start with a station and a little track, several goals to accomplish by a certain time, and you start laying your track, building stations, buying trains and setting up the routes and cars. You goals will generally be a combination of train-based accomplishments (connecting cities, delivering cargo) and business-related objectives (amassing wealth, buying out competitors). Accomplishing goals wins you points on the ladder of success. So far, so good, and not that different from the originals. But the devil, as they say, is in the details.
While laying down track is somewhat easier, especially in cities where existing buildings magically move out of your way, laying track in a way that keeps your trains running smoothly is almost impossible, at least when playing at the hardest, most realistic, level. In earlier versions you laid single or double track, and sidings were automagically built for you so that your trains never got stuck. In SMRR, while you can lay double track, itís a bit more complicated and no matter how many crossovers and switches you create, you have the most stupid trains ever and they will definitely get stuck, sitting there facing each other for the duration of the game or until you delete one. This is perhaps the worst element of gameplay and forces the use of a less realistic mode, where trains will eventually just move by each other even if they shouldnít be able to do so. This almost seems an acknowledgement by the game programmers that the system is broken. Iím not sure why they changed to this system and why they thought it was better, but I found it a huge pain and one of the elements that had me constantly quitting the game in frustration.
Another change in gameplay that makes the game noticeably worse is that you can no longer use your competitorsí tracks. Previously if there was someone elseís track where you wanted to go, you could use it, but you paid a fee. Now everyone has to build their own tracks leading to spaghetti bowls of tracks needlessly complicating the game. Again, an inferior method of gameplay for no apparent reason.
Setting up your train routes and consists is essentially the same as before, with possibly some slight improvements in being able to tell what is demanded at different stations. I did, however, run into a graphical and a programming error in this element of the game. The graphical error is relatively minor, in that the display of your trains on the right is cut off, making it difficult to tell exactly what your train is carrying. The programming mistake was more frustrating; I had a route set up and needed to send steel from one place to another to be made into cars, then on to another city to deliver the cars. The track was in place, stations where necessary, but it wouldnít allow me to set up a route between the three cities, although I could go to some of the cities and others along the same route where there were no other interruptions. Just another frustration on top of the others already existing.
The economics and business aspects of the game have been simplified significantly, and while some may like the changes and find it easier to play, I again found some of the changes frustrating. No longer can you issue your own stocks and bonds (if your bond rating is good enough). Every player starts with ten shares of stock in their company, five of which you own. You can buy and sell shares as your finances allow, but there will never be more stock. This makes it extremely difficult in scenarios where you have to buy out a competitor, as this usually occurs later in the game. If youíve been focused on building your railroad, by the time youíre ready to start buying othersí stocks, it will likely already be all bought up. Again, this seems like simplification that actually makes the game more difficult to play.
Two other gameplay related frustrations: game maps are smaller than before, featuring small sections of countries rather than the large sweeping scenarios we used to get; and despite this, you canít zoom out to view the whole map, making it difficult when you need to connect to locations you canít see. Once again, changes that actually make the game more difficult to play, as the small maps get crowded quickly, and the zooming issue, well that should be obvious
To finish off, let me try and make something clear. I really wanted to like this game. I loved the earlier incarnations and was excited to see the series coming back. I didnít even mind the idea of simplifying, as I have less time to play games than I used to. But my experiences were that the changes in gameplay gave the illusion of simplifying at the cost of actually making the game fun to play. Opinions on this, however, are somewhat mixed. Itís impossible for me to review the game outside of my previous experience; it seems those who come in without experience with the earlier series are enjoying the game more, although I wonder if they play it at the hardest level. And while the game is probably a bit easier to jump into and get started than earlier version, when I had my ten year old son try he gave up after a few tutorials, finding it too complicated.