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Publisher: MacSoft    Genre: Simulation
Min OS X: 10.2.8    RAM: 256 MB    Hard Disk: 1200 MB    Graphics: 32 MB VRAM

Railroad Tycoon 3
July 25, 2005 | Richard Hallas

Click to enlarge

Campaign screen for the USA (don't touch the fan!)
Received wisdom informs us that every young boy dreams of being a train driver. Certainly many children are given model train sets, and some of them never grow out of playing with them. Even in today's impersonal world of diesel and electric trains, in which the old magic of steam has been all but eradicated, trains still somehow manage to captivate every new generation in a way that no other mode of transport can manage, and love affairs formed at such an early age can last for a lifetime.

The appeal of trains is easy to appreciate but hard to define. They are a contradiction of progress vying with timelessness: the impersonal yet individual locomotives snake their way along their routes in a pre-determined yet seemingly autonomous manner; technology improves and trains are upgraded, but the underlying service remains much the same; trains run like clockwork across the years, performing the same basic functions in apparent defiance of the ebb and flow of human life. Trains evoke a kind of evolving nostalgia which is a product of the timeless qualities of rail travel, and which appeals to all ages and generations.

Those who have never understood the appeal of trains may wonder what possible attraction dirty, clanking behemoths could possibly hold; but for the many who do understand, I need say no more about the appeal of Railroad Tycoon 3.

Gameplay: Keeping a Business on Track
I should make it very clear that Railroad Tycoon 3 is not intended to be a virtual train set on a computer. Whilst you can have lots of fun in laying down track and watching trains run around on it, this is not the main purpose of the game at all. In Railroad Tycoon, although you can put track where you want it to go in broad terms, you can't be too precise about creating neat layouts. There are also no signals, turntables, level crossings or any of the other common accouterments of a train set, and trains don't behave as they would in the physical world. There's no need for them to turn around, for instance; they just swap directions on the track instantaneously, and sometimes drive right through each other, pausing as necessary to simulate the physical overtaking that might happen on a siding in a real-world simulation.

This lack of attention to real-world physics is an intentional part of the game, and I'm not criticizing it. The game is about creating, and simulating the performance of, a complete rail network that links towns and cities, not about the minutiae of placing individual sections of track and making sure that trains can physically get by one another and turn around. No; Railroad Tycoon 3 may be classed as a simulation, but really it's a strategy game about building a rail network, transporting goods where they're needed and enhancing your company. The railway simulation is not intended to be "real-world realistic"; the game is just an improved version of its predecessors. It adds vastly improved graphics and a number of well-considered game refinements (such as a significant reduction in the need to micromanage cargo shipments), but fans of the series will find a great deal that's pleasingly familiar. In fact, it would be hard to argue that this is anything other than an extremely worthy sequel: it's more of the same, but updated, improved and generally done to a better quality. Anyone who got hooked on Railroad Tycoon II will find version 3 even more entrancing.

For newcomers to the genre, though, there's a great deal to discover, and it will take time to get into the game (though its learning curve is commendably shallow, given the game's actual complexity, and there's a couple of very useful tutorials). See those two words in the title? Railroad and Tycoon? They give you (surprise, surprise) a pretty good indication of what the game's all about. Yes, the subject matter is choo-choo trains, but the business tycoon aspect is at least as important. You generally start with a small amount of capital and are expected to create a major working rail network over two or three decades of game-time, and personally get rich in the process if possible.

A Boxcar of Delights
Railroad Tycoon 3 comes with various play modes and a large number of scenarios. Of greatest interest, initially, is the Campaign mode which comprises sixteen different scenarios, progressing through history and around the world. The first five scenarios involve connecting parts of the USA, whilst the next five are set in Europe and include a Flying Scotsman story, construction of the Orient Express and the connection of Switzerland and Italy over the Alps. The next three take us to Argentina, Africa and Japan, and the last three are speculative, involving futuristic ideas. The campaign screen is hosted by the disembodied voice of a museum curator, who also introduces each scenario. The voice acting is good (despite excessive hoarse laughter), but as it is in the style of a "Wild West Old Timer", it sounds extremely incongruous with the more modern-day non-US scenarios. The voiceover idea would have worked much better if there could have been a different host for each room, with an appropriate accent for the subject matter at hand.

Aside from the campaign, there are also numerous single stand-alone scenarios to play, in both regular Scenario and finance-free Sandbox modes. Sandbox allows you to play with the financial aspects of the game turned off, so that you can just enjoy tinkering with the railway aspects. There's a multiplayer mode, too, which works over either a LAN or the Internet via GameRanger. Best of all, though, if you get tired of the supplied scenarios, there are plenty more to download from the Internet. (The first I tried was an interesting Chunnel game, concerning the Channel Tunnel linking Great Britain and France.)

Every regular game has a set of objectives to achieve, with bronze, silver and gold medals available depending on how well you do; each medal will have its own set of requirements to achieve by the time the game ends. There are multiple skill settings, and if you're particularly enjoying a game by the time its goals have been achieved, you can choose to continue playing it beyond the allotted time span, which is a nice touch.


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