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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

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Mallard with headlamps ablaze

Branching Out in Business
As a rule, playing a game of Railroad Tycoon 3 will involve you in starting up a company, laying down track, buying trains, planning their routes, earning money from your trains' operations and extending your reach as resources permit. Games typically tend to last over two or three decades of game-time, and various events will occur over that time, including the invention and obsolescence of locomotive models. In order to make a profit, you will have to lay track between suitable centers and connect them with stations, then transport appropriate goods from where they are produced to where they are needed. You will also have to cater for the needs of passengers who want to get quickly between centers. Once your company has got established and is operating well, you can expand by buying up other existing businesses and even building new hotels, factories and other secondary industries to link in with your rail network.

The financial aspects of the game are surprisingly extensive, and a sophisticated economic simulation is at work. A comprehensive performance ledger lets you track your profits and expenditures, and the general performance of your company and your competitors, and you can even attempt take-overs. It's important to make a note of the locations where goods of various types are produced, and where they are needed, in order to maximize profits in transporting them. To assist in this, there are various map overlays which color the terrain in shades between red and green, to show where any of the various types of goods are abundant or deficient. Other map options include the ability to show territories: important when it comes to intercontinental travel.

In other words, there's a great deal to think about when you're playing Railroad Tycoon 3. Luckily, though, a game that could so easily have become bogged down in an excess of detail, micromanagement and the need to work against the clock, has been aided enormously by some excellent design decisions. First of all, the speed of the game can be altered at any time over a scale of six speeds from "paused" to "very fast", so if you've got a lot to do in a short time, you can completely avoid the scramble of a typical real-time strategy game by setting the speed to "paused". Lay your track and conduct your business at your leisure, and then set the game off again when you've finished; or let the time creep by more slowly without actually stopping. On the other hand, if you need to keep your rail network running for a few years to build up your balance sheet without expanding much, set the game speed to "very fast" so that you're not kept waiting forever. There is, of course, a limit to the amount you can achieve in paused mode, as you may spend all your money on expansion and then not have any more revenue until some game-time has passed again, so the game-speed control doesn't interfere with the natural progression of the game. It just acts as a really useful way of adjusting the flow of time when you need to do so.

The other excellent feature of the game, which largely removes the need for micromanagement, is the automatic consist manager that's available for all your trains. (The consist is the cargo that any train is transporting.) By leaving the game to do its own management, you can largely ignore the more tedious aspects of what should be transported where. Of course, you can specify exactly what should happen at every stage if you wish, so fans of Railroad Tycoon II need not fear that this aspect of the game has been dumbed down. However, the new automatic mode means that you can largely forget about this aspect if you don't want to deal with it in detail. In some scenarios you will have specific transportation requirements, and in that case it's very useful to be able to specify exactly what certain trains are transporting even if you leave others to be managed automatically.

These two features, taken together, are really helpful assets to the game which both remove the frantic scrambling of all too many RTS games and alleviate the need for the excess of micromanagement that's all too common in other games of this type. Most players will relish the fact that they can ignore the tiny details of individual trains and concentrate on the bigger picture of running the overall rail network.

Track and Field
One of the more interesting aspects of the game is the laying of track. In Sandbox mode, of course, you can do this to your heart's content as you don't have to worry about money, but in a regular scenario you'll only be able to put a relatively small amount of track down before your funds run out, so expansion can be fairly slow progress, and you must balance the building quality of your track against the distance to cover and the funds available.

Track is color-coded while you're placing it to indicate its gradient. Some trains will perform better than others on a slope, but it's always a good idea to keep your track as level as you can manage. If you place a section by accident, there's a very helpful Undo button that erases your errors. The undo function is multistage, but only works for as long as you're in track-laying mode; change to a different mode (for instance, to place a station) and the undo buffer is flushed. This is as it should be in terms of fair gameplay, but I did wish that I could use Undo on my track after placing a station on occasions when I found that it wouldn't fit exactly where I wanted it to go. Since track and stations are often placed in tandem, it's a shame that Undo doesn't cover the whole process.

Track can be single or double (the latter is more expensive but very useful for busy routes), and in more recent historical periods it can be electrified. There are also various types of bridge (wooden, stone and iron) which can cope with increasing amounts and speeds of traffic. You can tweak options to determine the frequency of both bridges and tunnels; especially in mountainous regions tunnels are extremely useful, but they're also prohibitively expensive.

The laying of track is a slightly haphazard affair from the user's point of view; it has to be done in fairly broad sweeps, as sharp turns are not possible, and objects on the landscape can be quite frustrating when they get in the way. It's generally possible to find a route by moving the mouse around a bit and watching the computer plot a new stretch of preview track, but as a last resort there's a bulldoze option for removing obstacles at a price. Although the track-laying process is sometimes a bit error-prone and frustrating (particularly near water), in general it works well and is fun to do.


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