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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

Route map and train info

Graphics: The Scenic Route
One of the big improvements of Railroad Tycoon 3 over its predecessor is its new 3D graphics engine. The earlier game had commendably good isometric sprite-based graphics, and the new 3D engine manages to mimic them surprisingly well whilst also offering a great deal of additional flexibility, particularly in the ability to zoom the view. (A mouse with a scrollwheel is a great asset for this.)

The zooming in and out is one of the best and most useful features of the new engine. At one extreme, you can zoom right out for a near-orbital view of the entire map and see a whole chunk of country below, with all the town and city names, rivers and lakes, mountains and valleys (and, perhaps, overlays) visible. At the other extreme, you can get so close to your trains that your camera will almost clash with the chassis. It's very smooth and well done.

There are plenty of other nice graphical touches. All the water ripples and reflects, and the passage of time is marked by an accelerated day/night cycle with changing sky colors, sunlight that glows on the horizon and causes lens flares, and a moon that passes behind clouds. Lights turn on and off according to the time of day; birds and planes fly overhead; yellow sparks fly from the contacts of electric trains...there are lots of nice little subtleties to observe. Atmospheric effects are present but are limited to rain, from light showers to full thunderstorms with flashing lightning and dancing downpours. The smoke effects from steam engines are particularly excellent, with the highly realistic-looking smoke altering in density and color depending on the work being done by the locomotive.

It's possible to lock the camera on any train, which makes it easy to follow an individual route. This works reasonably well, but it would have been better if the camera could have been made to chase the train, angling itself to follow it rather than maintaining a fixed position. Unfortunately, if the train goes through a tunnel, the camera bumps along over the surface of the hill and reattaches itself when the train emerges at the other side! A less brutal treatment of the camera would have been helpful here: the current behavior looks silly and can induce feelings of nausea at high speed.

So the graphics system is not perfect, especially in close-up views. I was disappointed at the degree of pixelation in certain graphics, too, and the lack of care in some aspects. For example, the big, obvious number painted on the side of everyone's favorite steam engine, Mallard (No 4468) is the correct way round on the right-hand side of the engine but reversed on the left. Maybe I'm being too pernickety, but when you appreciate the considerable level of detail with which the engines are modeled (complete with rotating spoked wheels and animating coupling rods), this kind of careless oversight seems quite disappointing. Besides, Mallard's name plate (which is much smaller than the faulty number) reads correctly on both sides. (Mallard is not alone in suffering this kind of glitch.)

Minor niggles aside, though, this game features really excellent graphics. Clearly it isn't attempting to deliver a Doom 3 level of realism, but for the type of game it is (and considering its relatively low system requirements), the graphics are exceptional. Perhaps my greatest disappointment was that not all available screen resolutions were supported. I like to use my 23" Cinema Display at its native 1920×1200 resolution if possible, and in this case I couldn't. The best I could do was to use it at 1600×1200, to get native height but with unused black bars at either side. This was annoying, especially given that there's a very extensive choice of resolutions.

Sound: Letting off Steam
The use of sound in Railroad Tycoon 3 is really pretty good on the whole. The engine sounds are all appropriate to the train in question, there are suitable whistle or hooter noises for each locomotive, and ambient sounds are associated with different locations on the map, which you only hear if you're zoomed in close to the source. The sounds could be more authentic still if the game were a more rigorous train simulation, but Railroad Tycoon 3 is not really intended as that, and what it does, it does very well. A lot of effort seems to have been put into getting authentic-sounding noises for the various locomotives.

There's constant music in the background of the game, and on balance I think it works nicely. However, I'm less enamored of it than the rest of the sound effects, mainly because it's so very monochromatic. There are 36 MP3s in total, and they're a mixture of well-known melodies (including such apt titles as "I've been working on the railroad") played mainly, Country & Western-style, on an assortment of variously twangy instruments such as banjo, guitar, violin, double bass, mouth organ and even jaws harp. Now, there's nothing wrong with this music in itself; it's perfectly fine, and very well played. The problem with it is that it only really suits a small part of the game. Like the curator of the museum in the Campaign screen and intros, it fits 19th century America very nicely, but seems totally incongruous for other parts of the world, and for later periods. There's an abundance of music relating to and inspired by railways, and it's a great shame that a single musical style, which is tied closely to one location and period, has been used for an entire game whose period spans centuries and whose setting is effectively global.


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