Published on September 4th, 2014 | by Rob0
Train Fever – PC Review
The term “transport simulator” might conjure up images of spotty anorak wearers hanging about on train platforms, but the fact is this was once one of the more popular gaming niches on the PC. The trend was kicked off by Sid Meier’s worryingly addictive Railroad Tycoon way back in 1990, a title still fondly remembered by many PC gamers today. Along with the original SimCity, it was one of the first strategy games based around creation rather than destruction. In 1994, Chris Sawyer’s Transport Tycoon expanded beyond the realm of trains to include trucks, ships and planes. The game developed such a loyal following that the free and open source version is still widely played today. But like a lot of classic era PC game genres (point n’ click adventures and flight simulators among them) the transport sims more or less faded from view sometime in the mid-nineties, following on from the massive explosion in popularity of first person shooters and real time strategy games.
Recognising a long untapped niche in the market place, Swiss indie developer Urban Games has stepped into the breach with their new transport sim, Train Fever. This is a game that openly flaunts its influences. The accompanying press releases and promotional material unabashedly tout the game as a spiritual successor to Transport Tycoon. Indeed, Train Fever is so closely based on the old classic that it qualifies as an unauthorised remake in everything but name. And there’s certainly a market out there for this sort of thing: Urban Games managed to raise €250,000 worth of development money on the Kickstarter-alike crowd funding site, Gambitious.
As an avid Railroad Tycoon player from back in the day (as a matter of fact it was the first PC game I ever purchased with my own money) I was quite looking forward to giving Train Fever a road-test. Unfortunately, it’s not anywhere near as much fun to play as it should’ve been, thanks to an unnecessarily clunky interface and a shoddily constructed game engine.
But first, what exactly is a “transport sim”? Well, it’s not as dull as it sounds. You don’t spend your time devising timetables for the London Euston – Milton Keynes or eating dodgy pork pies in depressing station cafes. More accurately, perhaps these games should be described as “business sims”, in that the object is to make money. Specifically, making money from transporting people and goods around a simulated landscape. The hell with public transport; privatise everything and become a filthy capitalist pig!
Train Fever starts the player off with a generous amount of initial capital, a loan to pay off and a randomly generated map full of unconnected towns and undeveloped industries. Beginning in 1850, the objective is to play through two hundred years of transport history, expanding from humble beginnings with a few horses and carts, into a massive transport empire that interconnects the entire map with trams, trains, trucks and buses, raking in massive amounts of filthy lucre along the way. The player must plan effectively and spot lucrative expansion opportunities, then build the appropriate transport infrastructure to exploit them. The map responds dynamically to the player’s expanding empire, with cities and industries growing up around the transport hubs.
Curiously, however, you’re not competing against any rival transport companies in Train Fever. This was a staple in the games it’s seeking to emulate. Railroad Tycoon even featured representations of actual railroad robber barons from history, who (supposedly) exhibited similar behaviour and strategies to their real life counterparts. This did add a lot of character to the game, and Train Fever feels a bit empty and lifeless by comparison. While developing your own dominant business empire is a solid enough objective in itself, it’s not as satisfying as competing with rivals hell-bent on doing the same.
There’s no doubt that – at the heart of Train Fever – there’s a deep and engrossing strategy game just waiting to be discovered. It’s a complex and dynamic simulator, and a faithful homage to the classic time-guzzling transport sims of days gone by. The problem is that it’s so frustrating and fiddly to play. It’s a game that makes the player work far too hard to unearth its rewards. For as much attention as the designers have lavished on creating a deep and accurate simulation, they have seemingly neglected to heed how user-unfriendly it all is. There are simply far too many things in Train Fever that haven’t been executed nearly well enough.
Let’s start with the graphics engine. It doesn’t work properly. In a game like this where you need to do a lot of pointing and clicking, it’s absolutely essential that you can fluidly move the mouse pointer all around the map. And you can’t. Zooming in and out of the map is enough to throw the game into a fit of stutters. Moving the pointer to the side of the screen will sometimes allow you to scroll the map and sometimes it stubbornly won’t, requiring you to wiggle the mouse back and forth repeatedly. Sometimes you will go to click on something only to find that everything has momentarily paused. The problem is compounded when you try to place a building down on the map, which has a tendency to make the game hang momentarily whenever you move the cursor around a bit too much. Stuff like this simply isn’t on. Playing games is supposed to be fun, but it’s no fun to wrestle against a game that won’t let you freely navigate it. There are ominous warnings of what’s to come as soon as you attempt to start a new game. It takes about four minutes for the map to generate. It’s like waiting for a ZX Spectrum game to load off a cassette.
Looking at the quality of the graphics, there’s no good reason why the engine should be so slow and stuttery. The visuals are functional at best, if not downright ugly. I can live with that. Games of this nature are not really supposed to be system hogging graphical showcases. But I find it difficult to live with mediocre graphics that don’t even work properly. Bear in mind that I’ve been playing on a pretty powerful PC gaming rig (i5-2500K CPU @ 3.30GHz with a GTX580 graphics card) and I have no problem playing games such as Bioshock Infinite with all of the graphics settings maxed out. If a game with such comparatively simple graphics as Train Fever struggles to run properly on the same system then I can only assume it has a poorly developed engine.
To compound matters, the interface is far too clunky and requires you to do a lot more clicking around than you should really have to. Carrying out what should be relatively quick and painless tasks can often result in having to fiddle about for seconds on end with various boxes and buttons. Case in point: your transport vehicles degrade over time and eventually need to be retired from service and replaced. Fair enough. Ideally, you should be able to click on the vehicle, click on a “replace” button and select a replacement vehicle, all from within the same action box. The game should then do all the legwork for you. But nope, you have to painstakingly do everything manually. You have to send the vehicle to a depot. You have to wait for the vehicle to arrive at the depot. Then you have to click on the depot to sell the old vehicle. Then you have to open up another menu to buy a new vehicle. Then you have to manually assign the new vehicle to the old vehicle’s transport line. If you don’t remember exactly where the vehicle came from or what line it was assigned to (and you will have dozens upon dozens of different lines and depots to manage deep in the game) then you will have to fiddle about some more to work that out. It’s all too much of a chore. Yet this tediousness could easily have been avoided if the damn game had a simple “replace vehicle” button! Unfortunately, such user-unfriendliness is rife.
Train Fever is a complicated game with a steep learning curve and it’s difficult to work out how stuff works at times. A basic tutorial would’ve been of tremendous benefit here, but you’re basically left to figure everything out for yourself. A persistent player will eventually muddle through by dint of trial and error, but after ten hours of play, there were still some things that left me completely flummoxed. A basic fundamental of transfer sims, for example, is that you deliver raw resources (such as oil or lumber) to industrial centres (such as refineries or saw mills) in order to produce manufactured products. This allows you to set up trade lucrative transport networks (raw resources get shipped in, manufactured goods get shipped out, with you getting paid both ways). But for some reason I could never get steel mills to produce steel from iron ore and coal, or oil refineries to produce petroleum from oil. Clicking on the oil refinery popped up a little data box that suggested I should “try to deliver more oil”. But I’d been delivering oil for years on end and from multiple sources. Was there something else I needed to do or was the game broken? There’s no way to find out. The game just assumes that the player will know what to do. It’s easy to imagine a transfer sim novice getting hopelessly lost. More user-unfriendliness.
I wanted to like Train Fever and I do tend to enjoy strategy games of this nature. And there were indeed times when the game began to get its hooks into me and I became quite engrossed… only to be snapped right back out of it by the stuttering game engine, or irritated by the clumsy controls, or frustrated by building stuff that just didn’t work, with the game giving me no indication as to why. And it’s not like this is some sort of throwaway release. It’s retailing for £22.99. While that’s cheaper than a full price new release from a major studio, it’s still relatively expensive for an indie game. At that price point, I think we’re entitled to expect a much more polished and playable game than Train Fever is in its current state. Perhaps some of the issues I’ve raised will be addressed in future updates, but for now it’s a difficult game to recommend unless you’re desperate to play a new transport sim and prepared to battle on through a fair degree of frustration.