Big Steaming Pile – Train Simulator 2013

Simulators have been an expansive genre in PC gaming for quite a long time now, from the Maxis classics like SimCity and SimEarth, to the incredibly expansive Microsoft Flight Simulator series, to modern indie simulation titles like Autobahn Police Simulator, there’s always been a market for games that allow you to experience activities that you probably would never get the ability to in real life.

That said, certain simulation ideas are certainly more appealing than others; the idea of flying a realistic virtual version of a Learjet or creating your own roller coasters and seeing them in action sells itself, for the most part. But our mission statement here at the Big Steaming Pile is to dig deep and ask the tough questions, like “what if there was something like a flight simulator, but on land? And you had to pick up and drop off passengers and freight? And you were on tracks the whole time?” Well, we asked the question, and thanks to the good folks at Limited, we have an answer in the form of today’s piece of The Pile, Train Simulator 2013.

Yes, let’s get it out of the way now, this is a game where you drive trains. Regular trains. Not trains that fly, not trains that change shapes, not trains from the future, regular, track-bound, chugga-chugga, choo-choo trains. Train Simulator is divided up into different scenarios along real-world routes like the Great Western Railway in England or the Northeast Corridor of the U.S., so if you’ve been waiting for a game to capture the intensity of riding AmTrak from New York to Philadelphia, here you are.

To pass a career scenario, you’ll have to complete your route, stopping at the various stations you’re assigned to along the way, stick as closely to your timetable as possible, and avoid racking up minor infractions like exceeding the speed limit or committing a major violation like blowing through a stop signal. Scenarios are assigned a difficulty rating, although these are less an indication of how difficult a trip will be and more an indication of length, as some of these runs stretch on quite a while, including some that take more than an hour. Although, you have the opportunity to save and pick up your route from exactly where you left off. Most of the career scenarios are available right off the bat, but some require you to finish other scenarios beforehand, like having to complete most of the available jobs on the Isle of Wight before getting the opportunity to drive the Santa Special.

A rainy day on the Isle of Wight.

On a positive note, there are quite a lot of trains to hop behind the controls of. There are three types of locomotives – steam, diesel, and electric – stretching across quite a long period of history; some of the steam engines are 19th Century vintage; there are diesel locomotives from the ’60s and ’70s; and the electric trains have that sleek, streamlined, modern style. The diesel and electric models are very simple to operate, but the steam engines take some time to figure out, as you have to manage your consumption of coal in order to actually get going and to avoid overheating and damaging your ride, and frustratingly enough, there’s not really a tutorial mode for them. Odds are, you’ll have to go onto YouTube to figure out what you’re doing.

The diesel and electric trains, on the other hand, only require you to utilize the throttle, brakes, and reverser to get to where you want to go. Even then, there’s a bit more to things than you’d expect. If you’re driving a mile-long freight train, all that extra weight matters; and if you’re coming down a hill, there’s a bit of a balancing act as you have to manage the brakes to keep from speeding and losing points, but keep up enough speed to avoid falling behind schedule. If you’re ferrying passengers down the line and a stop at a station is coming up, you’ll have to decide when to start slowing down and how hard to slam on the brakes so you can make a nice smooth stop at the platform. You can derail your train or collide with other trains, although you basically have to actively go out of your way to do so. And if you’re looking for a big fiery explosion at the end of it, you’re gonna be disappointed.

While most of the career scenarios are literally very straightforward, there are more than a few that are a bit more involved, usually when you’re driving a freight train. Sometimes, you’ll have to couple other cars to your locomotive, requiring you to back into or pull up to them very slowly and carefully to couple them. You’ll have to keep track of which car is which, because if you’re asked to decouple some of them at another station and you chop off the wrong one, you’ll fail the scenario. You’ll also be asked at times to operate switches to change tracks, otherwise you’ll either derail or end up getting lost. To this end, you have assistance in the form of a top-down map of the route where you’ll be able to activate switches, as well as check how far along the line you are and where other trains are.

Other times, you’ll be operating up and down the same lines as other train traffic, and you’ll have to learn what the different signals along the tracks mean, lest you plow ahead at max speed and find yourself unable to stop for a stop signal in time or worse, collide with another train. Also, while you don’t want to fall behind your timetable, there’s not much of a tangible benefit to arriving at destinations early; you’ll get more points for being ahead of schedule, but you’ll have to wait longer for passengers to get on and off at the platform, so it just kinda evens out.

Hold your breath, here comes the tunnel!

It should also be noted that the designers did an admirable job making the whole package as realistic-looking as possible. Thunderstorms slowly roll in over the prairies in Wyoming, the English countryside is appropriately verdant and cloudy, and New Jersey…looks like New Jersey. The trains themselves also look true-to-life, down to the Union Pacific livery on the sides of their locomotives and warnings not to smoke posted inside the engineer’s cab. There’s a variety of cameras to choose from – you can stand up or sit down in the engineer’s seat, stick your head out the window, activate a cinematic camera to give your trip a more dramatic look, or you can go into the passenger cars and watch the commuters as they sit patiently with all the enthusiasm on their faces you would expect of someone on public transportation. And yes, before you ask, you can totally blow the horn and ring the train bell, and yes, it’s super enjoyable. The level of detail within the cars is also quite impressive, and for those hardcore realists that choose to do so, you can utilize the different controls for the train, like the throttle and brakes and such, by locating them in the cab and activating them manually instead of using the regular control panel, all the way down to raising and lowering the sun visors.

Another thing that needs to be mentioned is that there is a lot of DLC floating about for Train Simulator. If you owned the version before this one, all your previous trains and railways can be imported into the 2013 version seamlessly. Train Simulator is also compatible with the Steam Workshop, so those railroad aficionados looking to create their own lines and rolling stock have the tools to do so. For those less willing to poke around with the nuts and bolts of the game, you can also create your own runs within the game itself, putting pretty much whatever engine you want on whatever route you want, although there are some spots where it doesn’t quite work out like you’d think, for example, it’d be rather ill-advised to take a modern diesel locomotive and take it on the Isle of Wight where the railway is only a few miles long and is built with a maximum speed of roughly 45 miles per hour in mind. In fact, that would probably be one of my biggest gripes with this game, that most of the lines are rather short; there aren’t any truly long-haul routes like across entire countries, so those of you looking to recreate the Orient Express are rather out of luck here.

Train Simulator 2013 does exactly what it says on the box: it’s a realistic and well-made simulation of operating a train. Needless to say, that’s not for everyone. This isn’t the most exciting, action-packed game out there, but it doesn’t claim to be, and the fan community must be bigger than I expected given the amount of user-made DLC available for it. From a technical standpoint, there’s very little to complain about, I encountered virtually zero glitches or bugs during my time playing it, and the controls, while extremely rudimentary, are solid and simple to learn, aside from the mechanics of getting the steam engine to run. If you’re interested in something like this, I’d recommend it, other than that, this one probably isn’t gonna blow your horn very much, although that’s a matter of taste more than the quality of the game itself.

Current Price – $24.99

Is It Worth It? – Not unless you REALLY loves you some trains. But if you do, this is the definitive railroad sim.