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Game Review: Railroad Tycoon II

By: Kirk Hiner

 

Genre: Strategy/Sim

Format: CD
Developer: PopTop Software, Westlake Interactive
Publisher: Gathering of Developers
Minimum Requirements: 132 MHz PowerPC, System 7.5.3, 16MB RAM, 130MB hard disk space, 4X CD ROM, 800x600 monitor
Network Feature: Yes
3Dfx Support: No
Retail Price: $49.99
Availability: Out now
 

"Everyone loves the sound of a train in the distance. Everybody thinks it's true."

Or so sang Paul Simon. Of course, Paul also sang, "Doot'n doo doo, feelin' groovy," so can he really be trusted?

But in the case of the trains, I'm with Paul. I love the sound of trains; the horn, the wheels, the engine. There's something romantic about it in that melancholy Coleridge/Wanger way. For me, perhaps it's because it kindles memories of spending the night at my grandparents' in Geneva, Ohio. Or maybe it's because my brother Matt is writing his doctoral thesis on...well...it's called "Regulations Twilight: The Interstate Commerce Commission and the American Railroad - 1973 to 1996." I assume that has something to do with trains.

Whatever the reason, even at my age I still get excited when I'm stuck behind a crossing guard and a train thunders by. That's why I was so eager to give PopTop Software's "Railroad Tycoon II" a try.

Railroad Tycoon II is a sim game in which you build and finance a railroad company. You lay track, construct buildings, select your consist, learn cool railroad terms such as "consist," purchase trains, and even play the stock market to grow your revenue. There are so many facets to Railroad Tycoon II that it's almost intimidating. The first few times I played it I succeeded only in annoying my company's board of directors.

What I'm saying here is that unless you'd rather work on the railroad (all the live-long day) than own it, you'd better read the manual. There is an in-game tutorial, but it tells you just enough to get you started. It's tempting to jump right into this game because the graphics are so invitingly bright and colorful. The buildings and trains are rich in detail, and the rolling landscapes are richly populated with everything from rivers and forests to cow pastures and canneries. The minimum system requirements call for an 800x600 resolution, but that's about as pretty as a...well, a train wreck. At that size, the graphics have to be shrunk to fit the screen--causing some obnoxious blurring). You can select to leave the graphics at 1024x768 even if your maximum resolution is only 800x600, but you have to scroll to view the entire screen...even the interface.

The sound effects are also top notch. The clanging of metal, the bleating of sheep, the chugging of steam engines...all are incredibly authentic. My favorite, though, is easily the ambiant sounds of people working on railraods in the background as some blues band plays softly in the distance. I half expected John Henry to break through a mountain at any moment.

The gameplay in Railroad Tycoon II is set up in scenarios, eighteen of which are part of the main campaign and fifteen which are standalone. In the campaign, you must at least try each game before advancing to the next. The first few generally serve as a tutorial to prepare you for the harder games to come. It was in these that my brother's knowledge of train history helped, as he was able to tell me who my competitors were (their tactics are based on the their real life business methods and are touched upon briefly in the manual) and what products made the most money during that era. Matt even recommneded which train I should use, and his suggestions always matched the train specs in the game. Having access to this knowledge isn't necessary, but it sure does help. Sadly, Matt declined to let me post his phone number in this review.

If you're just getting started or would rather make your own history, than you should probably play out a stand alone scenario. These allow you to choose your difficulty, select in which area of the world you want to build, and even dictate how many competitors you have. Once you've set up a company and picked your scenario (anywhere from England to South Korea to Milwaukee) the computer will tell you what your goals are and let you start exploiting your workers like the robber barons of years gone by!

Your first task is to lay track between two towns, of course, then build stations in both. It's best to pick two cities that compliment each other in the goods that they produce. In other words, know your industries before starting the game. Having the best trains will do you no good if you're trying to ship iron ore to a cattle yard. It's all about supply and demand...and hills. Oh, those cursed hills.

Different trains have different strengths and weaknesses, you see, so you'll want to chose the train that's best suited for the terrain and cargo. Most scenarios start out with only a couple from which to chose, but you can upgrade as time progresses.

After that, it's all about management. You have to decide to what other towns you should connect, in what order the trains should stop at the various stations, what buildings to develop near your stations, and so on. It's not too hard to do at first, but if you want to make the big bucks, you can never stop developing. At one point I had seven different trains running on three different tracks throughout northern England, Scotland and Ireland, and I was barely able to keep track of who was hauling what where. That probably seems like a county fair ride to some of you, but to a guy who never even managed the local Taco Bell, it's a pain in the caboose.

Ethics even come in to play, as you get to decide what kind of businessman you are. You can undertake wonderfully corrupt actions such as short selling the stock of your competitors. Get good enough at this game, and a wonderfully successful career on Wall Street is just around the bend.

"And what experience do you have Mr. Hiner?"

"Well, none, really, but I did bankrupt Jay Gould in Railroad Tycoon II."

"Hired!"

To be honest, I was never much a fan of sim games. I have a hard enough time managing my own life, let alone that of the Roman Empire or some skyscraper. Sim Ant from Maxis is the only sim I ever owned, and I only played through it once before packaging it up forever. Railroad Tycoon II may change my attitude. The difficulty level is higher, but that's part of what makes the game so addictive. After losing a campaign, I'd spend the next day thinking of new ways to increase revenues and contemplate connecting different cities. Railroad Tycoon II is the type of game that you spend far too much time thinking about when you should be doing real work.

It also makes an excellent educational device, and should be loaded on at least one computer in every business and history classroom. Aside from building management skills, the game is rich in American and world history. With the accurately depicted competition and the newspapers that pop up detailing the economy and various technolgical advances, you can't help but learn how the "iron horse" affected the expansion of the business world and changed the way we look at transportation.

That's not to say that Railroad Tycoon II is without annoyances. Moving around the maps is quite cumbersome at times (especially at 800x600 as mentioned above), and the various game options icons clutter up the screen more than I would have liked. The interface is not very intuitive at first, but you do become used to it. There are also some graphics quirks, such as lost pixels under the cursor and a few minor irregularities in train movement.

Still, Railroad Tycoon II succeeds in its goal of capturing the romance of trains and the lure of building your own financial empire. It's a difficult game to master, but that only expands it entertainment value. The tutorials do an adequate job of getting you started right away, and there's even a "sandbox" mode which gives you unlimited finances and no competitions if you want to just build track and watch your trains go. For the more adventurous, Railroad Tycoon II does come with both network multiplayer capabilities (and you thought the computer generated opponents were ruthless) and the option to build your own maps.

If you're a lover of the railroad, sims, big business or history, then Railroad Tycoon II is sure to provide you with countless hours of sweaty, dusty, rivet pounding enjoyment. Even if this isn't your idea of an enjoyable afternoon, the game still may be worth a look. Just make sure you've got plenty of time on your hands. After all, the B&O wasn't built in a day.

It's true. Just ask Paul Simon.

 

Applelinks Rating

 

Raised on Intellivision and "Tron," Kirk Hiner has been an avid gamer ever since he was tall enough to look through the viewfinder on the Battlezone upright. Although he makes a living using a PC (not by choice) to design websites for Dynamics Online, Inc., Kirk never strays from his 9600/200 or 3400c for computer gaming. When he's not playing the latest Logicware release, he can either be found working on his next "never to be published" novel, rereading anything by Kurt Vonnegut or watching RAW is WAR.

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July 30, 2014

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