Review: Railway Empire

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Review copy provided by publisher

Trains are one of those rare topics that can enthrall at any age. Children have wooden train sets, adults have sprawling mechanical train tables, and the appeal is the same for both. We love watching locomotives speed around, over hills and around mountains and through tunnels, and games built around trains are historically engrossing. But it’s been well over a decade since Railroad Tycoon and Transport Tycoon sank their steamy claws into us, with few worthy successors to follow. Railway Empire is the latest simulation to try capturing that magic, and does so by mixing elements of several classic titles in the genre. And while the formula might not be entirely refined, the result is dangerously close to reaching those same heights of enjoyment.

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Railway Empire centers on the expansion of railroads in the United States, particularly the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Spanning nearly a century of development from 1830 to 1910, you’ll be charged with laying rails and running locomotives all over the country, moving goods and passengers between cities and growing their businesses. As technology advances you’ll have access to stronger and more reliable engines, making it easier to get your trains over the towering mountains and rushing rivers of America. Your actions will have significant effects on the cities you service, as well as the rival companies you’ll butt heads with as you play through the historical scenarios covering the rise of rails.

In gameplay terms, this is very much a modern incarnation of Railroad Tycoon II. Each of the game’s seven maps is an abstraction of a region in the United States, such as the west coast from Oregon to Mexico and out to the Rockies. Cities dot these landscapes, each with its own demands for goods and industries producing their own goods. Out in the rural wilderness you’ll find more industries like farms and factories that supply goods that cities demand, and which will fetch you a pretty penny if you can haul them where they need to go. Of course there are passengers and mail bags to transport too, so virtually anywhere you want to run a train will make you a profit of some sort. All you need to do is plop down a station in or near cities, connect them with rails, and send your trains to haul away. Once you get the hang of it you can start working through the list of goals that prop up all of the game’s scenarios.

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The tricky part is getting your rail network running smoothly, and it’s here that the game borrows more from Transport Tycoon than Railroad Tycoon. Your helpful track constructor lays rails along the most direct routes, adjusting for elevations, river crossings, and tunnels where needed. But it only lays single track, and you can’t have trains running into each other. So right from the very first scenario the game teaches you about building side tracks and signals which can turn lines into one-way passages. On a basic level this allows you to create passing points where two trains on a single line can get around each other. But once you’re trying to get resources from six different areas into a single city, the complexity can explode out into a gordian knot of congested lines and jumbled signals.

I’m mentioning this now because it’s been my biggest hangup getting into the game over multiple hours. Laying good rail networks is hard, and requires more planning than you might expect. All the tools are in place thanks to a wonderfully clear interface and useful design tools for lines and signals, but there’s still a significant curve to using them effectively. I thought I had it all figured out by building two huge stations with four lines apiece and limiting access with signals, but I couldn’t get a single train running between them because I didn’t realize you had to assign trains to run on specific lines. They also don’t completely adhere to these directives, as I’ve had trains run past their prescribed stations to block incoming trains from other directions. And once two trains get deadlocked, you have to delete one unless you can assign it to a functional new route.

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It’s an engrossing system to be sure, moreso than many train sims that have come before, but it’s still a shade more daunting than it should be. Luckily the rest of the game is laid out in clearer, more responsive ways but they build upon each other to make for an intense simulation. Cities grow based on the goods you bring them, and as they get bigger they demand more kinds. Keeping up will require a sprawling network of rails and rural stations, as well as supply towers and maintenance buildings for your engines. You gain research points over time which can be spent on an enormous tree to unlock hundreds of new locomotives and upgrades for your service. There are also employees to hire, including train staff, corporate workers, and special agents like spies and saboteurs who can make life difficult for your competitors. And you can even build or purchase local industries to directly affect the production of goods yourself, a feature right out the developer’s previous Patrician games.

Most scenarios will see you competing with other rail companies as well, and it’s a cutthroat business. Your AI opponents will build stations in your cities, hire personnel away from you, and outbid you on auctions for train equipment and industries. There’s a stock market element to the business side where you and they can invest in each other’s companies and buy them out as well, so direct action against your competition can’t really be avoided. It adds another layer of stress on top of laying lines and organizing routes and keeping your business profitable and up-to-date, and altogether it can get overwhelming until you come to grips with all the moving parts.

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Fortunately there’s are some key difficulty options that can alleviate a few of these pains. Chief among them is the option to bump the train simulation down from realistic to a simplified mode where all your locomotives can run on single lines. If all that rigmarole about signals doesn’t appeal to you, breathe easy in the knowledge that you can just turn it off. You can also enable pause functions that allow you to stop and ponder your options at any time, and outside of the campaign you can fiddle with your AI competitors to make them just challenging enough, or get rid of them entirely. Railway Empire is clearly designed to have a significant learning curve, but you do have the option of leveling much of it out.

No matter how you play it, there’s plenty of depth to the maps and the business. Laying rails might be tricky at first but it’s just plain fun, marking out your routes through valleys and along rivers to cut down on construction costs. Getting dozens of trains going confers that gratification you get from building a humming city in Anno or Tropico, doubly so as you see cities growing through your influence. The graphics help a lot here, being unexpectedly detailed enough to zoom all the way in and watch people and wagons tool along city streets. You can see individual corn stalks and cows on the farms, and angle up for lovely vistas across your empire. Even the trains have charming ride-along camera options, giving you a ground-level view of your handiwork. The sound design is solid as well with the effects and folksy soundtrack, though the voice work is noticeably stilted and unnatural, perhaps a result of trying to affect American accents.

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The campaign spans five large missions with multiple goals to fulfill, usually connecting cities across the map, hauling specific goods, and reaching certain company values. They work well as tutorials with voiced guidance from historical figures, though sometimes they get stuck on steps and leave it up to you to advance on your own. You get ten or so scenarios on top of that which cover different events in American railroad history like the gold rush and Reconstruction. A free mode offers access to all seven maps and five time periods with fully-customizable starts and difficulties, while sandbox mode lets you build what you want, where you want, when you want as the ultimate train table simulation. Between all that and the density of the research and customization options within the game, there should be plenty to keep you busy for dozens of hours.

Assuming you can come to grips with its complexity, Railway Empire is a worthy successor to the classic train sims of yesteryear. It takes the core concepts of connecting cities and hauling goods and expands on them with modern additions like research and staffing. The added angle of investing in industries yourself deepens the economic strategy, and gives you more to do with the movement of goods around the map. It’s just going to take time to work out how it all comes together, especially the realistic simulations of rail lines and signaling. If you can get past that and the few rough edges on it, Railway Empire will give you all the tools you need to become the rail baron you’ve always wanted to be.

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