Railway Empire Review
PCAlso available on Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
It's been a long time since we had a decent railway management simulation - it's a genre with a solid history that really kicked off with Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon on 16 bit platforms. The idea of shunting goods via rail from one city to another and all the micromanagement that comes with it may sound less than enthralling to some, but once it grips, it grips hard.
Over the years we've had loads of excellent options including updates to the Sid Meier games that seemingly lost gameplay features in return for more detailed graphics with each release. Then Chris Sawyer brought us one of the genre's greatest games in Transport Tycoon; a game that offered not only railway management, but air transport, road transport and more. More recently fans of the haulage have had Open Transport Tycoon to tide them over - an open-source take on Sawyer's excellent games.
I personally have been craving a new railway management games ever since the (then) lovely to look at Sid Meier's Railroads disappointment me in its simplicity. Open Transport Tycoon scratched that itch for a while, but there was something about the idea of just pure, in-depth railway business management that it didn't deliver. The announcement of Railway Empire then was something to get excited about.
From Kalypso Media, the publisher behind the fun Tropico series of games, we were expecting something that was enjoyable but had enough under the hood to help keep that management urge under control. Railway Empire is available on PC alongside Xbox One and Playstation 4. We've taken a close look at the PC version for this review but have also had hands on time with the Xbox One version for comparison.
There are various game modes - for the most part our time was spent in the main campaign. The first stage of which is something of a tutorial introducing you to the basics of playing the game. Both on PC and console there was some learning curve to the controls - for example scrolling around the map is achieved with WASD on PC rather than the more conventional moving the mouse to the edges of the screen. It's takes some getting used to. On the PC, most functions are available via always on buttons at the top of the screen. The Xbox One and PS4 versions have a popup wheel to chose various actions such as to add buildings, or to build track. Selecting the wheel options was a similar mechanism to, say, choosing a weapon in GTA - but more often than not was then accompanied by an unwanted shift across the map when co-ordinating the final selection.
It's a testament to the development team that the game plays as well as it does on consoles - these sorts of games are more suited to keyboard/mouse play but there was never a moment when playing the Xbox One version that felt unintuitive.
Graphically and sonically there's little to distinguish between platforms with the Xbox One version looking nigh-on identical to the standard settings on a mid-range PC. It certainly isn't the most graphically taxing of games; feeling like a natural progression from earlier sims. It's nowhere near as pretty or vibrant as the more recent Tropico instalments but does support up to 4K rendering on PC and Xbox One X and PS4 Pro too with some caveats. The game is locked to 30fps on consoles but can scale to much higher rates on PC with suitable hardware - obviously 4K is far more challenging.
There's plenty of atmosphere on offer via the soundtrack and the tutorial voice over in particular was nice and clear.
Back to the campaign; we're dropped into post civil war Great Plains America in the 1860s tasked with helping rebuild the country via establishing a vibrant railway empire. By linking towns and cities and then resources the idea, familiar as it will be to players of the Sid Meier games, is to ship the right goods to the right places and make lots of profit. The game starts lots of towns but nothing to link them up and it is entirely up to you to find the best and most profitable routes. The tutorial introduces each aspect of the game starting with building your first station, adding a line between the two and then creating your first train.
At this point it's clear that the game has chosen to remove the micromanagement of its peers - you don't decide where each individual segment of track will go - you choose the start and end point and then can add additional points along the route to take into account geographical obstacles such as inclines, mountains or rivers. It's then up to you to find the cheapest and most economical track placement. Likewise the game doesn't make you think about cargos and which carriages to use - every time the train arrives at a station, the game automatically chooses the carriages and wagons most suitable to the goods that need transporting. It's a welcoming change for newcomers but for old railway sim hands it feels a little bit too basic.
As the game progresses, rather than ride the stock market you find yourself managing the railway staff and ensuring you have the right people to do the work that's needed. Again, this is something of a departure from other transport sims; which focus more on logistics and routing and less on people management.
The campaign and free mode of the game are firmly locked in the 1800s taking in various points in that century. While this helps to give the game a solid footing, it means that the scope for development into the future is missing and you're limited to steam locomotives. Maybe there are plans for other time periods in expansions or future instalments but it would have been nice to have been able to establish a railroad and then follow its growth (or collapse) into the current century with growing cities and technological improvements. The game does feature 40 trains and 300 technological developments that you can research, but they are all firmly rooted in the 1800's.
Also disappointing is the American focus - for UK players it would be good to be able to try and replicate the feats of Brunel with his Great Western line and to build a country-spanning railway network to stand the test of time; even if just to show just how bad Richard Branson is at running a railway.
Railway Empire is an enjoyable sim - it's never less than lovely to look at and despite the control learning curve, it's welcoming to new players. In spite of this, it just feels slightly underwhelming and isn't quite the Railroad Tycoon updated we were hoping for. It misses the thrill of watching your stock price rise ahead of your competitors or that sinking feeling when the economy crashes and you're reliant on income from passengers who can no longer afford rail travel. That said, in its own right it's a great game and will certainly be a time sink; so finger's crossed it's just the start of a much more exciting railway journey for Kalypso.