It’s been a fair while since Railway Empire launched on the PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 and now Nintendo Switch players get to experience one of the best railway simulations of recent years.
It’s a genre that can be traced back to Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon and while 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.
From Kalypso Media, the publisher behind the fun Tropico series of games, Railway Empire finally lands on the Switch and brings with it some of the DLC that the other platforms have been graced with since release. The initial release includes the Mexico DLC, Crossing the Andes DLC, and The Great Lakes DLC but others are available to buy at an additional cost from the eShop – this includes The Germany DLC, France DLC and Great Britain & Ireland DLC.
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. In terms of control, the Switch version feels very similar to the other console editions with 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. I struggled with my muscle memory constantly selecting the B button rather than the A one which lead to some frustration but this eased over time.
It’s a testament to the development team that the game plays as well as it does on the Switch – these sorts of games are more suited to keyboard/mouse play but there was never a moment when playing the Switch version that felt unintuitive. It’s just a shame more use wasn’t made of the touch screen for selecting options on screen; thereby bring it closer to the PC experience.
Graphically the Switch version of the game isn’t quite as lovely to look at as the PC and other console versions. Textures are a little less sharp and the resolution has taken a sizeable hit with clear pixelation but it certainly isn’t the most graphically taxing of games and the fact that the full package can be played in handheld mode with just a little slowdown is impressive.
There’s plenty of atmosphere on offer via the soundtrack and the tutorial voice over in particular was nice and clear – via headphones there’s nothing to distinguish between versions of the game.
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 base 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. 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 fact that the Switch release doesn’t contain all of the DLC released so far as part of the base package meaning there’s very much an 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.
The Switch port itself is decent and provides the full experience of other platforms with a few trade-offs in fidelity and performance.
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