All Aboard! But watch out I’m going off the rails on a Crazy Train.
Release date: 31 Aug, 2021
I have actually enjoyed these kinds of simulators since way back in my early school days. There were a couple of educational transport truck sims back then that I enjoyed in my free time called Cross Country Canada/USA. It was a kind of on-rails truck driving simulator where you didn’t actually drive the truck directly, but your decisions determined how successful your trip was. From there I graduated to Euro Truck Simulator and spent countless hours building my trucking empire. Having grown up near railroad tracks it seems only fitting I now turn my attention to building a railway empire.
Train Life: A Railway Simulator is in Early Access and while it does show a bit of that state right now, the game does have potential. The tutorial actually had me worried initially because I thought it was broken right out of the gate. It was a simple enough task, move the mouse and look in four different directions, having done that and not having it credit the action led me to try again using my gamepad but that too failed (and oddly enough the default movement speed for the gamepad is extremely slow in comparison to the mouse default). I persevered though and eventually got it to work. It turns out it is just coded with very tight tolerances on what is acceptable. Having to look straight up, straight down, considerably to the right and considerably to the left eventually triggered it. I had actually tried that before, but it must have been slightly off the acceptable mark. The rest of the tutorial went fine enough.
I have to admit I started off a little badly in general. You see there are levers you can either move yourself or use keyboard shortcuts, either work. Brakes and Acceleration are set to two separate controls, which makes sense, however, you can apply both simultaneously, which also makes sense, but this was a source of confusion for me early on. Time to get moving! … we are not moving … more speed … we are still not moving … oh silly me parking brake must be on. Toggles the brake, and away we … go? Oh the regular brakes are also on full … let’s just turn them off and get going … oops full reversed into the trainyard … I am sure that will buff out. Once you get the hang of the controls though it is intuitive enough and the user interface does try to help you out.
One thing that isn’t overly helpful is the GPS system though. You can lay in your course and it will guide you to your destination, however, it doesn’t always seem to work all that well. When you are barreling down the tracks you will encounter switch tracks and you have the ability to switch if you want to. If the GPS is working properly, it will be red for wrong track and green for correct track or blue for neither track matters. So, you start down the rail and you get a prompt saying the switch is ahead and the one you are set to take is the wrong rail so you switch to the correct track. However, sometimes, the green track flips red just as you start moving on to it, from this point on the GPS will be wrong. As you continue along both options ahead will be red letting you know that neither choice is correct. If you reverse back to where the “mistake” occurred, the game will continue to mislead you. You can find your own way to your destination, but it may be a bit of hit or miss if you will find the right set of rails in the yard to drop your cargo off at. The game also takes its routing very literally at times as well. If you are in Station A and need to go to Station B and set your course to Station B, it will often make you find the sweet spot in Station A before guiding you to Station B. This occurred a few times but the most noteworthy was when I was down at the end of a line and had already visited the service station to repair, refuel, and turn around. I stopped and collected the contract and cars, set my destination and started heading out. The first switch track I got to had both options red. Thinking I had made a mistake, I put the train in reverse to find the correct path. Now one of the switches was showing green for me, so I proceeded in reverse. It took me right back to the station I had left. Returning to the switch track both were red again. There were no trains or obstacles, so I just decided to carry on. I ended up manually finding my way to my destination because the game never forgave me for not finding the right trigger point even after deleting and resetting the GPS waypoint. There is one last thing that is kind of a minor gripe, and that is the user interface can be a bit difficult to manage. If you pick up cargo to take to a destination and forget between accepting it and locating the correct spot and adding the waypoint, it can be difficult to figure out where you are supposed to go. You can navigate the various screens to find the train screen that tells you where you are going, but I feel the developer should highlight on the map destinations with active contract resolutions.
With the above concerns which I am certain will be addressed as the game progresses through the Early Access stage and onto full release down the rail, let’s talk more about the game in general. Once you finish the tutorial which does a decent job getting you ready you will find yourself setting out with a budget engine looking for your first break. There are few ways you can start, you can chase contracts or you can pick up passengers and/or mail. I had decided that I wanted to do cargo to start so I looked at the map to find the nearest station then radioed them to pick up a contract. Turns out the starting station had no contracts. I could pick up passengers, but then I would need to go to a service station to add a passenger car. I then decided, I would just find a contract at the next station instead. I radioed it and it too had no contracts for me. I then looked further down the map and found a contract available at a farm which was a bit far away, but figured it was a good enough start. I went there, which took a while and seemly had to randomly switch tracks often until I got there and picked up 8 cars going to a refinery. This was where I first encountered the bug above that the GPS decided it disliked me. Fortunately, I was able to make my way there without its help. I made a decent score, although I didn’t get the full pay offered for the job, not entirely sure what I did wrong since I held near the speed limit the entire time and never crashed but regardless, it was still a good pay day. I grabbed another contract and ran those cars to the next destination, I did hit something on the rail, an animal most likely, but there was absolutely no way to get around hitting it, it materialized directly in front of my train seconds before I hit it and despite blowing my horn it stayed on the track until it was too late and was fined for hitting it. You can actually get fined fairly easily in this game if you are not careful, but after a patch it did get a bit more forgiving. Depending on how good your computer is, the draw distance can be a bit punishing financially. Setting all setting to their highest, the game looked good although my FPS were borderline acceptable. Turning it down the lowest, meant things ran smooth but the pop in/out was a major issue. The game warns you of issues on the HUD which is a good thing, but things like signs and signal lights on the track were not overly reliable on the lower settings.
There are a number of factors that come into play as you work your way around Germany. Weather effects, other trains (currently disabled), rail speeds, rail switches, broken down trains, animals on the track, grade of the track, and other things help keep you on your toes. This isn’t a game where you can set your destination and set a speed and go. Doing so is a sure-fire way to either get in a wreck or end up stalled on the track. For example, even in the tutorial there is a hill as you move to your destination, this hill causes your speed to increase greatly which of course means you are at risk of speed fine or derailment if you do not apply the brakes to keep your speed in check. On the return trip this hill reduces your forward momentum meaning you need to throttle up more to be able to maintain your speed or you will likely end up stopping. Currently the car coupling is a placeholder with the roadmap showing that a minigame is planned in the future, but for now it is a bit dull doing it all automatically.
Eventually when you raise enough funds you can begin to build your empire which involves improving cities, buying additional engines, upgrading existing ones, and hiring people to operate them for you. Once you get to this point, much like in other transportation management games, your funds will start growing more quickly. As you progress through levels more technology and upgrades become available to you. You do have the option to sell off older used equipment in favour of shinier new equipment or just relegate it to your staff. Since the game is still in active development and bound to change between the time of writing this and the time it exits Early Access I won’t really worry about expanding the finer details of the game in this preview. The game does have great possibilities despite being quite rough around the edges at this time.
The game looks remarkably good for what it is. The various parts of Germany you visit all look nice and there enough variations to keep it from getting too dull. Sure, running the same routes repeatedly gets a bit dull, but in fact the map is quite expansive so you will likely not have to worry about that too much. There are a number of trains available so there is bound to be at least one you will like enough to choose as your main train. The visuals from within each of the trains I drove were different so care has been taken to keep the trains interesting. You can cycle through various cameras to help you see better as well as rotate around. The display also gives you critical information to help you prepare for upcoming switches and problems.
Other than from the instructor in the tutorial there isn’t much in the way of spoken words in this game. Everything is displayed on screen. That is slated to change in the roadmap though so not something to hold against it at this point. The sound effects are suitable enough for the game although they feel a little lacking. I am sure as more polish and refinement is added to the game they will be improved.
Controls and User Interface
The controls in the game are little clumsy. You will eventually find yourself getting in the rhythm, but for some bizarre reason I often found myself hitting the wrong buttons. Applying brakes when I meant throttle, throttle when I meant brakes. Sometimes having both throttle and brakes maxed out. The User Interface also leaves a lot to be desired at this point. The fact it prompts you is fantastic, but sometimes the prompts don’t work or don’t make sense. For example, the GPS switch track issue I talked about earlier. Despite what the map says, the GPS tells me that every direction is wrong to get there. It also seems to randomly make you switch from the left and right tracks on a whim. Both tracks are running parallel, yet the green and red lights come on telling you to switch tracks just to switch you back again at the next switch over. There are no other trains, no debris or animals or anything preventing the use of the rail you were on, the game just decides it is time for you to move rails. There is also the issue of it not being entirely clear where you are supposed to go to be able to use the GPS or station properly. You can pull up to a spot and get the signal to press a button to pick up or drop off your cargo, but the waypoint is further down the track. Going to that spot doesn’t seem to make any difference. Sometimes there is a green highlighted segment on the track to stop in for your drop-off, other times there is nothing apparent. Sometimes you can be entirely in the drop off zone, have the prompt to press the decouple button but the game ignores your clicks and keystrokes. I’m sure all of these issues are because it was only recently released into Early Access and will be resolved later on.
So, should you pick up Train Life: A Railway Simulator? The game certainly has potential. What I experienced of it was actually pretty good considering it only just released in Early Access. Sure, there are a lot of issues and gripes right now and if this was the final release, I would likely end up giving the game a Pause. Since it is still in active development, only about two weeks after the initial launch and already has had three patches, I feel reasonably good about suggesting that this game may be worth picking up if you enjoy transportation sims. It has a lot going for it and it feels like the Developer is trying to develop something people will enjoy. The Developer seems to be listening to feedback from the community and is already refining the game based on their feedback. If you enjoyed similar games, you would probably find something worth your time here as well. The management aspect I am only just scratching the surface on, but it does seem to be quite robust for what it is. If you want a fast-paced action game, this might not be for you. While you can’t just play it mindlessly, it is more relaxed than some may like. Compared to a transport truck sim where you have to deal with staying between your lines, minding other vehicles as well as regulating your speed, this game faces its own variations on those challenges. Sure, you can’t accidentally side swipe a car with your trailer because you changed lanes a little prematurely, but you can defiantly still crash into things if you are not paying attention. Overall, it is one to watch.