Railroad Tycoon 3 Review

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Publisher: Gathering (Take-Two Interactive)
Developer: PopTop Software

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium II 400 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 16 MB video card, 1.2 GB HD space

To characterize Railroad Tycoon 3 as a railroad management sim, while technically accurate, rather understates the role of the Railroad Tycoon series as games that helped launch a genre. In any event, contextualized or not, Railroad Tycoon 3 casts you in the role of a grand industrialist aiming first and foremost to dominate the railroad industry, but also any other industry you can grab hold of all while boosting your own personal fortunes. Or you can just slap on your engineer's hat and play with trains. Up to you.

Rob de los Reyes

Simply charming. Though there are the usual nits to pick, Railroad Tycoon 3 absolutely overwhelms with its raw charm. Elegantly detailed trains representing the full history (and possible future) of railroading stimulate a certain childlike – but never childish – glee. Colorful landscapes dotted with lakes, rivers, mountains and even volcanoes, as well as a range of sky and weather effects, are grand enough to border on over-stimulating. Clever scenarios keep gameplay interesting, deep and varied. Most importantly, Railroad Tycoon 3 keeps you busy without swamping you with keystrokes, delivering those "just five more minutes" moments that leave you rubbing your eyes three hours later, cooing contentedly over quality time with your little engines that can.

Say Hello to My Little Train

Although Railroad Tycoon 3 can't deliver the tactile pleasures of real-world model railroading, it does offer quite a few things out of reach of the old hobby. For starters, digital engines are quite a bit cheaper to buy than their real-world equivalents. Railroad Tycoon 3 boasts scores of trains from the 19th through 21st Centuries and from around the world. Being able to switch at whim from a scenario featuring the shiny steam cans that were the early trains to a scenario centered around the space-age bullet trains of Japan is pure hobby joy. Just as important, the detailed work on the trains, both in looks and in sound, makes this variety more than mere nomenclature. Headlights function, steam puffs, and electric trains quietly whir and click. Though it is important to pay attention to the handful of functional differences between trains for purposes of "winning," it's often hard to eschew choosing your favorite "cool" train even when you know it's the wrong train for the job. But such are the allowed pleasures for gamers patient enough and willing to set min/maxing to the side for awhile.

Railroad Tycoon 3 also offers a leg up on background settings. To be sure, working with the miniature set pieces of real-world model railroading offers its own pleasures, but this virtual world offers a scope simply inaccessible to a real world limited by space and funding. The scenery is beautiful (if occasionally obtrusive) both in terms of the terrestrial landscape and in terms of the constructed buildings. Architecture varies by region of the world, though you always have the option to force the architecture style of your choosing. Scenery highlights include shimmering lakes, white-capped waves on coasts, steadily waving fields of grain and grass, and purple/orange/pink sunsets. You'll have to zoom in to the tightest view to catch glimpses of those sunsets, a view that isn't terribly useful for anything but oohing and aahing over game aesthetics, but one that you'll be routinely drawn to anyway.

Interestingly, even as Railroad Tycoon 3 exploits the opportunities of computer art, it also keeps a foot in real-world model railroading. Map and item scale is not strictly consistent here, but rather functional and model-like without swerving into cartoonishness. Towns tend to consist of no more than 10-20 buildings, and they generally offer a clean strip right through their centers just waiting for you to lay down track. Such surface details may be comparatively simple compared to all the work that's going on under the hood, but it is these small choices that, added together with the larger ones, make for an experience that is accessible and fun rather than mired in rough detail or pretension.

Show Me How It Works

Though it expertly walks the line between realism and fun, as well as difficulty and accessibility when it comes to such representational aspects described above, Railroad Tycoon 3 has a slightly tougher time of it with respect to a few other gameplay aspects. In addition to the very visible cargo economy of train haulage, you, as a tycoon, have your hand in more than one set of affairs. You'll also be able to purchase and build factories and farms as part of your corporate empire and dabble in the stock market to expand your personal fortune.

Perhaps in the name of accessibility and freedom from micromanagement, quite a lot of the complicated economy operates a bit far beneath the surface. For the most part, it's nice to be able to rely on a toggle to let trains choose their own cargo for maximum value. That option paves the way for a more dynamic game than one in which you constantly need to update cargo manifests for every train on the map. And, at least in the campaign, there are a number of scenarios that require you to hand manipulate cargo a bit, so you'll have cause to learn to fine tune things should it suit you.

The other economic aspects range from slightly opaque to slightly oversimplified. It is not abundantly clear why farms always seem to be profitable and very few other industries ever are. Supposedly, it pays to vertically integrate an industry by acquiring, say, a timber camp, logging facility and furniture maker such that you control the full line of inputs right up to the, theoretically, high margin output of finished goods. Yet, sometimes, you just can't turn a profit come hell or high water.

Maybe there's just no demand for the commodity in this scenario – that's information you do have. Yet, given the limited information you get about factory performance, it's sometimes tough to know just what the problem is. Obviously, not all lines of business should be profitable at all times lest you strip that portion of the game of challenge, but it would be helpful if the game were clearer about what it takes to put and keep a non-railroad operation in the black. Fortunately, this turns out to be a relatively minor problem. Most of the time, you can simply look for operations that are already profitable to buy and hold, then get back to the business of turning one horse towns into railroad metropolises.

At the other end of the spectrum is the stock market model. There's no way around the difficult design choices to be made here. A fully-featured stock market risks impenetrability through glazed-eye boredom. At the same time, a too-simple market risks impenetrability through a lack of features to move or react to changing conditions. Railroad Tycoon 3 is certainly right to lean to the simple but perhaps leans a shade too far.

The only stocks are your own and those of any competitors who happen to exist. For most of the campaign game, your stock will be the only one on offer (often because you'll have bought out your competitors early on when they exist at all). Trying to make money in a one-stock market is a curious exercise. There's some fun to be had manipulating your personal fortune through means that would land you in jail under post-1933 laws, but, largely, you're at the mercy the business cycle. In boom times, you win. In recession, you lose (or time your short-selling well). Without complicating the relatively simple and well-chosen mechanics of Railroad Tycoon 3's stock market, couldn't other non-railroad stocks have been added? After all, other industries are in play and their profits are tracked just as your company's are. With no counter-cyclical (or any other) stocks to invest in, sometimes the stock game feels like praying for sunshine.

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme

Still, these economy issues only bother to the extent you let them. They aren't show stoppers, and, in the large scale scenarios in particular, you might be just as happy to trade a little bit of confusion for the sake of getting moving things along in this detailed and rich economic model. More to the point, these are, if not inconsequential concerns, certainly not enough to (pardon the pun) derail an otherwise delightful way to spend a great many distracted hours. The campaign is long, and there are plenty of stand-alone scenarios in addition to a multiplayer mode that, while certainly fulfilling its task, you may not feel compelled to get to.

For the most part, Railroad Tycoon 3 would benefit simply from more of what it is already doing so well. Just more. More music (are we imagining that there's a harmonica rendition of Hot Blooded in here?), more trains, more maps, more buildings and set pieces (perhaps moving draw bridges or other toys you find in real-world model railroading). In the meantime, you might shush that little micromanager in your head for a short while and enjoy playing with your choo-choos.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on November 26, 2003 6:06 PM.

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