When I was a lad, one of my favorite pastimes (before we got a Sega Genesis) was to play with my dad’s model train set. It was a conservative design made up of two rail lanes, a mountain tunnel, a few stations and two sets of freight engines with boxcars. Even though it ran in a circular loop, it was quite fun watching it go round and round. Train Simulator 2013 is very much a return to that early time in my life. With a vast collection of engines to drive and routes to undertake, the simulation is required gaming for all rail fans and trainspotters. What is really unfortunate are the number of technical blemishes that dulls the game’s lovely shine.
What’s nice about Train Simulator 2013 is that, unlike airplane sims, you don’t have to plow through 100 point pre-flight checklists nor worry about stalling or maintaining proper airspeed and elevation. While there isn’t much to getting a train moving outside of switching a directional lever and increasing the throttle, maintaining correct speed and ensuring a comfortable ride is your biggest concern. Well that and confronting your biggest enemy: time. Train Simulator offers a large collection of scenarios that task the player with getting from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. At the end of the simulation, a scorecard lists any violations or other errors made (like being late or failing to follow through with certain parameters) during the trip. Weather can also influence your end game score as torrential downpours, wind and snow can have adverse effects on the train.
Driving is accomplished in two different ways. For novices, a handy overlay displays all the necessary buttons and levers needed to make the train run smoothly. There’s also a two dimensional map that shows the distance between your train and stations along the route. Other useful displays include a speedometer, a speed limit indicator and quick and easy access to engine-specific functions. Experts can choose to shut off this overlay and interact directly with the cockpit controls. This mode is best suited to those that have a deep, intimate knowledge of train car design and can find the position of each knob and lever from memory and with their eyes closed.
There are two primary game modes, Standard and Career Scenarios, and both comprise simulated routes of varying difficulty and length. Some levels can take as little as ten or fifteen minutes to complete while harder simulations can take upwards of an hour. Thankfully, a save system allows you to pick up your progress later for those moments when life steps in and demands attention. If you tire from lengthy sceanrios, a Free Roam mode allows for customizable play. And with Steam Workshop support, additional cars, routes and worlds can be added with incredible ease.
The game offers support for gamepads and using them makes the game really feel like a virtual model railroad set. When I play, I have the controller flat on the desk with my hands on the analog sticks and fingers on the brake and throttle controls. Doing so takes me back to my dad’s garage, adrift on the sea of nostalgia.
From the the train cars to the areas surrounding each route, it is obvious that Train Simulator 2013 was designed for the hardcore rail enthusiast in mind. Freight cars, Amtrak liners and steam engines have been lovingly and painstakingly recreated from their real world counterparts. Its as if the developers had pictures taken of different train models from every conceivable nook and cranny and rebuilt them to their exact specifications. Each engine has their own look and feel with passenger trains designed to be sleek and sexy while the commercial and maintenance trains are large, bulky beasts.
The simulation’s realism doesn’t stop at the recreated train cars. The cities, towns and landscapes all along each route are also pulled from real life as well. The game has a nearly overwhelming English taste, so residents of the UK will see familiar place names. The game does cross the pond for a few scenarios involving the Union Pacific and Amtrak lines.
Oh, and something should be said for the exceptional water/rain effects: they’re exceptional!
Upfront, this is a game that will hold massive appeal for a small demographic. Apart from the thrill of navigating a train, there isn’t enough excitement for the casual gamer or curious passerby. The game lacks a proper tutorial mode, there doesn’t seem much of a difference between Career and Standard Scenarios gameplay wise and the actual simulations are long, uneventful and repetitive with nothing of interest to see outside the cabin windows. This goes double for the Cheyenne route - a rail line stuck deep in the middle of nowhere with fields stretching out for miles and miles. To an outsider’s eye, Train Simulator 2013 is about as exciting as Penn & Teller’s Desert Bus. For those who grew up with model trains or make it a habit to stop along train tracks to watch them go by, this game was made for them and they’ll love every second of it.
As commendable as the game is, it’s a real shame that it suffers from a number of technical issues that range from slightly annoying to game breaking. No matter which train you choose to control, maintaining speed is a major struggle. Throttle is measured in percentages and there is a distinct lack of precision when moving it up or down. This was a problem that occurred either if mouse/keyboard or gamepad configurations are used. In fact, it was worse with a mouse. Here’s an example: to gradually lower my speed before reaching a station, the throttle was set to 50% and I figured bringing it down to 15% and applying the brake would be a good start. The issue is that the throttle seems to have preset measurements with no in-between so my only option was to bring it down to 10%. This is especially frustrating because if you manually pull down the lever, the indicator will show the entire range of numbers. But if I wanted to stop at, say, 18% throttle the game would round up to 25%. It’s really, really aggravating and results in numerous speeding violations in my post-game report. A better, more responsive throttle system would do incredible wonders for this game.
The most crippling and disappointing bug I’ve come across was the failure of an alarming number of scenarios to launch because the game couldn’t load the trains needed for that simulation. Nothing is more unnerving than having to sit through excruciatingly long load screens only to be forced back to the main menu because the game couldn’t do its job. I also experienced repeated framerate drops in every scenario I played through. Some could be explained by the changes in weather while others, like the game coming to a halt after I sounded a horn, are far more questionable.
From a technical standpoint, it feels like Train Simulator 2013 was pulled out of the oven a bit too early.
Although it gets bogged down by some discomforting technical issues, Train Simulator 2013 is a game will appeal to a small but hungry niche gamers and hardcore trainspotters. The game offers hours of simulated railroading fun out of the box and the added Steam Workshop support means there’s always something new to do.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.