Train Simulator 2018 is the very definition of a niche game. What exactly is that niche? First, it would include that subset of PC gamers that enjoy transportation sims. More narrowly, railroad sims. OK, who's still in? Well, our dwindling population would have to be obsessed with the minutiae of train engines and rolling stock of all types and stripes, with their liveries and the routes that they run, slowly and dutifully across the countryside. Finally, our remaining gamers would have to enjoy the thrill of picking up passengers, coupling and uncoupling cars, have hours of time to sit staring at blocky, drab graphics that look a decade old and have hundreds -- if not thousands -- of dollars to spend on DLC.
You name the activity -- or wait, maybe don't, this is internet -- and there are probably thousands or millions of people around the globe sharing that interest. Hobbies like trainspotting and model railroading have enriched many lives with the history, romance and pure industrial accomplishment of track-based transportation. While aircraft get people and things where they need to go at sexy, supersonic speeds, there is a real appeal to the decidedly simple controls and moderate pace of trains and the games that simulate them. Instead of dogfights at Mach 3, we get the pulse-pounding thrill of pulling into Burmingham station precisely at 13:00, just as the train schedule dictates. Forget racing a Formula 1 car at insane speeds, rail buffs get to inch the throttle forward until their loco is traveling at tens of miles per hour.
Train Simulator 2018 authentically models the machinery and tasks that are common to this venerable mode of transportation, from meeting timetables to refueling, from moving to a siding to gathering a miles-long collection of stock for a run up the countryside. While most locomotives -- historical steam or diesel or hybrids -- have relatively few controls to master, completing the game's scenarios requires precision, an understanding of train mechanics, and a tolerance for slow pacing and long periods of inaction. Train Simulator fans demand realism in their sim, and if that means sitting on a siding for 15 minutes of real-time nothing, taking ten minutes of trial-and-error nudging to get a loco in refueling position, or waiting 30 minutes for passengers to board, so much the better. Those who want to simply enjoy the ride can do so in a free mode that makes no demands: just assemble a train, pick a route, and wait for highball.
I have no doubt that train enthusiasts will appreciate the realism of the routes, track controls, and train physics that have been baked into the game. I suspect that those same enthusiasts -- not to mention the general gamer just dipping into the sim -- will be pretty annoyed by the DLC model of Train Simulator, which hides nearly all content behind sometimes enormous paywalls. While the $40 base game includes a dozen or so landscapes, routes and locomotives, everything else -- additional stock, locomotives, scenery, routes, etc -- is an add-on that costs anywhere from $5 to $40 or more. Packages of branded trains and routes cost $24.99 each. A completion-minded enthusiast would have to spend thousands of dollars to open all the extra content. Compared to Train Simulator, the controversial loot boxes in recent shooters are basically free. While there is a robust amount of user-crafted material on the Steam workshop, a lot of it is based on DLC content to work. The bottom line for any game should be that it offer a significant and complete experience for the price of admission. Train Simulator does not.
On a decent PC with all settings maxed out, Train Simulator unfortunately still looks pretty disappointing. While the train engines themselves don't look too bad with the camera pulled out, close-ups reveal more jaggies than a crosscut saw, with blocky, flat, dimensionless textures that jitter and pop in, and scenery -- trees, carts, buildings -- that would have failed to impress years ago. There are passengers sitting mute and motionless in the cars and entirely lacking detail. If Train Simulator really wants to nail the experience of driving a train through a bustling city or European countryside, it desperately needs a visual makeover. Just about every driving game or flight sim or city builder now has top-notch visuals. Just because rail transportation is a product of the 19th century doesn't justify -- especially considering the game's cost -- such outdated graphics and minimalist approach to sound and music (there is none, not even in the menus).
The train simulator market is not exactly burgeoning, but there are other games in the same space as Train Simulator 2018, most notably Trainz: A New Era, which features new graphics and physics engines and a slightly less -- though only slightly less so -- egregious DLC model. Still, the enthusiast has choices. While Train Simulator knows its trains and offers (at a price) a lot of available content, its outdated visuals, bland presentation, bugs and technical issues and inflated-price DLC make it hard to get on board with.