Microsoft Train Simulator PC Review

In the days before computers, televisions and mobile phones (and when the equivalent of a new penny was good pocket money) it behoved the younger generation to provide their own entertainment. A common occupation was train spotting having the singular advantage of being free. Even when steam engines were the norm there was a distinct thrill in seeing two huge locomotives dashing along at the head of a rake of 12 coaches, or watching a begrimed engine trying valiantly to cope with 40 trucks of coal.

Of course, every boy’s ambition was to be in charge of one of these leviathans. Judging by the popularity of preserved railways and the huge number of railway books and magazines on the bookshelves of the local bookstore (second only to computers), the fascination remains undiminished. Now, thanks to Microsoft, it is possible to take charge of the “Flying Scotsman” without the 25 years of apprenticeship that would otherwise have been required, and if the number of fan clubs on the web is anything to go by, a huge number of people have grasped the opportunity.

Microsoft Train Simulator allows the possibility to drive trains over six real routes in four countries (steam in Austria and England, diesel and electric in Japan and USA). Frankly, I think that the high speed electrified routes in Japan and USA were ill-chosen and better examples could have been used. The other four routes – a scenic narrow gauge rail car operation in Japan, freight only over the Marias pass in northern USA, the steam powered Orient Express in Austria and steam on the famous Settle and Carlisle route in England are well chosen and provide plenty of interest.

There are many facilities provided by the program – too numerous to describe here – but the most useful is the ability to offset speed against graphics detail and quantity. On my 1Ghz Pentium 3 using only on-board Intel graphics, the best option is 60% graphics – any more and the motion becomes jerky. Even at this rate some distant objects, such as overbridges, tend to draw themselves almost stone by stone as the train approaches. A good graphics card and fast processor are therefore essential to get the best out of the simulation. However don’t expect photo-realism as quite a lot of important detail is missing.

Sound effects are good having been recorded from the real thing and include ringing church bells and birds singing in the country stations. Unfortunately, this is the only sign of life and calling at a succession of stations without even a porter in sight and with empty sidings is an eerie and rather depressing experience. Again, the editor does contain one solitary figure to be added – that of a lady hiker – but a railway solely dependant on lady hikers is hardly a commercial proposition. Overall only minor niggles exist – British trains don’t carry bells although these sound when going over a crossing, the fireman carries on shovelling coal even when the firebox door is closed – otherwise the game is very atmospheric.

The instructions for controlling the haulage power are well-written and comprehensive and plenty of information is provided for the novitiate. The diesel locos are quite easy to control, and the steam locos provide the ultimate challenge if one opts also to be fireman as well as driver. Allowing the computer to fire the loco makes for a much easier trip although if you are to stop the train at the correct place at stations and keep to the timetable, some practice is required.

The program includes a series of pre-set activities to be performed for each line and your performance is assessed on completion. In addition, through the ‘Activity Editor’ provided (and somewhat ominously not supported by Microsoft!), it is possible to create your own activities and timetables. This editor also allows the player to import locos and rolling stock from other lines, leading to the somewhat incongruous sight of a narrow gauge Japanese diesel car happily running on the standard gauge Settle and Carlisle or two American diesel locos with a train of ‘lumber cars’ running over the same track – because of the difference in loading gauge it would in reality have destroyed everything in sight.

So, how accurate is the simulation? I can only speak for the Settle and Carlisle line which I know well. Firstly, to the purist, the effect is destroyed immediately by the use of the “Flying Scotsman” locomotive and a rake of LNER teak carriages. Good as their representation is they are completely out of place on this line and would never have been near during the early thirties – the era when the line is depicted. A more appropriate “Royal Scot” and a rake of LMS carriages are present on the line (as are an even more incongruous GWR Castle class engine with chocolate and cream coaches), but you cannot drive them.

A reasonable attempt has been made at the scenery with the main features included such as Ribblehead viaduct and Blea Moor tunnel and quite a good representation of Carlisle Citadel station, but there are many disappointments, for instance the omission of the only true junction on the line at Garsdale, the lack of population on the platforms and the lack of station name boards. One cannot help concluding that there are many features that it would have been just as easy to get right as to get wrong. Theoretically, it is possible to personalise the line to one’s own satisfaction and even to create new lines and locomotives using the included Editor programs, but I have found these quite impenetrable and there is money to be made by the first person to publish a comprehensible guide to the editor facilities. Some clever people have managed to master them and their efforts are available from user groups on the web.

No problems here, you can use the mouse (in cab interior view), or the keyboard from outside the loco. If you don’t like the allotted keys and prefer your own mnemonic notations, you can change them. The instructions are comprehensive and easy to follow and are always available at the click of a key if you forget – activity is suspended whilst you study. Beginners are provided with plenty of background information and useable cab controls are identified by pointing the cursor to them. Changing points can be a little temperamental so it pays to save an activity before attempting complicated movements so that you can go back and try again. Shunting is greatly simplified by a bird’s eye view and gap distance count down.

The set activities provided are entertaining, but soon pall on repetition, unless you are determined to achieve a perfect score. There is also the freedom to explore the lines at will and the Activity Editor permits the production of new activities and modification of existing ones – mastery of the woeful instructions will occupy many frustrating hours! In addition you can download a lot of new stuff from user groups on the web. Don’t be tempted to buy a CD of modifications which has been produced for an extortionate £30 (not by Microsoft). They are not very good and are available to download for free. At this point the score would be 8/10, but if you can master all the other Editors provided then the entertainment value is unlimited. If you want to create your own railway and stock it with your own rolling stock it would take months of patient work. 10/10 would not be enough! But can you master the Editors? If so, you can write an instruction book!

Altogether Microsoft Train Simulator is a highly commendable attempt to fill a vacant slot in the market and a title that should provide some entertainment to anyone with even a passing interest in trains. The only real niggle is a lack of gradient information. A gradient profile is given for each line at the start of an activity, but information would be very helpful whilst in play.

8 out of 10
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