One of the more .. unusual titles to be announced recently is Microsoft's "Train Simulator", a game which aims to bring all the joys of driving and travelling on trains to a PC near you. To be honest, it sounded like a pretty daft idea when we first heard about it.
Curious to find out more, EuroGamer's Editor-in-Chief travelled to London yesterday (by train, naturally) for a demonstration of the game at a Microsoft simulators press event...
Eye Of The Beholder
The first thing to strike you when the game starts up is just how incredibly beautiful it is. The graphics are stunning, with a variety of trains lovingly modelled along with 600 miles of track to drive them on, all reconstructed in polygonal form.
The tracks themselves are all closely based on real locations, and the landscape that surrounds them is faithfully recreated, with bridges, viaducts, rolling hills, forests, mountains and stations. Weather effects such as rain and snow are included, as well as adjustable lighting conditions, complete with dynamic shadows cast by the train as it travels through the world.
The locomotives themselves are detailed both inside and out, from the smoke coming out of the funnel of a steam engine to the various dials and doohickeys of a modern electric express train. Camera options include everything from a full "virtual cab" for budding train drivers to passenger views for the more laid back gamer, both featuring a full 3D recreation of what you would actually see from inside the train. Sit in one of the carriages and you can see the other seats in the compartment and watch the world speed by outside your window.
There is even a cinematic "trainspotter view", which features a series of fixed cameras dotted along the track. You simply stand at one of the vantage points and then watch as the train speeds towards and then past you, before being whisked on to the next viewing point. Again, the sheer attention to detail is obvious, with the various noises that the train makes getting doppler shifted as it goes by.
The game includes six different railroads to travel on, with challenges varying from driving Amtrak's new high speed electric "bullet train" in the north-eastern USA to chugging up and down 1920s England in the Flying Scotsman.
The Odakyu railway gives you the chance to drive along one of the busiest commuter lines in the world near Tokyo, passing by Mount Fuji along the way, while a rather more sedate pace can be found in the Austrian Alps of the 1930s, taking the Orient Express from Venice. The other two routes take you into the mountains, with the southern Japanese island of Kyushu and America's Marias Pass providing some spectacular scenery as a backdrop for your virtual travels.
And if you get fed up of the six standard railways, there is also a full set of editing tools that will be bundled with the game on release, allowing you to create your own terrain, tracks and trains for the game. If the example of Microsoft's long-running "Flight Simulator" series is anything to go by, there could eventually be a wide range of high quality add-ons available to buy or download for the game. So even if you don't feel up to the job of modelling your local railway yourself, there should still be plenty of choice out there...
But Where's The Game?
Which is all well and good, but no doubt by now you are asking "what the hell am I supposed to do with this?" Well, that's largely up to you. Hardcore train enthusiasts will no doubt be entertained just running the game on autopilot in "trainspotter mode", watching the trains whisk by them in all their 3D accelerated glory.
There's also something perversely enjoyable in just sitting in one of the carriages and watching the world go by outside your window. It's strangely relaxing, and if you can't travel to see the scenery first hand then I guess this is the next best thing (short of watching the Travel channel). Think of it as the ultimate screensaver for frustrated holiday-makers.
Real gamers will be looking for something a little more involving for their money though, and luckily driving a train is somewhat more complicated than simply moving a throttle backwards and fowards. Being an engineer on a steam train is particularly hard work, as you watch the gauges to keep an eye on your steam pressure and speed, while making sure that enough coal is being thrown into the boiler. It's perhaps not the most exciting of activities, but it's certainly not quite as dull as we had at first feared.
As well as allowing you to simply drive up and down the track and admire the glorious digitised scenery, Train Sim also comes with a series of player "activities" to challenge you.
These range from objectives like coupling up your train with some other carriages, to simply trying to keep to your timetable on a busy line while facing "unforeseen barriers". Exactly what these obstacles will be we're not quite sure yet, but no doubt for the British routes they will include all your favourites such as sheep on the line, the perennial engineering works north of Luton, and "the wrong type of snow" on the rails. Probably.
Each of the six railway routes brings its own unique challenges as well, from negotiating the Tokyo rush hour on one of the busiest commuter routes in the world, to taking a heavy freight train through the mountains of Montana in a blizzard. We imagine that simply keeping an Amtrak train on schedule will be the game's ultimate challenge though...
I have to admit that Train Simulator came as something of a pleasant surprise for me. It sounded such a crazy idea when it was first announced, but having seen it in action I'm happy to report that it does have a certain charming appeal to it.
It's not really aimed at the hardcore gaming market, and will probably be most welcome amongst the hordes of trainspotters, model railway fanatics and railway enthusiasts around the world. But despite this Train Simulator does look like it might be a fun little game in an odd sort of way, and the graphics, sound and sheer attention to detail are certainly very impressive.
With the game due for release early in 2001, we should know more soon hopefully.