For the past twenty years answering the question "What game would you recommend to someone desperate to drive a steam train on the old Somerset & Dorset railway has been dead easy. Evening Star by Hewson Consultants. Now, thanks to the arrival of Rail Simulator, confusion reigns. What's urgently needed is one of those old-fashioned head-to-head comparison reviews. You know the sort of thing - categorised analysis, parallel pics, too many scores...
EVENING STAR vs. RAIL SIMULATOR (An old-fashioned head-to-head comparison review, with categorised analysis, parallel pics, and too many scores.)
- Evening Star: 1
- Rail Simulator: 7
If the Mendips were a giant salt-lake in Siberia rather than a range of picturesque limestone hills in the South-West of England then Evening Star would win the scenery contest hands-down. Because they're not, the points for landscape loveliness go to the newcomer. Despite some dated tree models, bland skies, and nasty raindrops (that somehow manage to penetrate tunnels) you won't find more convincing or attractive vistas in a train sim.
Kuju's locomotive also raise the bar. The detail levels inside and out are superb. Engine fans spin, buffers buff, grime clings, warning stickers legibly warn. I'm now fully versed in the phonetic alphabet thanks to a sign in the cab of the 166 DMU, have a rough idea how to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation thanks to a safety poster in the HST, and know where to find the footwarmer switch in a Class 47. Only the fag butts, coffee stains, and Wotsit crumbs are missing.
- Evening Star: 5
- Rail Simulator: 5
At first glance Rail Sim appears to be brimming with content. In addition to a Fifties depiction of the S&D line (Bath to Templecombe) there's a Seventies slice of the English North-East (York to Newcastle), a present-day chunk of the Thames Valley (Paddington to Oxford) and a bit of late-Nineties rural Germany. All 1900km of rail can be explored at the controls of eight different locos (steam, diesel, and electric). It all seems very generous until you realise just how few scenarios are included and how little randomisation there is.
Considerate train sim creators (Hewson included) keep drivers alert/awake by chucking random signals and varied traffic at them. In RS nothing changes from one run to the next. No matter how many times you hurtle your your HST from Paddington to Oxford in 'Rush Hour' you'll never encounter anything but green lights. Transporting footy fans from York to Darlington in 'Up For The Cup' there'll never be a day when you have to struggle to make-up time because of a points failure at Northallerton or a giant irradiated badger on the line at Thirsk. With only four or five scenarios provided for each route, this predictability will finish the sim if the editors promised for the start of November fail to materialise.
- Evening star: 7
- Rail simulator: 5
Sensibly, considering the skill required to steward a steam engine up and down hills, both sims offer novices simplified controls. Less sensibly, in RS these are a counter-intuitive combination of the WASD keys (A accelerates, D decelerates?). Combine this cackhanded setup, with vague briefings, inadequate advance warning of speed limits, and AI signalmen that don't always set points appropriately, and you've got a recipe for confusion and cussing.
The layout of the driver guide panel doesn't help matters. The distance to the next station and the colour of the approaching signal are on two different pages meaning you've got to keep flipping from one to the other. Mad.
- Evening Star: 1
- Rail Simulator: 7
Trying to reproduce the bronchial chuff-chuff of a steam train on a tinpot ten octave, one channel sound chip is like trying to play a Mozart cello concerto on a barb-wire fence. Close your eyes as the Evening Star pulls out of a station and the first thing that springs to mind is a rapidly descending space invader. Do the same thing in Rail Sim and you're instantly transported - sonorous exhalations, nicely synchronised with the piston movement, mingling evocatively with distant birdsong, and - sometimes - pealing church bells. Urban stations, largely because of the lack of announcements, aren't quite as atmospheric, but the diesels and electrics that throng their platforms all have their own distinctive engine notes.
- Evening Star: 4
- Rail Simulator: 7
I'm not going to attempt to compare the quality of the steam engine physics in the two games. RS certainly has more valves to fiddle with and levers to pull. Whether this translates into more accurate speed curves, boiler pressures, or braking distances God only knows. All I can say is that things certainly feel right. Wheels slip if you apply too much regulator, weighty trains take a lot of stopping, and deft reverser work to nurse up long hills.
How's the signalling and the modelling of the various automatic safety systems? Again, it's hard to comment on subjects that few, even amongst the train enthusiast community , fully understand. If you really want to know pour a stiff drink and go trawl through this thread.
Not strictly a realism feature, but RS boast the kind of excellent free camera that all sims should supply. Clicking '8' untethers the external view, permitting FP-style roaming. Pushing a points lever, unhooking a coupling, or activating a turntable is a lot more satisfying when you're standing right next to them when you do it. Watching your train thunder past seems more appropriate somehow when you've abandoned the default lineside camera position and gone and stood on a bridge or in a lane. "Mummy, why don't the people wave back?" "Because their AI code does not permit it, dear."
By adding-up each game's scores, we can see that Evening Star has fewer marks than Waterloo Station has platforms, and Rail Simulator has more than Clapham Junction. In other words Hewson's sooty relic has had its day - Rail Sim is the new game of choice for those wishing to drive the demanding S&D.
Whether the newcomer goes on to supplant Microsoft Train Simulator as the sim of choice for those wishing to drive hundreds of other lines depends a lot on what tools the developer delivers and what the community create with those tools. If, round about Christmas, you visit the relevant download section www.uktrainsim.com and the folders are bulging with new routes and rides, then subtract the Route Availability of a Class 37 from the Route Availability of a Class 50 and add the result to the score down there.