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Game Review of:
Microsoft Train Simulator


Joe Barth is the current treasurer of APCO and he and his patient wife spend their retirement time working as disaster volunteers with the Red Cross, traveling and spoiling their grand daughters.

From the January, 2002 issue of PC Alamode Magazine

As a young child I would often hear the sounds of the trains running on the Illinois Central rails a few blocks from my home. The sights of the “Green Diamond” and the “City of New Orleans” streamliners made me envy those that sat in luxury as the surveyed the rest of us.

I received a Lionel train set when I was about nine and I built a nice layout for it. The engine was a steam type and I had little pellets to drop into it where they were melted by the lightbulb and produced smoke. It was a very nice train set.

Most boys go through stages of career choice and train engineer is usually right near the top but that job is not one we usually get in spite of our youthful dreams.

Until now.

Microsoft’s Train Simulator (retail $49.95) puts you at the throttle of some great trains from history (The Flying Scotsman) up to the latest bullet trains in Japan and even the newest fast train from Amtrak.  At last, anyone can be an engineer!

The game comes on two CD’s and takes about 20 minutes to fully load using about one gigabyte of space on the hard drive. Mine loaded without problems.

The introduction to the engines includes a tutorial on how to manipulate the controls based on type. The generic electric, diesel, and steam skills transfer fairly easily to the actual engines encountered in the game.

Everything went quite well until I tried to use the Burlington Northern Santa Fe diesel when the game simply would not load the full program. I could not even get the tutorial to work. The computer simply froze.

I called tech support listed in the documentation and after about two and one-half hours the problem was resolved by changing video drivers. Much of the time was spent removing and reinstalling the game. Julie, the tech support lady, told me the most common problem with Train Simulator (and Flight Simulator) is outdated video drivers. She walked me through it all ended well.

There are choices of routes to take using each train and the time to complete each route varies from 15 minutes to almost two hours and you can pause the game or save the spot you’re at in the longer scenarios.

Each trip can contain problems such as building the “consist” (train talk for lining the cars up), damaged tracks, hotboxes, animals on the track, bad weather, etc. These problems are well thought out and seem realistic.

Your scenario has criteria for you to meet and that is usually a timetable for arriving/departing stations along the route. You are briefed at the beginning of the scenario on your timing and you have a pull down aid that you can consult to see how far the next station is, and what time you’re due to arrive and depart. It is to the second so that make it a serious challenge since you may be on time until you hit track repair and then you really must hump the load along. (HINT: It is not always necessary to go at the legal speed limit).

If you commit an error you will be told about it at the end of the game unless you overspeed by two miles per hour. If you do, the automatic brakes take over, you are brought to an emergency stop and you must then release the brakes and restart the train.

There are several external views of the train and each produces a different sound of the train moving over the rails. That, and the bell/whistle, might be a problem if the volume is a bit high and other people are trying to sleep. (Lesson learned!). Marion said that the sounds of the train are so realistic that all is lacking is the vibration as it passes over the switches and the rail crossings. 

Skill is required to build a consist in the switching yard and also for moving the train over some significant grade increases. The engine has sand to help grip the rail better in snow and rain.

You also have the ability to construct your own route and make it as difficult as you wish. You can populate and landscape it as well but I haven’t tried that yet as I am still trying to get the controls mastered.

The game difficulties depend on the engine and the route. For example, the electric engines are fairly simple to operate and that is where I recommend you start. The diesel is more complicated but not real bad especially if you are familiar with the electric. The steam?  Ah, now THAT is interesting!

The steam engine requires everything from managing the firebox and water supply to make steam, to selecting five other control settings and monitoring the steam pressure in the boiler to avoid either running out of steam or having too much. It is a major balancing act to get things right. Running out of coal or water or (heaven forbid) steam will cause the engine to shut down and you must restart which will cost you a fair amount of time.

Any train with passengers must be handled “gently” lest you cause discomfort to them. If you do, the critique will list the location of the discomfort.

The famous Orient Express presents a twist on the usual operational problems because one of your passenger has been murdered and you must follow the instructions of the detective as he wants you to stop at certain places and remove certain cars. This way you can be both an engine driver and a detectives helper.  Shades of Sherlock Holmes!

In addition, one scenario calls for royalty to board so you must be extra careful to make the ride comfortable.

There are some boring moments in most scenarios where you must adhere to a very low speed limit (usually 15 MPH) and it seems to take forever to get though that zone. Of course, zipping along at 125 MPH is sort of neat so I guess it balances out.

All in all, I found the game very interesting and my wife just rolls her eyes when she heads off to bed while I’m still trying to get to the next station on time. It will eat up time but it also is the type of game that appeals to most men, especially those that grew up near the tracks and have a bit of wanderlust still in their hearts.

You can get the game most anywhere and the retail price of $49.95 can be beaten if your timing is right or you go to one of the big stores.  Ebay also has the game and you can save a fair amount but be sure it is a legal copy not a bootleg one.

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