February 10, 2002
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 Overall Score: *81*ESRB Rating: Everyone (E)

Microsoft Train Simulator 

by Microsoft  Reviewed by: Gavin Zimmerman  


Trains are a part of the magic buried in our collective dreams. Whether it’s the adventure of a mystery on the Orient Express or the romance of an overnighter to Niagra Falls, there’s something about a trip by rail the speaks to our souls. From the opening of the American west to steadfast reliability of British Rail or the speed of modern bullet trains, for nearly 200 years railroads have captured the hearts and minds of thousands.

When I was growing up, the local Lions Club park had an old decommissioned steam engine in the playground -- all the kids in the neighborhood would spend hours playing there, recreating in our imaginations everything from hijacking in the old west to journeys across the Alps. That old engine in the playground is now gone, but with Microsoft Train Simulator you can bring the power and excitement of some of the world's most famous trains to your PC, placing yourself in the role of engineer.

Gameplay, Controls, Interface

Train Simulator, like Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series, is focused on bringing as accurate a representation of driving the powerful steel beasts as is possible. Every control, down to the smallest switch and instrument dial, is present and rendered in exceptional detail. This is not a game -- it’s designed to provide the user with complete control over a real working train in an environment that matches the real world.

The game includes six routes: Marias Pass in Montana, the Northeast Corridor (Washington D.C. to Philadelphia), Innsbruck to St. Anton in the Austrian Alps, The Settle & Carlisle Line in England, and the Tokyo-Hakone and Hiatsu lines in Japan. Each route is detailed down to yard branchings, sidings, signals, and buildings around the tracks. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out the trees along the tracks are placed exactly as they are in the real world.

The tracks aren’t the only place where attention to detail is evident. The game includes a collection of locomotives ranging from the giant steam engines of yesteryear like the famous Flying Scotsman to the massive diesel powered Dash 9 and hyper-modern electric commuter trains like Japan’s Odakyu 7000 Luxury Super Express. Every detail on the engines is perfect -- down to the spinning of the wheels against the track as you try to start a massive train moving and steam escaping from the cylinders of the steam trains.

ScreenshotAdd to the engines the mix of passenger and freight car groupings that can be attached and you can recreate just about any rail adventure you want to set your hand to. Like its Flight Simulator cousins, Train Simulator includes not only a free-form explore mode, but offers a set of challenges for you to master. These range from keeping a passenger train on schedule to coping with various failures in your engine as you try to maneuver your cargo safely down the side of the Alps. Then if you run out of excitement with the included adventures and challenges, a complete set of terrain, track and adventure editors are included.

While all the control detail is there, Train Sim also includes several features that will make getting started easier for the beginning engineer. Most useful is the automatic fireman on the steam trains that will take over the tedium of stoking and trimming the boiler. I tried several runs operating the boiler myself in addition to controlling the engine -- I ended up either bursting the tank or letting the fire go out and finding myself sliding backward down the Alps. For younger engineers (or those who want to get started quickly) there’s also a simplified control model. With full control detail on, you will find yourself constantly adjusting gearing, engine power, steam pressure, etc. to keep your train moving smoothly.

Graphics & Audio

The graphics in Train Sim are very impressive, but also extremely demanding when it comes to processing power. On my Pentium III 600 running a GeForce 2 card I was able to turn on all the detail options and enjoy all the eye candy the game has to offer, but only at the cost of a noticeably slowed frame rate. It takes a gigahertz class machine with a top end 3D accelerator to run the game smoothly at full detail -- playing on a 1.2 gigahertz Althon with a high-end Nvidia card gave smooth performance and spectacular graphics.

As I noted above, the detail of the scenery is amazing. Trees are placed individually along the tracks and each crossing and signal is there -- all with fully functioning lights and bells. You can view your train from all angles, including that of a passenger. Both the interior and exterior if each train is detailed down to a smoking cigar resting in an ashtray in the lounge car on the Orient Express. Add to the detailed graphics sound effects that match each train exactly and you have a package that brings the rails to life.

System Requirements

Pentium II 350 MHz equivalent or higher processor , 3D Accelerator recommended, 32 MB of RAM for Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows ME; 64 MB for Windows 2000, and 4X or faster CD-ROM drive.

ScreenshotBottom Line

Train Simulator is not for everyone, but rail buffs will absolutely love it. Where other train simulations have attempted to recreate a model railroading experience, this one is designed to give you a taste of the real thing. Microsoft has recreated not only modern railroading, but has brought the billowing smoke and rumbling engines of yesterday's steam locomotive era to life in exquisite detail. Grab your engineers cap and head for the tracks if you’re looking to create your own railway adventure -- you’re sure to find it here.

Review Posted On 18 June 2001.

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