I’ll qualify this review by saying that I’m not a railfan. I snagged this one as part of a Humble Bundle, because I enjoy simulator games. I also haven’t played very much, only completing a good chunk of the “academy” levels and doing a few short runs along simple tracks in an electric train. However, since Train Simulator is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin, I still feel qualified to review it, because I can already grasp both what’s going on in this game as well as why some people might become railfans.
As the hilariously badass Serious Voice in the intro video informs us, trains are about PRECISION and PERFECTION. Train Simulator accurately represents the interiors of various kinds of trains, puts you at their helm to pull levers and such, and tasks you with getting to stations on time. The level of interactivity and complexity on offer here is really compelling, and I find it far more interesting and challenging than I might have expected. You’re free to drive however you like, of course, but you’re gently encouraged not to accelerate too quickly, to speed, to brake too quickly, or to be late to your stops, by a system of point penalties that don’t really affect your gameplay but will bother you psychologically if you have any kind of sense of responsibility or professionalism.
You have access to a wide variety of trains to drive, including an antique steam locomotive (which I find particularly cool) and several varieties of diesel and electric trains. You can tow passengers, or cargo; you can work switches, you need to ask for permission to pass red signals, you have to pay attention to weight and grade and the weather. You can turn on headlights and windshield wipers, you can honk your horn. You can interact with the controls directly (my preferred method), or you can use a kind of overlay with abstract representations of the controls that is easier to parse at first but, in my opinion, slightly less cool than laying your mouse pointer on the actual levers themselves.
You have a similarly large selection of tracks to run around on, from simple passenger runs from one stop to the next, to longer circuits, to branching paths involving backing up to connect to cargo cars or grab other locomotives for repairs. There are free-form driving scenarios as well as a “campaign” with lots of premade situations for you, and you’re free to design your own as well.
I can’t speak for the truly hardcore, but to my untrained eye, I found (and continue to find!) Train Simulator 17 a very thorough and accessible introduction to the concept of driving trains, and one I plan to put a lot of time into in the future. There’s something really compelling about that PRECISION and PERFECTION, about accelerating up to the right speed and then just coasting along checking out the countryside, checking your instruments from time to time to make sure everything is under control, making minor adjustments. There’s something reassuring about the way the train moves down the tracks, like a well-trained (har har) but powerful beast that you have a loose leash on.
Very very minor nitpick: it would be nice to be able to customize the little avatar that shows up in the cabin when you’re in other camera modes. This ultimately doesn’t really impact my experience much, since I spend most of my time in first person mode inside the cabin, but it would be nice to not be railroaded (heh, get it) into being Generic Dude #3.