Trainz Railroad Simulator 2004
When Trainz was released in 2002, it was a hit among railroad enthusiasts. Half simulation and half creativity tool, Trainz let you build the virtual railroads of your dreams with a very user-friendly set of editing tools. Then you could ride the rails across your newly created routes or those created by other fans. For all of Trainz's strengths, the program was limited in many ways. The focus tended to be more on simulating model railroading than simulating real-world railroading, at least until ambitious fans learned how to push the program's boundaries. There was no easy way to simulate real railroad operations; trackside industries didn't actually produce anything; and there were no steam engines, among other flaws. With Trainz Railroad Simulator 2004, fans can start checking items off of their Trainz wish lists. This new version incorporates features from patches to the original Trainz while adding major new features, like steam engines and dynamic railroad industries. Trainz 2004 could have used more polish and improvement in some areas, but overall it's a welcome addition to the growing Trainz franchise.
As far as the basics go, Trainz 2004 is quite like its predecessor, which is definitely a good thing. It's a modular system with a few basic components. The Surveyor module lets you create railroad routes, replete with detailed scenery and operating switches and signals. The Driver module lets you drive across the routes. The Railyard module lets you view all your cars and engines. In Railyard, you see that developer Auran has addressed one of the biggest flaws of the original Trainz. Now you get steam engines--and some glorious ones at that. Along with diesel and electric engines from all over the world (not to mention many kinds of railroad cars), Trainz 2004 includes steam locomotives like the famed Flying Scotsman and the massive Union Pacific Big Boy. Some relative obscurities, like an Italian engine from the 1920s, make appearances too.
While the new steam locomotives are a cause for rejoicing, you only get a small handful of them. Then again, what you don't find in the game, you should be able to find online soon enough. Auran's "Download Station" hosts over 15,000 free user-created locomotives, routes, scenery objects, and other items for the various Trainz programs, with new items appearing all the time. (Many items created and properly configured for the original Trainz should work with the 2004 version, too.)
Trainz 2004's Driver module offers many of the same basic features as before. Here you drive trains by using a simple model railroad-style controller or more complex controls and physics that are modeled after the real thing. You can view the action from multiple angles: a 360-degree interior cab view, dramatic tracking shots, a dynamic external view linked to specific engines or cars, and now--prayers have been answered--a true free-roaming view that lets you skip all across a route. Along with the trackside views, a map mode lets you watch and control the overall action from on high, though it can sometimes be hard to read the small station and industry labels easily.
While many of the fundamentals still apply in Trainz 2004, there are some major differences in the Driver mode. In the past, you set up a Driver session by selecting a route, then creating and placing trains on it, choosing the weather, and so forth, all from within the Driver module. It was easy and straightforward. Now you have to choose from ready-made sessions where everything is preset for you. Otherwise, you have to go into the Surveyor module, place trains, add or edit a series of little rule scripts, and then save it all as a new session before playing. This makes things more time-consuming and complicated than before, so the new system might be a turn-off to casual players who just want to throw a train together, set the weather, and ride the rails with ease.
Still, sessions can now offer something that makes Trainz 2004 far superior to its predecessor in one regard. Now, certain interactive industries create waybills detailing their commodity requirements, and it's up to you to keep all the industries working by shipping goods to and fro. For example, with one train you'll pick up fuel at a refinery and unload it at a mine. Meanwhile, another train will pick up coal from the mine and drop it off at a power plant, which, in turn, keeps other industries running. There's no support for interactive passenger service yet, though Auran says a free patch with these features should be out in the near future.
Depending on how a session has been set up, you might get AI drivers that you can assign to trains. You can then actually issue strings of orders from a branching menu system. For example, you can tell an AI driver to pick up certain commodities at certain industries. This system is straightforward and works pretty well. AI trains seem to avoid each other and execute their duties competently, although you might need to step in to some degree, depending on the number of trains and the complexity of the layout. If you want, you can always take over for an AI driver, and you can control a train directly too. You can also save your sessions to pick up where you left off.
The sessions are relatively open-ended, but you also get nine scripted, focused scenarios (a feature introduced in a patch to the original Trainz) that score you on how well you complete specific goals. These play out on a number of interesting routes and might require you to keep to a tight schedule as you test new safety equipment, for example. While these scenarios can be fun, it's a shame more of them aren't included. You can create your own scenarios, but here Trainz 2004 derails. Creating layouts with all the included buildings, bridges, and so forth is easy enough, but to move beyond that to create truly custom content, like a new scenario or a new locomotive, you'll likely have to master a detailed scripting language or a third-party 3D modeling and paint program.
Along with Railyard and Driver, the Surveyor layout-creation module boasts some new features. For example, you now place "consists" (engines and groups of cars) on a route directly from this module as part of session creation, and you can set commodity input/output levels for certain industries. Overall, Surveyor remains a wonderfully user-friendly tool that lets you quickly shape terrain, color it, lay track, place buildings and other scenery, and more. You should be able to hammer out a small, nice-looking layout in a few hours. With more time and effort, you can create a huge railroad empire with about as much detail as you want. Trainz 2004 offers dozens of new scenery items to fire your imagination, too.
The scenes you create can be a bit disappointing visually, though. If ever a game's presentation earned the "mixed bag" cliché, Trainz 2004 is it. The graphics show little significant improvement over the original Trainz, which means they still look very pleasant--to be sure--but they also seem dated. Lighting is bland, and shadows look unconvincing. Some textures look simplistic or downright ugly. A few new features, like animated water, do enhance the game, though. In fact, new animations are one of the best features of Trainz 2004. Industries now come to life with coal pouring down from mine chutes into hopper cars, forklifts moving logs at a sawmill, and more. Sadly, the interface that once looked so clean, attractive, and professional now looks a bit clumsy or ugly in places, such as the slightly pixelated new main control interface of the Driver module. There doesn't seem to have been any real attempt made to meld all the new interface elements with the old ones, in terms of look and feel, so it can almost seem like you're playing two games at once.
The audio is detailed and fairly convincing. Not only will you hear sounds like hissing brakes or couplers clanking as slack is taken out of trains when they get under way, but you'll also hear birds twittering in the woods or the warning "beep beep beep" of a dump truck that's backing up at a mine. On the other hand, some sound files end with too obvious a cutoff or suffer from static clicks. Furthermore, it's odd to always hear AI drivers speaking to you over the radio in English, even if the route is supposed to be set in the Alps.
Trainz 2004 could use improvement and added polish in other areas as well. You only get a brief printed manual and no printed list of keyboard commands, so you'll need to turn to a bunch of PDF manuals for most of your information. The game is also marred by long load times. Along with suffering from a number of bugs and typos, the program crashed our computer during installation. You also have to wonder why no online capability is included. It would have been great fun to run simulated operations with multiple players handling different trains and dispatching to mimic the sorts of sessions you can find at model railroad clubs. Still, the new features in Trainz Railroad Simulator 2004 are most welcome and make it a more realistic sim, in addition to making it more like a game. With the original Trainz, some people said, "Well, that's nice, but what are you supposed to do when you're done riding in circles?" Now these people have an answer: You can create a route, enjoy riding around on it, and with the new interactive industries and AI drivers, you can really make the train do something.