Review: Railway Empire

By Ian Boudreau 19 Feb 2018 0

Review: Railway Empire

Released 26 Jan 2018

Developer: Gaming Minds Studio
Genre: Simulation
Available from:
Steam

There’s something to be said about Kalypso’s determination to get decidedly PC-centered genres – the RTS, the city builder, the tycoon game – working on modern consoles. These games were designed around the mouse and keyboard, meaning that a huge swath of players, our console-owning comrades, grew up without the satisfaction of running little computerized empires. 

Unfortunately, the transition has always proved detrimental: witness Tropico 5’s dumbed-down combat, the messy formation movement of Sudden Strike 4, Urban Empire’s irritable gridlines, and now the tracks and balance sheets of Railway Empire. It’s a transportation management sim, a tycoon game that harkens back to Sid Meier’s Railroads, adopting the older game’s missteps and successes.

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Set during the nineteenth century’s period of rapid expansion through the American west, Railway Empire has you managing a train company that you sustain by transporting passengers, mail, raw materials, and consumer goods between cities. You’ll construct stations and lay down tracks, expanding routes to be the first to establish connections in new towns. Then you’ll set up routes for new train lines, pick out engines, and hire staff. It’s here where the game is the most fun; planning track that spans rivers and winds through mountain ranges, fiddling with elevation to keep the incline from getting too severe for your locomotives, and connecting far-flung farms and lumberyards to the industrial centers where their products are needed. It manages to recapture a lot of the magic of the tycoon games of past decades.

As in Sid Meier’s Railroads, the scale is greatly compressed, although Railway Empire gives you at least a greater sense of scope than Railroads did. My Washington-Baltimore-New York express line might feel a bit tight, but the trip out to Pittsburgh and Toledo is a slog through the Allegheny Mountains, and by the time I had spread out to Omaha, it felt like I really was pushing into the wild west.

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There’s a meaty economy to manage here: industries in the cities you’ve connected demand resources to grow, so there’s always the need to send off little local loops to pick up raw materials. As the rail network grows and spreads, careful planning becomes more important, and you’ll have to think carefully about where you ultimately want to go when you’re moving out into the hinterlands to fuel the business engines that drive demand for your trains.

You’re not alone, though. Other companies are trying to provide the same transport services and will inevitably wind up competing for your business. This is, unfortunately, where Railway Empire starts to come apart at the boiler seams. Like everything else in the game, there are good ideas here—faster, more reliable lines will attract more customers, and you can even buy stock in your competitors’ companies with an eye to eventually absorbing their operation into your network. The trouble is, the AI may not be playing by the same rules you are.

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There are a couple difficulty settings in Railway Empire. Normally, your trains will behave like normal physical objects that have mass and take up space, sort of the way real trains are known for doing. This means you’ll have to construct signals and parallel tracks on multi-role routes where trains heading toward each other can pull off the main line and wait for the oncoming train to pass. You have to be careful not to schedule too many routes over the same set of tracks, or cars full of passengers can be left waiting at the station for weeks waiting for a clear route. This can be frustrating when you’re trying to expand, but it’s the reason to play a railroad management game. You want to see what it actually takes to make the trains run on time.

There is also an easy mode, however, and this is for players less interested in the fiddly details of model railroading, who want to focus more on the game’s economic ebbs and flows. You’ll still set up train routes and lay tracks, but trains can pass through each other, which means you won’t have to spend any time untangling line snags, leaving you free to pore over your business’ quarterly reports, stock earnings, and expenses.

What the game fails to inform you is that the AI will always play on this mode, regardless of which you pick. As I played through the campaign, I noticed that my competitors were expanding their rails much faster than I was. This was concerning enough that I poked around their networks and noticed they all had put several lines on the same tracks, their incorporeal trains whizzing through each other without even touching the brakes.

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This takes quite a bit of the fun out of the more realistic mode, since it effectively makes competition impossible. And stripping all that detail out to even the playing field robs the game of most of the reasons I would want to play a railway management game to begin with.

This does leave the game’s sandbox mode intact, however, and I’ve spent quite a few happy hours on my own taming the Great Plains, fussing over bridge spans, and buying out industries where I think they’ll help fill my coffers. You can press a button to ride along with any of your trains, hanging onto the side of a Decapod 2-10-0 as it rumbles across the Mississippi or pulls into Grand Rapids. The visuals won’t blow anyone away (they’re not a big leap forward from Sid Meier’s Railroads, which came out in 2006), but there are 41 engines to unlock and fawn over.

There are, however, further annoyances that crop up. Tracks can often feel as though they’re fighting you as you plot out their courses and it often isn’t clear why you aren’t allowed to place new structures where you want them. Business charts will periodically stop working, as if they’re on an EKG monitor that’s come unplugged. Information you need tends to be harder to find than it ought to be: for example, a family farm might go up for auction, and there’s no way to assess how soluble it is from the auction screen, which you can only close by deciding to either buy it or pass. One of the biggest missed opportunities is the pair of massive technology trees. These look as though they offer Civilization-esque changes to the gameflow, but apart from the new engines you unlock, these are all just marginal tweaks to game stats (an eight percent boost to ticket prices here, a 20 percent speed increase on engine maintenance there).

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There’s a definite allure to Railway Empire. The Golden Age of Rail provides a perfect backdrop for the sandbox mode, which for a while works as a delightful model train set on your screen. But like many toys, the magic wears off before long. Not only are there missed mechanical opportunities, like the bland tech trees and the AI that refuses to leave easy mode, there’s no engagement with the darker side of America’s westward expansion.

“Foreign workers” can be unlocked for a discount on construction, but the trans-continental railway’s cost in human lives and environmental devastation is almost completely glossed over. It’s not the job of every railway game to plumb the socioeconomic evils of the period, of course, but it would be nice to have seen Railway Empire attempt to bring something innovative to the table. That it doesn’t might be the one big sin, among the many small ones, that Railway Empire commits.

 

Despite its charms, Railway Empire jumps the tracks with its dull tech trees, dated looks, and hobbled competitive modes.

Review: Railway Empire

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