Developer PopTop delivers gamers to the age of steam, steel, commodities, and capitalism in this sequel to its 1999 hit Railroad Tycoon II. As did that game (and also the classic original, Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon), Railroad Tycoon 3 casts players as the captains of an up-and-coming railroad system, in competition with other, like-minded entrepreneurs to claim as much of the lucrative 19th and 20th century rail trade as they can. Beginning with a modest amount of start-up capital, players found a company, purchase cars and locomotives, lay down track, and choose the kinds of cargo their fledgling rail systems will move and trade.
Track-building tools include bridges, overpasses, and the return of tunnels from the original version of the game. Players can choose from over 35 different commodities, the value of each tied to a dynamic in-game economy. More than 40 locomotives, from the earliest steam-powered machines to the latest electricity-driven "bullet" trains, are available to haul these goods from town to town. This third edition of Railroad Tycoon challenges would-be captains of industry to prove their capitalist savvy in 25 scenarios set in locations around the world. A sandbox mode is also available, for those who would rather build their rail empires on their own terms. Online multiplayer support includes a matchmaking service.
While Railroad Tycoon 3 is designed to retain and improve upon favorite gameplay features found in the earlier titles, it also makes some changes -- the biggest of which may be the switch to full 3D, thanks to a game engine PopTop developed itself for this project. Players can now view any part their developing empires from nearly any angle, with a camera angle that spins, pans, and zooms smoothly on most contemporary computers. To ease recognition and make management easier, the trains, stations, towns, and other landscape features are not completely accurate in scale to their surroundings, but they now appear much more realistically across the game world countryside.
Railroad Tycoon 3 is one of the best strategy/empire-building games of the year. It achieves a kind of holy grail for strategy gaming: It's easy to learn, easy to start to play, and yet underneath the surface there's an incredibly deep economic simulation that takes hours to figure out and even longer to master ... once you're ready for it. It's a game that could be played on many levels, online or off, by casual train buffs or hardcore strategy addicts alike. It's got some rough edges, and the economic model might frustrate micromanagers out there, but like a temperamental lover you tend to overlook the faults to immerse yourself in a boxcar-load of intense strategy gaming.
For longtime fans of the series it's been a long wait since Railroad Tycoon 2 -- about five years. Cosmetically, the new 3D engine will be the most obvious difference, but it's the underlying economic simulation that is by far the biggest change to the franchise. But first, the basics.
Like any Tycoon game, Railroad Tycoon 3 is about making money. Lots of it. And stopping other people from making money that, by all rights, should be yours. You'll start with a map of some region of land (such as the Northeast U.S. or Germany just prior to unification) and, depending on the scenario, some goals to achieve before the time limit is up. You'll look at where the big cities are, take into account the lay of the land, and then you'll start connecting places with rail lines. Little trains will move along your railroads carrying cargo from one place to another, hopefully for a big profit if you planned it right. Then you expand your network, routing rail traffic, perhaps even buying up other industries, until you've got more money than Rockefeller and you regularly put the president on hold.
New to this incarnation of the theme is a 3D graphics engine that really brings the rail era to life. You can hover above in a satellite view, looking at the network of rail lines stretched from tiny city to tiny city, and then you can zoom smoothly and seamlessly right into the action, down to individual trains. The 3D terrain works well. Instead of laying down track on some pre-determined grid, you stretch pieces of rail, bending them like noodles until they snap into place. This results in nice, fluid tracks. You can also build underpasses, overpasses, bridges, tunnels, and rail junctions with click-and-drag ease. One of the joys of the game is locking the camera onto a specific train and zooming all the way in, following it along its route as though you're leaning out the window of the engine. Since the game includes a "sandbox mode," it's the perfect gift for someone who isn't necessarily a gamer but loves trains: It's the ultimate digital toy train set.
Of course, actually playing the game is rewarding, too...
Part of the appeal is that Railroad Tycoon 3 really has three games going on simultaneously, each more engrossing than the last:
The Railroad Game: Simply connecting up cities and building a rail empire can be a profitable business. You'll spend time buying new trains, plotting out new routes, and building links to new cities. Finding a way around a tricky mountain range and opening up a whole new market can be pretty satisfying.
The Industry Game: You can also buy up businesses, such as farms or steel mills. You can even build your own, or add a little spice to your bottom line by building hotels and restaurants near your stations. The economic model is very detailed (see below), so while mastering this part of the game isn't easy, it's very gratifying.
The Stock Market: An entire stock market simulation is built into the game -- the lawless, unregulated stock market that made or broke the fortunes of industry captains. You can invest in other rail companies and manipulate the market with insider trading. Particularly in multiplayer games, playing the market can be cutthroat and brutal. There's a whole strategy here to master.
The richness of the game comes from the fact that different players can play the game differently. A casual armchair tycoon who wants a light, easy game to play can have plenty of fun just building railroads and letting the computer figure out the best cargo. The industry part of the game can be head-bangingly frustrating, but ultimately it can be manipulated by skilled strategists to create a huge bottom line and to win most scenarios with the most cash. Then you have the stock market, which can almost be ignored, or it can be wielded as a weapon once you take time to learn its machinations. Part of the fun is watching the different mix of strategies that players will use when presented with a challenge, or when thrown together head-to-head in multiplayer.
The economic model is new and interesting enough to warrant its own explanation. In previous Railroad Tycoon games, cargo would simply pile up where it was created until you "rescued" it with your trains. It made for an elegant, but predictable game. In RRT3, the invisible factors of supply and demand exert pull all over the map. More importantly, merchants will move cargo via their own means, supposedly using road networks or canals, in order to get goods to a place where they can be sold for a profit. You can click on map overlays and see the invisible merchants in action, moving cargo down into valleys or along rivers to sell at a destination where demand is high.
This is extremely cool. It can also be completely aggravating.
That doesn't stop it from being fun.
Often it makes you want to howl in rage when sheep farmers are moving wool away from your rail head because there's a much more lucrative market down the river at a competitor's textile mill. Cargo won't load into your trains if it won't be sold at a profit. No longer is it simply a game of moving raw materials to factories and cashing checks -- you really have to examine where the demand is and secure supplies. You might want to build a textile mill that's closer. Or connect your rail head to an even more lucrative market elsewhere on the map. The economy will eventually respond, fluctuating accordingly. The simulation is deep enough that it's possible to just start running the map, crank up the speed, and watch as needs fluctuate and goods find their way to factories and ultimately to consumers.
Micromanagers will hate the new economics: players no longer have complete control over every carload that their trains carry. But many strategy gamers will enjoy mastering this new challenge, and the emergent behaviors that it causes.
The single-player game is a slow, contemplative exercise. Because the computer AI isn't necessarily very aggressive, it's often a battle of man against nature ("How do I thread a rail line through the Alps without going bankrupt?") The tone of the game changes significantly when you play online, however...
The multiplayer game has you facing off against other tycoons in real-time. You can buy stock in one another's companies, or try to bankrupt each other using all the dirty tricks that busted the fortunes of rail barons throughout the Industrial Age. Time is of the essence; you're always struggling to buy up one more industry or connect that one extra city before your opponents do. The stock market, marginally important in single-player, can be a life-and-death struggle as opponents manipulate your share value. It's a whole new level of play.
The multiplayer has some rough edges. For instance, the "bulldoze" option is disabled to prevent griefing, and there's no "undo" button once you lay down track you don't like. As such, you end up with bizarre track configurations as players try to correct their "oopses." There are also potential exploits where you can block off an opponent's rail line by building a building in his way, although on the whole players don't exploit the system. We've heard reports of multiplayer games getting out-of-sync on the Internet, but experienced no problems in our testing.
It's worth mentioning that as with its predecessor, Railroad Tycoon 3 comes with a full-featured editor. As before, you can import height-maps of real-world locations into the games, so that players are actually struggling with the same terrain that challenged real railroad builders in ages past. A utility is enclosed that contains a complete world map, allowing you to select an area and import it right into the editor. All you have to do is paint on the terrain, build the cities, add some scenario objectives and win conditions, and you're in business. It's a little tricky in spots, but fully functional -- these are the same tools the developers used.
Railroad Tycoon 3 has a couple of rough edges. The manual contains a lot of great railroading trivia, but it's a little light when it comes to explaining the economy -- a section sorely needed. The interface can be a little trying at times, such as getting a train station into the right position. Tasks that should be simple, such as building a rail line along a river, are harder than common sense expects.
People who downloaded Railroad Tycoon 3 have also downloaded:
Railroad Tycoon 2: Platinum, Railroad Tycoon Deluxe, Sid Meier's Railroads!, Railroad Tycoon, Sid Meier's Civilization 3, Sid Meier's Pirates!, Rise of Nations, Caesar 3
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