Trainz Railroad Simulator 2004 gives users the opportunity to be the engineer during high-speed passenger runs, 200-ton logging hauls, or car-switching in a busy industrial yard. The developer -- Auran -- has also doubled the amount of free downloadable content, which will be periodically updated and available to owners of Trainz 2004. Players are also able to design their own routes, create landscapes, and set production quotas in the "Operations Manager" mode. Drivers can be given assignments, schedules can be set, and commodities manipulated in the supply/demand marketplace.
The original Trainz was released in 2002 to fair critical acclaim, and immediately became the definitive (albeit niche) "model-trains-in-a-sandbox" experience. Players could design lines of rolling stock and whip them around small circular boards in glorious 3D. But perhaps the greatest strength of Trainz, which shipped without much scenario content, was its passionately devoted and unusually savvy user community.
Trainz 2004 (note the new emphasis on "railroad simulator" in the full title) is Auran's eagerly awaited sequel, sporting a cleaner interface, brisk and often dazzling 3D graphics, a fleshed-out physics engine and 3D cab controls, and a list of new economic challenges that require you to fill work orders by receiving and delivering goods to industries along map routes.
Let's start with the good. In fact, the great thing about Trainz 2004 is that it is quite simply a better-looking version of its predecessor with the model railroading stuff safely intact. "Surveyor" mode lets you tweak pre-generated terrain or create your own courses and environments from scratch. "Driver" mode puts you at the helm of your trains and allows you to zip around inside the cab or out, admiring the bump-mapped scenery at your leisure. And "Railyard" lets you eyeball locomotives or cars in an appropriately grungy railyard shed interior.
The most serious problem with Trainz 2004 is that it's fatally overambitious. The result is a game that feels more like a service release to the original, with a lot of flimsy tack ons masquerading under the marketing taglines "interactive industries" and "real-world physics." To be fair, the physics engine isn't atrocious; locomotives toting a massive chain of rolling stock will take a long time to get going, and you can kiss your caboose goodbye if you're not braking that sucker a mile or more from the station. But beyond stop-start physics, rudimentary cab controls, and basic collision detection, Trainz 2004's physics barely scratch the competition's complex track friction, weight, and weather systems, and if anything, detract from the overall package by giving you considerably less than you can rightfully expect today from a serious train simulation.
Then there's the introduction of economic challenges, a clear shot at the other side of the competition. Let's just say there are Commodore 64 and Amiga-era games more complex than the economic "modeling" here, which involves cruising monotonously around repetitious maps, loading resources in one spot, and dumping them in another. The challenge? Don't exceed the maximum posted speed in the industry stations.
Other glaring problems include a skeletal scenario lineup (only nine) of scripted challenges, and a 3D engine that jerks like a mamba dancer until you apply the recently released "service pack. Sadly, this service pack is practically mandatory: several of the game's key features, like the steam engine physics and the download manager, are flat-out busted without it. What Auran needs to do, if there's to be a third installment in this still promising series, is either turn all of its attention to the model railroading features and lose the fluff, or put some serious work into creating physics that go toe-to-toe with Microsoft's 800-pound gorilla, or economics that at least get within the same solar system as the Railroad Tycoon series.
Model railroading fans, this is a better-looking version of Trainz, and worth its budget price. The same bustling community of hobbyists and gamers are there, as is the same rapidly growing mod community. It's just too bad that the second game in the series turns out to be a bit tarnished instead of the exemplary hobbyist tool it deserves to be.
People who downloaded Trainz Railroad Simulator 2004 have also downloaded:
Trainz: Virtual Railroading on your PC, Microsoft Train Simulator, Rails Across America, Tower, Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 2: WWII Pacific Theater, Red Baron 3D, Jane's WWII Fighters, Sub Command: Akula Seawolf 688(I)
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