The fascination with trains goes far back in European and American history to a time when hand-carved wooden locomotives and cars were considered priceless treasures by youngsters (and adults). While the hobby of collecting model train sets and paraphernalia has fluctuated in appeal over the years, the fascination remains the same. Now, Trainz developer Auran puts an exciting spin on the hobby with three distinct facets that allow the enthusiast nearly unlimited access to what can be an expensive pastime or even obsession.
The single most endearing attribute of this title is its simplicity and ease of use, regardless of which aspect of the hobby enthralls you. While the manual is a bit stiff in style, the actual hands-on beauty of the simulation is nothing short of inspired, with a minimal learning curve for what could be a complicated endeavor. Fortunately, the designers seem truly dedicated to making the hobby affordable and fun for fans of all ages.
Picking the best of the three separate modules, collecting, driving, or surveying (building layouts) is a matter of personal taste. All are exquisitely designed and offer literally unlimited hours of involvement and enjoyment. As anyone who has built a model railroad the old-fashioned way knows, the process is never ending -- the wealth of material on hobby store shelves and available online is as astounding (as are some of the prices) as it is unattainable at times. With Trainz, you can tweak, build, invent, and collect continuously without making your spouse and kids go hungry.
Hobbies are meant to be shared, and Auran has provided an excellent means for expanding your treasure trove of trains in that respect. With the constant addition of official downloadable add-ons available at the Auran website (three service packs available at the time of this review) complementing sections on content creation, movies, accessories, user creations (rated), links and more, any shortage of initially included locomotives or carriers is being addressed daily. And, it doesn't stop there, as terrain types, roads, textures, vehicles, buildings, structures, layouts, rolling stock, and more are but some of the categories offered.
While true that Trainz isn't a hardcore simulation in terms of absolute realism of train behavior per se, as a simulation of a hobby, it stands far above anything on the market at the time of release. Rather than concentrate or obsess on real-life physics, the game makes the hobby accessible in a way that allows you to overlook certain areas that other train simulations focus on, sometimes to the exclusion of enjoyment. Being able to use the product easily and quickly goes a long way to maintaining interest for the casual gamer or hobbyist.
Menus are simply constructed and nicely laid out with easy to select icons, sliders, and buttons used to control every aspect of the simulation. Keyboard shortcuts become second nature after a short period of usage and moving from screen to screen, or even module to module, is a breeze. The driver module lets you enter the engineer cabin of the locomotives and ride the rails over your favorite layouts or use those supplied with the simulation. A bevy of trains, carriers, and layouts, as well as options such as time of day, changing weather conditions, AI instructions for managing consists (or not), derailment rules, and a chase camera view (oddly, there's no overhead perspective) offer wonderful ways to enhance the hobby.
Trainz isn't about scenarios or mission-based tasks, but concentrates on the hobby of model train collecting. In that regard, gamers looking for a more in-depth train simulation focusing on situational awareness would be advised to look elsewhere, perhaps at the excellent Microsoft Train Simulator or Railroad Tycoon II titles. However, anyone who has ever wanted to build a model railroad layout, but for whatever reason (cost, time, material) hasn't or couldn't, now has no excuse. Trainz offers the best alternative to spending big bucks while providing nearly every phase of the hobby in affordable terms.
Graphics: Extremely easy to use terrain and layout builders help create beautifully rendered environments from tracks to stations. Some clipping issues arise, physics are lacking in some areas, and train wrecks aren't spectacular, but for viewing locomotives, tracks, and carriers in all their glory, the graphics are superb. Configurable graphics make the sim accessible to a wide range of computers.
Sound: No music is included with the simulation, but it isn't missed. The sounds of the trains, whistles, and ambient track noises are excellent.
Enjoyment: The initial complement of trains, layouts, countries represented, and objects, while considerable and impressive, is not nearly as important as the ability to continually expand all facets of the game. Trainz has the potential to remain on hard drives indefinitely, driven by the user's desire to explore and experience the hobby. Gameplay consists of "playing" the hobby, not missions or scenarios; thus, hobbyists will extract the most enjoyment from the title.
Replay Value: Replay is unlimited in terms of expansion and increasing your collection of trains, layouts, and objects. No missions to replay or scenarios to build -- just plain, old-fashioned hobby training at its best.
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