The celebrated designer of the popular RollerCoaster Tycoon games returns to his Transport Tycoon roots with this business empire simulation. Chris Sawyer's Locomotion places players in competition with other railway shipping magnates and robber barons, to lead the transportation market and rack up the biggest profits. The game takes place from the early 1900s through the year 2000 (and beyond), and features more than 40 scenarios that highlight the technological advances that influenced the transportation industry during the 20th century. In addition to rail traffic, players will make use of trolleys, trucks, buses, ships, and airplanes as they develop a shipping empire to rule all others.
Chris Sawyer is a very talented guy. Prior to the release of his monster hit Rollercoaster Tycoon, he brought out the still-popular cult hits Transport Tycoon and Transport Tycoon Deluxe. While not graphic tour-de-forces even for the time, both were nonetheless great games, filled with insanely deep and addictive gameplay that still commands a legion of fanatically devoted fans. While Rollercoaster Tycoon fans can look forward to a brand new update with modern 3D graphics and updated gameplay later this year, Transport Tycoon fans have Chris Sawyer's Locomotion, the "spiritual sequel" to Transport Tycoon. Well, Transport Tycoon fans had better keep looking because Locomotion isn't the update you've been waiting for.
The basic premise of the game is fairly simple. Play begins on an open map filled with small communities that consist of box-like suburban housing, and scattered, unconnected industries that either produce goods or are waiting for goods to be delivered. The challenge is to use all the transportation tools at your disposal to move people and goods around the map, making a profit and helping both the towns and your fledgling transportation network to grow. As time passes and technology improves, towns will grow and shrink and industries will open and close, each of which will need to be serviced by your fleets of trucks, buses, trains, boats and eventually, airplanes. The greatest fun the game offers is watching your vehicles zip back and forth on the transportation networks you set up and seeing small towns grow into mighty cities.
Or, it would be the game's greatest fun, if the graphics weren't so astonishingly ugly. I'm not a graphics junkie, and I've always believed that gameplay trumps graphics every time, but even if you could set aside the circa-1996 graphics technology, Locomotion is a remarkably unattractive game even from an art design perspective.
Consider that Locomotion sports essentially the same graphics that so wowed us in Rollercoaster Tycoon. The difference is that Rollercoaster Tycoon had a sense of fun and whimsy and provided structures to build that were much more visually interesting than anything in Locomotion. Sure, the subject matter was different, but, as Maxis has shown with the SimCity series, there's plenty of interesting visual architecture in cities that could have been imitated for a game like this. Everything in Locomotion's cities is the same boxy pseudo-modern architecture that's just plain boring to look at.
Still, gameplay trumps graphics, right? Surely the patented Chris Sawyer addictive gameplay makes up for the ugly graphics? Well, yes... and no. The gameplay is certainly there. Locomotion is an insanely deep management sim that lets you take control of every aspect of your budding monopoly. You can tweak schedules, futz around with engine types and routing and even shred the Sherman Act by creating your own industries that your company can then service. There's always something to do, something to check, a new route to set up or another company to run into the ground. At its best, Locomotion brilliantly captures that "just one more thing" factor that keeps you up until 4am.
The problem is, even though the basics are there, there are specific elements that make it much less fun than it could be. First, there are more than a few gameplay bugs. The most egregious one I found has to do with ships. When there's a straight line between two docking ports in the game, everything works fine. Jeebus help you, though, if a ship has to make any sort of turn. I frequently saw my ships get caught in some corner turning round and round as the poor pathing AI tried to figure out how to get where it was supposed to go. Trains have a similar problem. It's almost impossible to have certain kinds of junctions that would make your train routes more efficient (like the classic cloverleaf) and have your train go where it's supposed to in a timely manner. There's also an issue with the "on/off" flags for vehicles where they turn back on on their own - something that can get seriously annoying because you can't rip up roads or tracks that are being used.
The interface isn't all that great, either. Information about specific portions of your empire are conveyed in the same basic tabbed interface that's used in Rollercoaster Tycoon, which is fine, although the plethora of options in the game means that information and orders are harder to find. What's not fine though, is the interface for placing down roads and train tracks. Everything has to be placed down one unit at a time. There's no facility for dragging and dropping a length of road and judging road heights and getting all the turns, crossings and over- and underpasses correct requires frequent backtracks. It's actually a step backward from the rollercoaster construction interface that was one of the major shortcomings of Rollercoaster Tycoon
My biggest objection to this game, however, is just that it's not the "spiritual sequel" to Transport Tycoon -- it is Transport Tycoon. It's not even Transport Tycoon Deluxe, the enhanced version of the game that fans have been playing all these years. When compared to the older game, Locomotion is considerably simplified and not nearly as much fun. The town investment and some of the monopolistic tricks players used to be able to pull are no longer in the game. The track layouts and simplified train stations make track building less efficient, less attractive and more difficult to place, and the game's competitive AI is worse than braindead. In some ways, you wonder if this was an early version of a Transport Tycoon sequel that's been sitting in Sawyer's hard drive since 1996; you're basically being asked to pony up cash for the same game you bought seven years ago.
The game does sport one new facet -- multiplayer. It's fairly easy to overlook, as the method to get to it isn't exactly highlighted on the opening screen. In fact, if anything, the feature feels rather tacked-on, consisting of one-on-one matches with a rudimentary chat function facilitating communication between players. There are no special goals or features that make the multiplayer game different from the single-player game, save the novelty of playing against an opponent not limited by the game's poor AI. There's no autosearch for players; going through the game's interface requires players to know each other's specific IP addresses.
In the end, what made this review so hard to write is that underneath all the negatives, there's actually the core of a classic game. And if you've never played a Transport Tycoon game, there's simply nothing here you can't get in more modern management sims like SimCity 4 or Railroad Tycoon 3.
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