While growing up there were two tycoon games I respected, and loved. The first was Railroad Tycoon, and the second was Transport Tycoon – both developed by MicroProse Software. I’m sure many of you agree that those two games shaped much of the tycoon formula that’s been used and abused in recent years. Both games were reasonably similar, but while Transport Tycoon gave you broader control of a city Railroad Tycoon focused on micro managing only one form of transportation.
It has been thirteen years since the original game was released, and just five since the popular sequel was released. The third game takes the bold step into full 3D, a move that usually either makes or breaks a game. The gameplay has several new levels of depth, especially related to geography and finance.
There isn’t much of a storyline in Railroad Tycoon 3, but during the introductory movie we’re introduced to a young boy who grows a strong fascination towards trains. The movie ends with him having grown into a somewhat old, but wealthy man – a man who owned a railroad company. From the main menu you can start one of the sixteen campaigns that range from the Wild West, to times of war, to the future (about 2050 or so). Besides campaigns you have twelve scenarios to choose from, which are very much like campaigns only with less history at the beginning. Next is the sandbox mode, where you have even more freedom. Sandbox mode is basically the mode you choose if you want to just play for a long time, playing in your own pace, on one of the 22 maps, getting rich the way you want.
In the campaigns you’re usually given a set of objectives, such as connecting two cities that are far from each other. In order to get a bronze award you’re given relatively easy objectives, but to get silver and gold you usually need to either earn more money, or maybe connect more cities. There’ll always be a number of other companies competing against you, so it’s best to plan well.
What you’ll do much of the time is laying tracks from one town to the next, building stations of various sizes, purchasing trains, setting up routes, and tweaking it all to work optimally. The interface works pretty well, so you won’t have to worry about a whole lot of buttons. At the bottom bar you have nine buttons. The top three are for building or purchasing trains, stations and such, while the three below are to view what you’ve already made. The bottom three are for the stock market, company details, and such. Navigating the interface works pretty well when you’ve gotten used to it, but you often have to click a lot to go back and forth, so it would’ve been nice if windows were detachable, so you could for instance have a small stock window open while you’re looking at the company detail window.
An interesting aspect in Railroad Tycoon 3 is that you can get rich in a number of ways. The most basic and obvious way, is connecting cities and letting the trains earn you money, transporting cargo or passenger. The rule of supply and demand is important, so using the in-game overlays you can see what cities will sell or buy various things the cheapest. You obviously make the most money transferring things that one town produces, to a town that needs it – like alcohol to Reno. When setting up a route you can decide what kind of cargo you want the train to carry, and how much cargo you want the train to have onboard before it can leave a station. The faster you move whatever you’re carrying the more money you earn, but the more cargo you move the more money you make. You need to figure out the best speed/weight balance, looking at the power of the train, and the steepness of the hills. When laying tracks you also need to figure out whether a longer, flat route is better than a shorter, steeper route, and so forth. The developers did a pretty good job taking real-life conditions into account, without making it overly complex.
Besides managing trains you can also delve into the local industries. Throughout the map you’ll find dairy farms, logging camps, docks, a huge number of houses, etc. Some of these are available for purchase, and by clicking on them you can see what kind of earnings they’re making. Some industrial buildings can also be upgraded to produce more, but for a price. By purchasing industry you can for instance set up dedicated trains to carry only what your factory is making, to a city that needs it a lot. To help towns and cities you can set up hotels, post offices, restaurants, and plenty of other buildings. A hotel can for instance increase the passenger count for whatever trains that stop there, while a post office will keep post stored there longer, essentially letting you carry even more.
The stock market is probably the best way to build up your own fortune. You can buy stocks in your own and your competitors’ companies, and the prices are affected by a lot of things, just like in the real world. By purchasing stocks in companies you get a slowly increasing control, and at a certain point you can succeed in merging with a company, or doing a more or less hostile takeover in other words. Some campaigns may require you to end up as the only railroad company, but keep in mind that stock owners may turn their backs on you, if your performance starts lacking. While the stock simulator may not be as advanced as the real thing, it’s an interesting feature, with more detail than I for one expected.
Graphically Railroad Tycoon 3 does a pretty good job. The “playfields” are rectangular, and uses heightmaps for mountains, hills, and such. By using heightmaps you get realistic geometry, and it doesn’t hog as much resources as a polygonal counterpart, so kudos to the developers for doing that. It’s a bit unfortunate that many of the environments are similar. A typical playfield has normal green vegetation, forests, lakes, and mountains, but it seems to lack deserts, snowy fields, and so on. It would also have been nice to see actual people, and maybe a car or two. Secondly, other recent railroad management titles have shown more detail around houses and such, and that’s something this game lacks. The buildings look quite good when zoomed in the most, but they look somewhat generic otherwise. Not all the textures are perfect, but it gets the job done.
Another impressive graphical feature besides the use of heightmaps is the pixel shades water, which looks great, and helps liven up the atmosphere a bit.
Instrumental folk music fills up most of the musical score, and it does it well. The background music makes the game more Wild West centered, which is fine, but it could’ve been nice if both the environments, in-game objects, AND the background music evolved more as you approached 'the future’.
Multiplayer is available to play over the Internet or on a LAN. You basically choose a map, get a group of players to join, and the objective is to get the most money by the end of the game. I’m sure this can be popular if you like trains, and of course the game.
Managing trains probably doesn’t seem like a blast to everyone, but Railroad Tycoon 3 has a surprisingly good fun-factor. With sixteen campaigns that each take up to a few hours you’ll have plenty of entertainment in this title – provided you like the mechanics. The new gameplay features are interesting, but it still lacks a little bit. RT3 does pretty well in terms of visuals and audio, but again it lacks a little bit. Having multiplayer is nice, but it could’ve used more options and more modes.
I can almost guarantee that you’ll like this game if you liked the previous Railroad Tycoon games, or if you’re in the market for a modern game of railroad management. It won’t change your life, but it’ll keep you busy for a while.
If only someone would do a new version of Transport Tycoon...