Nothing says “I’m a bigshot” like crossing the Alps!
Fairy Godmother Tycoon, Hospital Tycoon, School Tycoon, Mail Tycoon… It seems that these days we’re surrounded by more or less interesting business simulations, commonly called tycoons. While a select few of them have achieved a certain success or at least a certain degree in quality (the SimCity series, Roller Coaster Tycoon), most stick to the generic and somewhat dull product-transformation-customer scheme. This produces games that rapidly become boring: if you’ve played a few tycoons, you’ve played them all, whether you sell health care, lemonade, or magic potion.
Get ready for a great journey, and many sleepless nights!
From the get-go, to someone like myself who hasn’t played the previous instalments of the game, Railroad Tycoon 3 looks just like another sim. Lay tracks, build stations, put train on tracks, make money. Repeat. This part of the game does exist, and it is beautifully done and thoroughly enjoyable. The track laying system is sharp and easy to use, and it has – oh joy – an undo button. It will automatically build bridges or tunnels, and is flexible enough to let you connect to other bits of railroads without having to zoom in and micro-manage the details. As for the trains, they are truly well done and graphically astounding: I’ve found myself many times losing focus of the game, locking on a train and just watching it roll through forests and mountains. There is also a great deal of importance put in choosing the right train for the right track and the right cargo. For example, some trains will go very fast, but only on plain surface, while other trains will be slower but won’t lose speed in mountains. Some trains appeal more to passengers, others are very powerful and can haul a lot of cars.
However, once you start doing that, you realize it just doesn’t work. You haul empty cargos, your trains cost too much for what they earn and you start spiralling into debt. Why? Because under the hands-on task of laying tracks and building routes from city to city lies the true name of the game, and it’s called Economics.
To make a long story short, RR3 is a lot like real life: there is supply and demand, and the best way to make a lot of money is to take something from where there is plenty to where there is none – that is, if buyers want it. One of the beauties of the game is to achieve just that: if there is a big demand for weapons in Munich, and there are lots of weapons in Venice, you’ll make a fortune hauling weapons from Venice to Munich, and there is nothing more satisfying than to enter a station with a million dollars worth of cargo. So now you have to plan the routes you take, and you can custom your trains to haul only certain types of supplies – otherwise, they’ll choose the most profitable that there is at the moment. And that’s the great thing: you don’t have to micro-manage every single aspect of the game, you can just concentrate on making the best connections possible between points on the maps.
The economical model of RR3 doesn’t stop at supply and demand (a highly developped concept that you can find more detailed in a FAQ from Scott “Zoogz” Jamison, google it!). One of the most pleasurable aspects of the game to me was the concept of individuality. In some other tycoons, you embody a character, but they are highly connected to the welfare of the company and are most often just pixels: if the company dies, the character dies. In RR3, you play as a REAL tycoon: a PERSON. As such you can start companies, buy and sell stocks from your company and other companies as well, resign from your chairmanship, take over a company… This forces you to play a highly subtle game if you don’t want to get double-crossed by ambitious opponents, or kicked out by your shareholders.
Since the core of the game is heavily embedded into Economics – you can also buy and sell industries such as meat factories and dairy farms, thus making even more profit on your deliveries – , it might not appeal to everyone and is intellectually challenging. However it is a very refreshing and exciting experience, and I’ll go out on a limb and say it is very educative as well.
Another educative aspect I found interesting was the use of the railroad industry to highlight certain aspects of History and Geography. In the course of the campaigns (if you have the Coast to Coast extension) you’ll visit a wide range of countries and participate in many historical events, even building the legendary Orient Express railroad at some point. This, along with the pretty realistic geography, adds a sense of grandeur and purpose to the game that is rarely attained in similar games. Nothing says “I’m a bigshot” like crossing the Alps from Milan to Zurich via Germany.
Speaking of which, there are plenty of scenarios to choose from and, since there are three levels of achievement in each scenario (Bronze, Silver and Gold), there is an endless possibility of replay value. The campaign mode is especially interesting, taking the form of a museum where an old-timer takes you from the “American Room” to the “Future Room”, going through the European and World Rooms. Each individual scenario in the campaign is pretty unique, but, apart from a few, they all require you to haul a certain load of cargo, connect certain cities together or have a certain amount of money in some form or another (company value, cash in the bank, personal fortune), all of this before a set deadline. Some scenarios, however, add a bit of spice to the formula. For example, one of them sets you in a fictional future Greenland to spread bio-accelerant, while another one has you trying to beat the clock to meet the requirements of an army fleet before they sail to war. In addition to the 15 scenarios in the main campaign, there are 25 more scenarios set in variety of places like Australia and China, but most are U.S.-centric. I can’t say I was disappointed by the sandbox mode, but I don’t see much use in it since the game includes a very detailed scenario editor – the only thing you would use the sandbox mode for. So unless you’re a huge fan of trains and want to see thousands of them roaming around freely, don’t bother with the sandbox.
The second disappointment in the game was the soundtrack. While all the sounds were great – and the narrator of the campaign was spot-on – the music was downright inappropriate. Raggy early 1900s guitar tunes can be great if you’re in the Midwest, but it somewhat loses its immersive power if you’re struggling with a tricky mountain passage near the Kilimanjaro. Just a little more care in that department would have earned the game a real ten on ten.
Otherwise, turn the music down, put on your own soundtrack and get ready for a great journey, and many sleepless nights! Railroad Tycoon 3 is a great, intelligent play that is sure to please to anyone who dreams of becoming a true tycoon!
The Bad: Repetitive, sometimes inappropriate music; Sandbox mode not of much use; Huge an
d realistic economic environment can be rebarbative at first; Baptises the player automatically instead of letting us choose a name