Name: Railway Empire
Developer: Gaming Minds Studios
Publisher: Kalypso Media Digital
Release Date: 28 January 2018
Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One (click here for the Steam link)
The transport game genre has been around for decades, being popularised by gaming pioneers like Chris Sawyer and Sid Meier, with their Transport Tycoon and Railroad Tycoon series way back in the 1990’s. These titles hooked gamers into plotting tracks across an isometric map, moving passengers and cargo from one station to the next, trying to outdo competitors and make the biggest profit.
The genre is one of several that didn’t make the transition to 3D very smoothly. Some titles, like RollerCoaster Tycoon and other theme park-themed franchises have managed it very well; others that focus on the more pragmatic side of rails and tracks seem to struggle.
Despite an admirable effort, Railway Empire, the new title from Gaming Minds Studios – the minds behind the classic Patrician series of games – don’t quite manage to succeed in fully breaking free of those shackles that have inhibited similar recent transport genre games since making the jump to 3D.
But let’s focus on the good, for now, because there’s definitely a lot of that to find here. Railway Empire is, initially at least, every bit as engaging as its spiritual predecessors. At its core lies the addictive drive to perfect transport lines between different cities and industries, making the maximum amount of profit in the shortest time and distance.
It’s a really pretty game to look at and get immersed in. The art style sits in a happy place between cartoon-like exaggeration and accurate realism, while the music evokes a sense of the period its set in, with yankee doodle folk music trilling happily in the background.
As you’d expect of a transport game, there are a vast array of historic trains to utilise on your lines. The tech tree has a really good selection of era-appropriate innovations to dig in to, and the industries scattered throughout the maps lend themselves to the overall ease with which you can slip into early nineteenth century America.
The story campaign mode is also surprisingly interesting, even outside of the gameplay. You explore the construction of one of the most important transportation routes in the world at different stages and times during its development.
You interact with historical figures from the time, and although Railway Empire displays a certain nostalgia and enthusiasm for the railroad, it surprised me by not sugar-coating the murkier side of that period of history. It hints at ruthless and possibly illegal industrial practices, as well as portraying more obviously immoral acts such as the resettlement of Native American people for the sake of “progress”.
There are also a few new interesting mechanics, like being able to send spies and saboteurs to make mischief with your competitors – who can do exactly the same thing to you, of course.
Railway Empire makes several advancements on mechanics that were major stumbling blocks for the likes of Transport Fever to result in an overall package that, on balance, is enjoyable to play more often that it isn’t.
For example, railway tracks can be planned in advance. For me, this is the single greatest thing about the game. Instead of laying a track halfway across the map and nearly bankrupting yourself in the process, you can forecast how much construction will cost, and plan the track’s route around obstacles to be as cost-effective as possible.
Railway lines are also, on the whole, easy to set up and assign trains to. There’s no need to place depots and buy a myriad of carriages and containers; simply select the cities the train is to visit, assign the engine, and the train will automatically pick up passengers and cargo, up to its maximum capacity.
Sadly, this is where the system begins to derail. Railway Empire is great fun during the initial set up of rail lines; but when the game reaches the point where you have to go back and start adding to, or editing, what you’ve done before, it can quickly become a bit of a nightmare.
The biggest one for me was trying to expand the rail network. At first you’ll just be able to afford a one track line between two stations, but naturally, once more destinations and locomotives are added to your network, you’ll want to add to that. But short of deleting all of the trains currently on the tracks, it can be extremely frustrating to get anything built.
You’ll often end up in a deadlock where you can’t add a new track because of an existing junction, which you can’t delete because there’s a train waiting at it, because the line needs a new track for it to move on to. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation that usually ends up with the frustrating outcome that you’re best deleting everything and starting again; which is ultimately self-defeating, eliminating the benefit of pre-planning tracks before construction.
It feels like there are several layers of menus and detail missing to allow you to micromanage the game to the extent that you need to in order to set up a well-oiled transport network. For example, once a city gets to a certain size, lots of passengers and goods start getting generated there to be picked up. It’d be really handy to have a means to tell trains what to prioritise when they’re choosing what cargo to take first, but there isn’t.
It’s hard to be so down on Railway Empire, because there’s definitely a lot of good to be found here. The transport genre is crying out for a modern-day rival to Planet Coaster, which triumphantly brought the historically equivalent theme park genre into the post-3D world. Railway Empire is that game – as long as you play the first 30-60 minutes of any game and don’t progress past that point.
Although it should have been on track to deliver an engaging experience, a few points manage to derail it. But you may want to choo-choo-choose Railway Empire if your love for the transport genre can survive some frustrating gameplay niggles.
EnomView Score: 7 out of 10