Friday, April 22, 2022

Console Corner: Review of Railway Empire

I owned a Lionel train set as a child. I set it up and took it down many times, and even built some of my own terrain—bridges, tunnels, crossings, etc. I used to love going to hobby stores and seeing all the possibilities. I owned several magazines and would daydream looking at the immaculate sets people built in their basements. And to this day I think there is still some fascination watching the giant metal machines on rails. Naturally, what better place is there to realize a train dream than video games? Let’s take a look at Railway Empire on PS4.

Railway Empires is, among other things, exactly that: a sandbox to build a railway network to your heart’s content. Bridges, tunnels, freight delivery, express passenger trains, building a business and becoming a millionaire in the process—it’s all there. Much more rural in nature than urban, the game’s environments are broad scale rather than local. Players will be connecting cities rather than stations within cities, and managing many of the big business pieces which complement that—stocks, industry, train maintenance, employees, etc.

But Railway Empire is more than a sandbox. It likewise offers campaign and challenge modes. Where the sandbox gives people an unlimited budget to build and buy as they see fit, the campaign, broken down into chapters, gives players an increasingly challenging set of goals across five different maps. The first, for example, introduces players to the basics of the game and gives them a reasonable set of goals across several decades of time—connecting various cities, shipping X amounts of freight, growing city populations, buying stocks, etc. In campaign mode, the game also introduces AI competitors, NPCs who are building their own empires and who interact with the player through commerce and industry buying, selling, and gaining territory alongside you. Challenge mode is similar to campaign mode. But instead of an escalating a set of broad challenges across big maps, it instead offers a more focused set of individual tasks to complete within more tightly constrained circumstances—do X by Y with these starting conditions, for example.

In terms of catering to my dreams as a boy, Railway Empire delivers to a good degree. When your commerce engine (no pun intended) is chugging along and profits are flowing in, the game feels great. Dozens of trains clitter-clattering across a landscape that has been molded by your strategic design—delivering wood here, picking up passengers there, waiting patiently in line to unload, and puffing smoke as they tear across the countryside to their destination. What’s more, the player can switch the standard overhead view to first-person train view at any time, and just enjoy the landscape as it flows past.

What feels less good is the learning curve and interface. The campaign offers players a basic tutorial of how to set up stations, lay track, set up signaling, etc. But very quickly I found myself in need of further instruction, something which the FAQ was only partially helpful with. Youtube proved to be the best educator. (Thank you Adekyn.) Nevertheless, despite the help, the game is still a bear to work with and control in a way you want.

Learning was not helped in the least by the game’s interface. I expect such strategy games to be complex. But complexity is not the problem. The ease of controls to navigate the complexity is where the challenge lies. Learning how to use the menus, learning how to interpret the symbols, learning what you can and cannot do is a real chore. The player has ideas, but how to implement them is sometimes frustratingly out of reach. What’s more, I eventually realized the instructional videos I was watching were not relevant for the PS4. The controls had been dumbed down to suit a controller—and perhaps too much.

In the end, I have mixed feelings about Railway Empire. I loved building a train network, understanding the game’s supply and demand system, maximizing train efficiency, riding along first-person view over a massive bridge I just built—all the things I’d hoped the game would be. But I’m not convinced the game should have been ported to the PS4. Based on all the videos I watched on Youtube, this is a PC game—as it stands. Unless something is done to overhaul the interface, the player will not be able to experience the same depth of game as a PC player, which results in a fair amount of frustration trying to navigate and control the game.

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