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This description of Train Simulator 2016 is largely based on the feature that originally appeared in the Friends of Darlington Railway Museum Newsletter. Some changes have been made to reflect further experience with the program. This is a site for rail enthusiasts in general and members of the Friends of Darlington Railway Museum in particular and is written for readers who are unlikely to be particularly interested in or knowledgeable about computers or games.
All of the pictures used to illustrate this section of the site are screen grabs from Train Simulator itself with the game running at the highest level of detail but a relatively low resolution of 800x600 pixels since that was all that was required for the website.
The line between games and simulators is somewhat blurred. Simulators are serious tools used to train surgeons, engineers, pilots, ship captains, racing drivers and indeed train drivers with the environment reproduced in as much detail as possible including realistic controls. Train Simulator (TS as I shall refer to it henceforth) aims to do the same within the limitations imposed by running on ordinary home computers but with the budget and some know-how you could immerse yourself further in the environment with a customized control panel, extra screens or even a 3D headset. There is a scoring system but it is a means of gauging your performance- no bonuses for collecting coins, running people over at level crossings or other such nonsense.
Crucially, although it is a serious program, serious is not the antithesis of fun and TS is meant to be fun- at least for those who share our interests. I suspect most people reading this will have driven trains or would give their eye-teeth to do so and TS is for them. The program comes with routes (which can be a line or an area with several individual lines and includes scenarios to run) and some rolling-stock. There is also an editing system that allows users to create their own routes and scenarios but most people wishing to expand their horizons will buy downloadable add-ons in the form of new routes and stock. There is some overlap between types of download (or DLCs for DownLoadable Content)- a route may include some rolling-stock while a locomotive is likely to include some new scenarios that you can run if you have the right route already installed. One could spend hundreds or even thousands of pounds on DLCs which is not to say that they are expensive, especially given the amount of work that clearly goes into them, but that there are many.
Some free DLCs are available through other sources and users can register with the Dovetail Games' TS Rewards scheme through which DLCs are occasionally given away. You won't quite get something for nothing since Dovetail will send you e-mails from time to time but you will not be bombarded with spam. That said TS Rewards seems to have gone rather quiet of late after distributing a couple of locomotives (including an unrebuilt GW Castle Class) and the handcart which, frankly, is no use to man or beast but good fun.
Three routes come with the game as standard each with a number of scenarios:
Once TS is installed you can jump in at the deep end by clicking Drive, choosing a scenario and driving one of the routes if you wish but an Academy section allows you to learn the ropes with the computer advising you. PDF documents installed with the game help but consulting them while using the program will not be easy unless you have two computers or print sections. Whatever you choose to do there will be a wait while all the needed data is loaded and the simulation is set up. How long this takes will vary depending on what sort of hardware you have but it should be ready to go by the time you finish making a cup of tea.
An overlay or "Head Up Display" (HUD) at the bottom of the screen has the main controls and some information about the train and route ahead including speed limits and signal locations (but not settings) and you can use it to control your train no matter your point of view. Viewing options include Line-side (view your train from a series of fixed points as it passes), Helicopter (follow usually from above though you can view from any angle as long as the ground is not in the way) and Free (move around the world almost irrespective of your train). The HUD does alter to suit the traction- regulator and reverser for steam, a notchy throttle and gears for a Modernization Plan DMU and so forth but it does standardize the control layout to some extent which makes adapting to one locomotive from another easier. Without the HUD (and you can turn it off) you need to know the route and keep your point of view in the cab to see meters and gauges. When in the cab the controls are part of your view and you can move them with the mouse but I found that very imprecise. It would be better to get used to the keyboard or a game controller- personally I stick with the HUD. Even using the HUD I found steam locomotives hard to get to grips with but the computer can do the fireman's job (in fact why is that not on by default?) and driver advice saw me through. These options (including driver advice) are available throughout the game.
The Weardale and Teesdale Network in the '60s DLC (described here) comes with a 1950s Metro-Cammell Class 101 DMU. As my train driving experience consists entirely of about 18 miles in the Wensleydale Railway's Class 101 a few years ago (and since the scenarios involving the DMU are rated easy) I started with it. I was genuinely surprised and delighted by how familiar everything seemed and how right the unit's response to the controls felt. It sounds good as well from the engines and whooshing of brakes to the clicking of the pneumatic system as you change gear. I have no experience to compare other units and locomotives against but they sound right and overall I found the driving experience satisfyingly convincing.
Career scenarios set tasks which vary in difficulty and the time they take to complete so being able to pause and save your progress at any point is handy. You score points, or lose fewer, if you keep to your timetable or buffer up gently when shunting. At the end, presuming you reach the end, there is a report and your score out of 1,000- anything less and you see where you could have done better. Your score also gets added to an overall Career total the purpose of which is unclear since it does not appear to count towards anything. It seems natural to start with the easier scenarios but there is no onus to attempt them in any particular order.
Standard and Free Roam scenarios work in the same way but are less rigorously judged. (The Free Roam mode described in the Newsletter has been removed in a update to TS since the item was written and the difference between Standard and Free Roam scenarios is not clear- at least not to me.) Pass a signal at danger in a Career scenario and it's game over but in the others, as long as you don't actually hit anything or derail, you can almost do what you like.
You can set up your own Career, Standard or Free Roam scenarios or download others created by TS players from the Workshop section of the Steam site for free. Some are quite fanciful but most are plausible if not actually derived from time-tables and traffic research. The degree of expertise evinced by scenario creators does vary as does the level of detail with some authors setting up other train movements around you which may or may not effect you directly but do add to the atmosphere.
Naturally, as well as being specific to a particular route, all the scenarios require certain items of rolling stock not to mention scenic objects. If you do not have those installed, either as standard with the game or bought separately as a DLC, the scenario will not work. Some of the scenarios I tried require DLCs not mentioned in their descriptions. It was annoying to wait a couple of minutes for a scenario to start then get an error message but I soon learned to look more closely at the requirements. Scenarios can be listed in the Workshop section of the game and when you highlight one it will note any add-ons that are required but not installed. You then have the option to buy the missing DLC(s) or remove it from your list. The files for scenarios are quite small so if you have any doubts about one subscribe to it- it will not take long to download and check.
There is a Quick Drive option where you just pick a locomotive, a route and start and end points. The path is set for you and there is nothing to run into so it's not a bad way to become familiar with a route. Not all locomotives and routes are compatible with Quick Drive but from those that are you can choose to drive whatever you want wherever you want with some sensible limitations. You cannot run an electric locomotive where there is no catenary for example. You can start a Castle from the summit of Sherman hill and have a crack at Mallard's record. 145mph since you were wondering.
TS does have its limitations as a simulator. The smoke from a steam locomotive will go through a bridge rather than billowing around it and, in Quick Drive, you can take the enormous Union Pacific loco's along the Riviera even though they are hopelessly out of gauge fouling platforms, bridges and other line-side features which they simply pass through in ghostly fashion. The amount of extra computation needed to accurately represent every single physical part of a train and its interaction with every other part and all of the environment would be immense so I believe such a compromise can be excused. Similarly when at a station passengers appear out of thin air, occasionally walk in the platform rather than on it and are clearly based on a few stock figures albeit with different coloured clothes. You will also notice that trains always have a crew and passengers aboard even when they are parked in sidings in the middle of the night. It keeps things simple I suppose and people are best considered part of the scenery and do not detract from the experience of driving the train.
I have been using Train Simulator for a few months now on and off and you can read more about the technical side of the program and my experience with it here. I have still not tried using the editing functions to create new routes or scenarios and I still do not understand the DB signalling system. For the most part I have just been driving around the Weardale and Teesdale Network and that has been more than enough to keep me entertained. In fact it has been a ball.
If you are a member of the Friends of Darlington Railway Museum and this description has aroused your interest the offer of a free copy of Train Simulator 2016 including the Weardale and Teesdale Network in the '60s is still open at the time of writing. Otherwise TS has an RRP of £29.99 and can be bought on disk or from the Steam website. The Weardale and Teesdale pack is £24.99 and only available by download. Other versions of TS are available which bundle different routes and rolling-stock and some DLCs are also sold in bundles. Special offers may apply to the program, DLCs or both. The Dovetail Games website is www.dovetailgames.com from which you can find the link to the Rail Simulator page of Steam. There are many videos on YouTube and other sites showing gameplay footage and tutorials posted by dedicated users.