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Train Simulator: The Technical Bit

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Train Simulator runs on versions of Windows from Vista onwards and calls for a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo processor or equivalent, 2GB of RAM, a Direct-X 9 compatible graphics card with 512MB of RAM, a sound card and at least 6GB of free hard-disk space to install it all. This is not basic but not outlandish for new PCs (bought with Windows 8.1 or 10). Older machines, particularly those running Vista, will probably struggle unless they were pretty high spec' in their day and note that this is a recommended minimum. As is always the case with games that render a changing 3D environment TS will run more smoothly and look better with more and faster everything but it cannot take full advantage of the latest hardware. The core program is a few years old now and was written for 32bit machines so there would be little point in buying a PC with the latest i7 processor just for Train Simulator. That said the faster a machine is the less operating system and other programs running in the background will effect TS.

I can only describe installation from download but, bar the waiting, the process should not be too different from working from disk and anyone who has installed software on a Windows PC will be able to cope. I began with a code and a line of instruction saying where to enter that code on the Steam website which was all that was needed although I would advise you to think of a good password before you start since the first step involved setting up a Steam account which is free- think of it more as a registration. Next a Steam program was installed which downloaded and installed TS in turn... eventually. The TS download is over 6GB or over three hours at the by no means slow 5Mbps my broadband manages. Steam remains integrating itself with TS and giving access to the Steam market place and DLCs both free and paid for. It also acts as a sort of social network for users who like that sort of thing. You can ignore this but it does give you access to a group of keen and knowledgeable TS players who are ready to answer questions, make recommendations and offer advice if you have a technical problem. One particularly thorny issue I had was solved within a few hours of my asking about it- see the Scenarios page. When you start Steam it may show you the odd advertizement but it is unfussy and easy to use otherwise. Note that, although you need the Steam account and broadband to access extras and run updates, you do not need to be online just to play the game.

I have installed TS on three PCs two of them running Windows 8.1 and dating from 2015. The first is a fairly basic desktop PC with a 2GHz AMD A4 processor and the second is the Friends' laptop which has a 1.7GHz Intel Core i3. Both CPUs are more modern than a Core 2 Duo and, particularly in the case of the i3, make up for their relatively slow clock speeds in other ways. Both have a generous 8GB of RAM but their integrated sound and graphics systems are far from top of the line and, crucially, share the main system RAM with the CPU which compromises both. The third machine is an older laptop but one updated to Windows 10. In spite of its age it is much the most powerful with a 2.67GHz Core i5 processor. It has less RAM, 3GB, although that is still more than enough for TS but, again, has integrated graphics. In fact its chipset appears to be significantly less capable than those in the newer machines and more compromises have to be made in the way Train Simulator is set up on this machine.

All the machines cope about equally well with TS which is to say adequately. They take some time to set up a drive (long enough to put the kettle on) with the i5 laptop being notably the quickest. Initially on the newer machines the frame rate was painfully slow which was hardly surprising since both have big high-resolution screens. I reduced the game resolution and the amount of detail which is easily done. The game now runs more smoothly though it can still slow particularly on the Rhine route where the prevalent catenary adds a great deal of complicated detail. Some subtlety is lost- buildings can look like boxes with windows drawn on and there are harsh edges. There are other signs that both systems still work hard to keep up as scenery pops into view in the middle distance and occasionally trees appear in mid-air before the hills they stand on.

The i5 laptop has a smaller screen, the resolution that TS has been scaled down to on the other machines in fact, but still struggled to run TS at an acceptable frame rate until almost all of the graphical subtleties were turned off. This had a notable effect on the atmosphere the game conjures. Rain no longer runs down the windscreen so you do not need the wipers on which may sound like no bad thing but other losses are felt more keenly. Passing through fog looks like driving towards a grey wall that recedes as you approach and the snowy landscape in the night scenario in the Weardale and Teesdale Network looked more like the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. The actual train driving is unaffected but one does miss the niceties.

By default TS runs a video when it starts- or tries to. On the Windows 8.1 machines this did not work at all although the Windows 10 laptop played it quite happily. It's quite a good sequence but you won't want to watch it over and over again anyway and happily one can skip it by pressing Escape then turn it off altogether.

The only real bug encountered affected the mouse cursor which disappeared when I tried to drive anything. This is a well-known clash readily solved by turning off mouse-trails in the Windows control panel. A minor niggle but it should not happen and I for one find mouse-trails helpful in general use- it makes the mouse cursor much easier to spot and follow and having to turn it off just to accommodate TS is annoying. This happens on all of the machines described.

It is worth noting that both of the Windows 8.1 machines that TS was installed on have since been updated to Windows 10. On the Friends’ laptop the new OS has not made the slightest difference but it did affect the game on the desktop machine. The picture shifted to the right showing a black bar up the left edge of the screen with the right edge of the view not visible. It appears that this may be to do with the way this PC is set up now- it belongs to my dad who is recovering from a cataract operation so icons and text are much enlarged and I have read that this can affect TS. The program still ran and, when set to run in a window, displayed perfectly well. Whatever the problem was it sorted itself out when the monitor was switched off and on again. That is not really a satisfactory solution, and one which would be unavailable to anyone using an all-in-one system, but the problem was clearly minor.

One change to the default settings I would recommend is to turn on auto-pause which, you will almost certainly have figured out already, automatically pauses the game when a message giving advice or instructions is displayed. This happens anyway in some scenarios but in others it does not which means you burn time while reading the message and this can make a difference if you have a schedule to keep to. On any of the menu screens click settings then gameplay then just tick the auto-pause box.

Due to the basic graphics chipsets which lack dedicated RAM the computers I used stretch the minimum requirements for TS and none would impress a dedicated gamer but, even with the compromises and the odd graphical glitch TS remains an eminently enjoyable experience. If you do have beefier hardware, particularly graphics hardware with its own RAM, the experience will be better.


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