Reviewed: November 21, 2001
Released: October 27, 2001
The original Railroad Tycoon was one of the games that first turned me on to the hobby. Allowing you to build and operate your own network of railways while keeping a watchful eye on the economy and competition, Railroad Tycoon was an engrossing and somewhat addictive challenge. Fast-forward some 13 years and Railroad Tycoon has rolled back into the station with all of its old charms and a shiny new coat of paint.
Allowing you to rewrite history, Railroad Tycoon 3 (RRT3) puts players at the head of their own burgeoning railway company at key moments in locomotive history. Be it trying to connect the US’s east and west coast or rebuilding the infrastructure of a post-war France, the player is challenged to equal and better the performance of the real life tycoons.
Much of RRT3 will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played either of its predecessors, as the core of its gameplay has remained largely unchanged. Assuming you have the game set anything other than its easiest difficulty setting, most maps start as an uphill battle to create a small but profitable economic base. Once your company is showing some profit, you can then slowly lay track to nearby cities until your profits begin to snowball, freeing you to fully focus on whatever goals you have been given.
Of course, things are not as simple as connecting cities and watching the cash roll in. One of RRT3’s most appealing features is its advanced economic system. Scattered across every map are various resources that are a part of RRT3’s manufacturing tree. For instance, a logging camp pumps out logs, which will be transported to a lumber mill after which the lumber can be hauled off to a furniture manufacturer. All of this happens with or without your involvement since trains, while more efficient due to their speed, are not the only form of transportation (waterways are a popular alternative).
However, if you want to make the most out of the potential profits around you, then you’ll want to be a part of this manufacturing tree. For instance, a brewery needs grain to make alcohol. Should you find farms pumping out grain that are far from anywhere that is demanding grain, you can buy up these unprofitable farms for next to nothing and then build your own brewery nearby. Now you can make profit off your newly acquired (and now greatly in demand) grain farms, the sales of the alcohol, and profits your trains make from shipping the grain and alcohol around.
It’s a system that works brilliantly and is a huge part of RRT3 for any tycoon who truly wants to create his or her own finical empire. In fact, some scenarios started off at such an early date, that the available cities were to small to make hauling passengers and local goods back and forth profitable. In these cases, I would often ignore the game’s namesake and find lucrative business to buy or build in order to create a financial base capable of absorbing the initial loss once I began connecting the small towns with stations and trains.
And yes, despite all of this talk about RRT3’s economy, there are actually trains in the game. What trains are available to you is decided by the in-game date and where you are in the world (different global regions explored different avenues of train development). As time passes, new trains become available while older trains go out of production. Each train has its own attributes based on how well they handle on various inclines while carrying a certain numbers of cars. In other words, the train with the highest possible speeds might not be the right choice when you’re carrying large amounts of cargo up steep hills.
The bulk of the gameplay is to be found in the campaign mode and individual scenarios. The campaign mode is presented as a museum tour lead by an old man with a dusty voice and heavy southern accent. He tells you about what is in each display (which are the missions) and offers some kind words should he feel that you’re getting in over your head. The scenarios give you a quick, text-based intro and then send you on your way.
The missions themselves are nicely varied. Set in regions from around the world and throughout time, each map offers different terrain, finical conditions, resources, and trains. Equally varied are your objectives that range from simply connecting a few cities, to creating a wildly lucrative company while amassing huge personal wealth and destroying all competition in the time allotted. For the most part, these missions are great fun and, as with any truly good and addictive game, can be riveting and frustrating at the same time.
Many of the more difficult maps would play out in my head long after I had stepped away from the computer while I tried to plot out a working plan of ‘attack’. Unfortunately, some missions would start strong but become a cakewalk long before their ending, making them an exercise in monotony. There are also a few missions set in the future. Some may get into these scenarios but, for me, they lost something by not being historical and, in turn, were not as engrossing as previous levels.
As for ease of use, RRT3 has an excellent tutorial (one that evens makes playing the stock market understandable to, well, someone like myself) and has an above average user interface. RRT3 does have an unfortunate tendency to knock you out of your current display mode (viewing the resource map for instance) and is mysteriously missing a “Restart” option. These are hardly cardinal sins but are enough to be minor and continuous annoyances.
The Railroad Tycoon series has never been about graphics so it was a very pleasant surprise to find RRT3 takes advantage of current video hardware. Most impressive is the map. Rather than having a separate screen for, RRT3 allows to player to elevate the camera far above the terrain where the entire playing field along with city names become visible and, for all intents and purposes, a map. For those who have played Black & White, it is the same concept except with transitions that are vastly more fluid.
The trains themselves are highly detailed, complete with moving parts and soot bellowing from their smokestacks. The environments are richly detailed and include some excellent water effects, lush forests, and a day and night cycle along with changing weather patterns. One can also zoom in very close to their trains and follow them along for a virtual sightseeing trip, an excellent distraction for those times when you have little else to do.
It’s hard not to feel a bit let down by the audio portion of RRT3. Part of a train’s appeal is its almost frightening cacophony of grumbles, screeches, and hisses. While all of these effects make an appearance, they lack the muscle and depth to push RRT3’s sound effects beyond “acceptable”. Aside from trains, RRT3 also features some pleasant weather and fauna effects that do help give this third installment to the RRT series a good deal of atmosphere. Still, much of the game will be played from a high vantage point where few sound effects will make their way up to you aside from the “cling, cling” of cash rolling in.
The music is all of the Southern USA variety with gospels and all things harmonica-driven. Initially, it is infectious and fun (how often do you have an excuse to listen to the banjo?) but not always appropriate. “Amazing Grace” does well when laying tracks across Georgia and its neighboring states, but is way off the mark when hustling passengers across the French countryside.
Railroad Tycoon 3’s campaign, scenario, and multiplayer modes are enough to keep one occupied for any number of weeks. I question whether the average gamer will care to play through some of the longer campaigns and scenarios, but hardcore RRT fans and economic ‘tweak freaks’ will be in heaven for months. Additionally, RRT3 comes with two separate games—a mini-game released on the web and “Loco-Commotion”, something of a train-based puzzle game. The mini-game is coma-inducing but Loco-Commotion is enjoyable and helps you squeeze a little more entertainment out of your purchase.
There is also a sandbox mode that is so free of pressure that I found it to be dull. It’s unfortunate that a more competitive sandbox mode or random mission generator were not included. Despite these few complaints, many missions can take hours or, should you include restarts, days to complete. If RRT3’s gameplay is appealing to you then there is certainly enough of it here to justify the price.
Challenging missions, additive gameplay, flashy graphics, and a deep, engrossing economic system make Railroad Tycoon 3 a first-rate addition to a classic series. Fans of either of RRT3’c predecessors will no doubt be very pleased. For those who have never played a Railroad Tycoon game, strategy aficionados who are willing to trade in their weapons for corporate takeovers will likely have a blast and anyone who can comfortably use the words “economic” and “game” in the same sentence should also give RRT3 a shot.
Any nostalgia aside, Railroad Tycoon 3 is an outstanding game that promises absorbing gameplay and a nice break from other strategy games that either focus purely on combat or economic simulators that are too complex to be enjoyed by anyone other than a select few.