This is the second review in a row that I’m going to mention a competing (of sorts) web site, which I’m sure thrills my editors, but I can’t help it. This is just weird. If you look over at gamerankings.com, you’ll find that Railroad Tycoon II got an average score of 86.9%, while the recently released Railroad Tycoon 3 received 85.5%. I must have missed a memo somewhere. Surely the Great Reviewing Guru in the Sky must have made a decree that everyone should give Railroad Tycoon 3 a good score, because otherwise it’s hard to imagine that the vast majority of reviewers out there really think Railroad Tycoon 3 is about as good as Railroad Tycoon II. It’s not. It’s not even particularly close. However, that being said, Railroad Tycoon 3 isn’t a bad game so much as it is a step down for the series.
If you’ve never played a Railroad Tycoon game, then let me briefly summarize the concept. You play the chairman of a railroad company, and your job is to make money, both for you and your company. You make money for yourself by playing the stock market, and you make money for your company by laying track, purchasing trains, and then combining the two together to transport goods from city to city. When Sid Meier released the original Railroad Tycoon somewhere around 1990, it was definitely a game for fans of trains, but since PopTop Software took over development with Railroad Tycoon II, the series has shifted into being more of an economic simulation.
That emphasis on economics is at the heart of Railroad Tycoon 3. In fact, the economic model is the main gameplay difference between Railroad Tycoon 3 and Railroad Tycoon II. No longer will goods just sit at stations patiently waiting for trains to deliver them. Instead, they’ll make their own way (via carts or cars or boats) to where they’re needed, just more slowly than trains would move them. Also, instead of cities simply having a need for a particular good, cities set a price for each good, and the amount you receive for transporting goods is simply the difference in price between the two cities involved in the delivery. Lastly, cities no longer just produce people willing to go anywhere. Now people have a destination in mind, but they’ll let you take them to an alternate destination (such as a hub station), if that alternate station gets them closer to their goal.
Does that sound complicated? It should, but the complexity of the economic model isn’t what’s wrong with Railroad Tycoon 3. The problem is that to let people play a game designed around such a model, PopTop Software had to dumb down the game. Let me give an example of this. In Railroad Tycoon II, you might have put a station next to a couple coal mines, and then have a train do nothing more than transport the coal to a city with a need for coal. In Railroad Tycoon 3, that set-up doesn’t really work. In the same situation, a lot of the coal will leave on its own, and so chances are the spur line won’t make any money. Really, since the coal will travel to where it’s needed without your help, the spur line probably isn’t needed anyway. That means you pretty much only connect cities to other cities in Railroad Tycoon 3.
Worse, because the prices of goods change, there isn’t any way to know what one city will be able to consistently send to another. Maybe a city needs clothes at one point, but then it receives a bunch of clothes and the price drops, and so you can’t send it clothes any more (the game won’t let you transport goods unless you’re going to make a profit). To compensate for this, PopTop lets you specify “any cargo” for a train, and then the game picks the goods that will generate the most profit. You only have to specify the maximum and minimum number of cars for each train, and if the train should have a dining car (which increases passenger profits) or a caboose (which reduces the chance of breakdowns). That is, there isn’t much for you to decide about setting up a train any longer, especially since prices don’t drop very quickly during transit, which means you can combine passengers and heavy cargo together without any real penalty. So much of Railroad Tycoon 3 involves connecting your existing rail network to a new city, running a couple “any cargo” trains between it and other cities, and then repeating. For me, that spells “ho hum.”
On the upside, Railroad Tycoon 3 sports a slick new 3D engine. The game’s world looks pretty good, and it includes some nice panoramic views and cool water effects, and you can zoom way in or way out, or move the camera wherever, all without the game hiccupping or jittering. The interface also works well. PopTop went to great lengths to make it so you can do everything -- from buying stock to laying track to checking the prices of goods -- without stopping the action, and so the interface includes a lot of panels that can pop up or disappear or be resized, but which are structured in such a way to keep everything intuitive.
Less slick is the campaign that comes with the game. Each of the 16 missions is preceded by a well made cinematic sequence, but after that it’s all down hill. Most of the missions involve connecting one city to another, usually with a hodgepodge of other objectives thrown in, and that gets boring after a while. Worse, the opponent AI is miserably bad, to the point where it’s almost like not having opponents at all, and there are some balance issues with the game, and so it’s easy to win most missions simply by abusing the economic model and placing industries in strategic places. Playing the campaign wasn’t the most exciting week of my life.
And so you have a good engine with a not-so-good game. Maybe if PopTop could put Railroad Tycoon 2’s economic model into Railroad Tycoon 3’s engine, something great would emerge, but as it is now Railroad Tycoon 3 isn’t a game I’d recommend, especially when you can spend $10 and get Railroad Tycoon II instead. Perhaps some further patches will help the game along, but the version I played was already patched at least once, and so I’d say the outlook is gloomy.