Train Sim World is the Ronseal of video games: it does exactly what it says on the tin. In common with all simulator games, there’s a real guilty pleasure associated with playing them, but your enjoyment wholly depends on your interest in the subject matter. If you’re still reading this far, chances are you are at least mildly intrigued at the prospect of driving a train in the digital world, so climb aboard and I’ll tell you more.
All jobs look easy to outsiders. It’s why, during the recent World Cup, you may have seen England fans slumped in their chairs roaring advice at trained professional athletes. Invariably, however, every job has its challenges and, predictably, driving a train is more complicated than it appears. Train Sim World explores this role in painstaking detail, revelling in the minutiae of operating a train. Don’t expect to hit X and go.
Once you create a profile for your player, you are prompted to select from three main routes which contain tutorials, scenarios and services. I opted initially for the Great Western Express (London – Paddington) before being led into a series of tutorials. Here you are introduced to the convoluted starting procedure, using the reverser, master key, brake release and throttle. The on-screen marker guides you through the maze of the control panel, talking you through the nuances of charging the brakes and setting the train in motion. The interface is reasonably clear, with countdown markers helping you locate the key functions. Occasionally, the exact button to press isn’t immediately clear, as the marker has counted down, leaving you to hover over a bank of buttons and flailing for a time. Generally, however, it’s well executed and most functions can be performed with one click or flick of the left stick once you locate the correct button.
During the tutorials you are set a number of objectives, from setting off, reaching a certain speed and stopping safely at a station to collect passengers. You are given the opportunity to experience different trains, all of which feature varying controls and demand bespoke starting procedures. If this sounds a little dry and po-faced, it is, but it’s an essential grounding for the challenges that follow. Upon passing these tests, you’re allowed to venture out unsupervised.
Playing Train Sim World certainly feels like a change of pace. It’s a sedate affair and it seems fitting- given the state of our rail service- that you spend so much of this game waiting and doing nothing. The first challenge saw me being dispatched to cover another train driver. To get there, I had to board another train, pressing triangle to sit down and simply wait for the next stop. During this journey, I was free to look and walk around the train. It was here I encountered the terrifying, PS2-era character models of my fellow passengers, who stared blankly back at me like soulless crimewatch photofits. The headrests wobbled and blurred, exposing the relatively crude graphical fidelity in some of the finer details.
Bored of the journey, I left my seat and made my way to the driver’s cabin, which I entered unchallenged, repelled only by a red marker which informed me I had no permission to drive this train. It was jarring, given the anal attention to detail elsewhere, that immersion could be broken in this way. There are plenty of other examples, too. Once ensconced in your driver’s seat, you look down only to see an empty seat base where you expect your legs to be. Still, the heart of this game lies elsewhere, so perhaps it’s churlish to complain about the visuals too much.
On reaching my stop, I made the long walk to my allocated train where my first foray into train driving would begin in earnest. Waiting patiently for passengers to board, at 19.22pm, the game would not allow me to leave until 19.30pm. So – you guessed it- I was forced to wait, literally clock-watching, until I could set off at the allotted time. It grated that my progress was constrained by banal things like timetables, but then again this is a simulator, for better or worse, so messing about is simply not on the agenda. Speaking of waiting, let’s hope there is a patch to curtail those loading times.
So, is playing through the ‘scenarios’ fun and engaging? Well, taking the helm of the semi-stopping service to Slough didn’t get my pulse racing. You certainly get a feel for the sheer heft of the trains, of the effort and power required to move and the forward planning necessary to make a safe and successful stop. You need to keep your wits about you, too, for example, miss a stop signal and you’ll have to start the scenario again. Once the novelty wears off, however, the game feels strangely empty. When gaming is a form of escapism, it feels odd to be working your way through something so task-based and mundane. Waiting and watching, punctuated by periods of control: not really my idea of fun. Then again, if you have a passion for trains – and let’s face it, that’s who the game is targeting – you will revel in details that I simply couldn’t appreciate, and in fairness, there’s plenty of content. In particular, the ‘services’ mode, which picks out specific real-life routes, will likely be a big draw for train anoraks. Me? I found the whole thing interminably dull after a while.
The big question, then: Is it compelling enough to reach beyond its seemingly niche appeal? After all, Goat Simulator employed humour to attract a cult following, and Farming Simulator has become an unlikely success, too. My answer, I’m afraid, is no. The game is utterly straight-laced. It approaches the world entirely without irony or humour, and treats individual trains with the reverence that GT Sport or Forza would treat an exotic sports car. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it does severely limit the appeal, and only a certain and very specific portion of the gaming audience will enjoy and appreciate the journey which is simply too task-orientated and mundane for mainstream appeal. If, however, you’re a proud member of the trainspotting set, or harbour ambitions to drive a train, you will get value from this niche title, and should probably add at least two points to my score.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*