In an industry now thriving on "me too" games, it defies belief that there have been so few previous entries in the "build and manage" genre started by the original Railroad Tycoon. At least half of these have come from Maxis.
Railroad Tycoon II by PopTop Software puts you in charge of a vast railroad empire in the persona of one of the legendary tycoons or government figures of the day. The train and station limits from Railroad Tycoon are gone. You can build stations and buy trains to your heart's content without bumping into an artificial limit. To the best of my knowledge, no one has exceeded the train/station limit, if there is one, relieving one of the most frustrating features of the original Railroad Tycoon when playing on large maps.
There is an amazing number of maps. There are 12 stand-alone maps plus over a dozen different maps in the campaign scenarios. Along with multiple maps of North America and Europe are maps of China, South America, India, Australia, and Japan. Russia is the only major area of the globe not covered by the game in some fashion. Given the complete flexibility of the editor and the easy import of graphic files, user maps and scenarios are popping up on the Web almost daily. The game includes one 18-scenario campaign, but more can be created using the editor.
The graphics are wonderful. At high levels of zoom the trains look photo-realistic. As time passes, the various cars (passenger, mail, coal, etc.) change their appearance to match the era. Stations have architectural styles to match the geographic area. Smoke belches from the engines, trails from homes, shoots out of steel mills. Visually, trains remain straight and level instead of following the track uphill or around a tight curve, which takes some getting used to, but watching a 4-8-8-4 Big Boy running at full steam is a glorious experience.
The sound effects are equally stunning. Each structure has its own sound set. Zoom in to hear the cattle lowing at a ranch; zoom out and the sounds blend together from different buildings giving each region a distinctive personality. Train crashes sound appropriately apocalyptic. Sell some stock and a chorus of voices echoes your actions. The music is good enough to stand on its own, and there is a lot of it, though unfortunately it is all North American in style and spirit. Hearing a lonesome harmonica wail while running the British (rail) Empire is a bit off-putting.
The manual does an adequate job of explaining most of the details and concepts of the game, but there are annoying lapses. Gone are the train descriptions of Railroad Tycoon II's ancestor. Instead we get a bare list of trains according to their availability. On the other hand, a large foldout full-color cardboard playing aid shows all the cars, with full details on their weights in different periods, an industry flowchart with all the interrelationships depicted, and lists of buildings, station improvements, and hotkeys.
The train model has been simplified to some extent. There are no signal towers, though you can set the priority of a train (express, normal, slow, and stop) and tell it to go, wait until half full, or wait until full of cargo. You cannot drop off cargo at one station to be picked up by another train; one of the few steps back from Railroad Tycoon.
The business model is much more complex than Railroad Tycoon. When playing in expert mode you can buy on margin or sell short, giving you and the computer players all the tools to be all the ruthless robber baron you can be.
If business bores you, you can turn off some or all of the economic model. In addition to three canned difficulty levels, you can mix and match to create your own custom difficulty settings. Or chuck the whole thing, load a map, and play in "sandbox" mode where the only restriction is your imagination.
While Railroad Tycoon II is a real-time game, as was the original, you can pause the game at any time and continue to work in the game. This is especially recommended when manipulating stock; the computer players are ruthless and will gut you if given the chance. It is as easy to gain or lose a fortune in Railroad Tycoon II as it was in the golden age of robber barons.
Competing with other railroads is more indirect than in Railroad Tycoon. There are no rate wars. Instead, you can run trains on other railroads' tracks and use their stations, and they can use yours. For this privilege you pay a hefty price that can exceed the actual return, if your stay on their lines is long enough. The computer players manage their rail lines adequately though not on par with a good human player.
To do dirt to other railroads you have to wage war on the stock market, and this is where the computer players shine. They are as heartless, cunning, and devious as any of their real-life namesakes. If you become heavily margined trying to secure your own stock, the computer player may, depending on their personality (beware of J. P. Morgan), dump your stock, even selling it short.
The various displays for trains, cargo, stations, and your company make setting up and managing a railroad much easier than before. The map supports multiple levels of zoom, and you can toggle on and off different cargoes' supply/demand, train grades, station displays (having these available on the map makes setting up new routes much easier), and other features that are legible at all zoom levels.
Real life also intrudes more than it used to. Wars, international borders, and economic events have to be dealt with and aren't the pro forma nuisance notices they were in Railroad Tycoon. To run trains through several countries requires obtaining the rights (read: mucho dinero).
There are more than 60 trains and 31 different cargoes as well as a dining car and caboose. There are three station sizes, and the station orientation can be hard-set to one of eight choices or left to the computer. Track layouts can be contorted to ridiculous extremes so that expanding an established rail network is no longer the headache it was in Railroad Tycoon.
There are complex cargo relationships. Iron and coal must both be taken to steel mills to get steel. Rubber goes to tire plants, but both steel and tires must be provided for automobile plants to produce their precious load.
Playing Railroad Tycoon II with all options on is an immersive experience. You can get lost in the details of stocks, bonds, and mergers or setting up routes and consists. Railroad Tycoon II never becomes a click fest. Sometimes considerable periods can pass without the need for intervention so you can watch your creation at work.
There are a few flaws. The most glaring is that there is no undo option when laying track. Laying track on large maps with lots of trains even when paused can be tricky. The program doesn't always keep up with your mouse movements, so saving before track work becomes a necessity.
There are also no long bridges or tunnels. They have been "incorporated" into the track-laying process without any visual representation. Instead, when laying track there is a certain self-leveling process that takes place to reduce grades. Some sort of additional grade reduction mechanism would be a good addition. On the upside, there is a greater appreciation for long-haul trains like the Mikado or the Big Boys.
Trains crash and breakdown more often than one might like, even when all maintenance options are used. If a crash occurs when you are short of funds there is no way to save the route for a later time when coffers are full nor to directly replace a named train that has crashed. However, Phil Steinmeyer, the developer, is an active participant in the comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.strategic newsgroup, and one patch has already been issued. So this point isn't moot yet.
PopTop has made the difficult look easy. It produced a sequel that eclipses the original in nearly all aspects. Playing Railroad Tycoon II is an emotional experience bringing back memories of Lionel trains and Christmas mornings long past and staring at Lionel catalogs and dreaming. No more arguments with Mom or your spouse over how much of the house has been taken over by your dream layout or how much money you've wasted. With Railroad Tycoon II, all those dreams of childhood can be realized at last.