It's a strange, postmodern world. First, there were railroads. Then there were model railroads that simulated them. Now with Trainz, we have a simulation of a simulation. Trainz actually models model railroading. As odd as that may sound at first, it really makes good sense. As any model railroader will tell you, some of the biggest challenges of the hobby are finding the time, money, and space to build a big model railroad layout. Unlike creating model cars or planes, model railroading usually entails building big, minutely detailed, fully functioning models. With Trainz, you can create the virtual model railroad of your dreams, easily expressing your creativity and indulging your imagination.
Trainz is a modular system that ships with three components: My Collection, Surveyor, and Driver. These modules let you examine your collected engines and rolling stock (railroad cars), create railroad layouts, and drive trains across them. Trainz developer Auran (the Australian developer responsible for the great 1997 real-time strategy game Dark Reign) plans to release expansion modules that will let you simulate complex switching and dispatching operations or handle the financial end of running your railroad. Auran also plans to release various locomotive and rolling stock packs to add to your collection. You can already download a number of free engines and structures created by either Auran or fans using 3D modeling programs, one of which is included with Trainz.
Regardless of what Auran might deliver in the future, the core Trainz package offers loads of features that will have any rail fan or model railroader really excited. The My Collection module lets you view all your engines and rolling stock, and the game ships with dozens of them. You can sort them by country of origin or railroad company, as well as view real-world background information on each engine or car. For rolling stock, you'll get boxcars, refrigerator cars, hoppers, a variety of passenger cars, and more. Engines include the F7 and SD40-2 diesels of North America, the Class 340 of Spain's Renfe line, and Sweden's Rc4 electric, among others. Sadly, you don't get any steam engines, which will surely disappoint the countless rail fans who love the "golden age of steam."
When you're done admiring your collection, you can head out onto the rails in the Driver module. First, you'll assemble your train by simply dragging and dropping engines and cars from a list to a little window at the bottom of the screen in the order you like. Then you choose the weather (cloudy, rainy, snowy, and so on) and how often it can change. You can also set the time of day and choose a time compression factor, if any. You can also decide whether or not trains can derail. Then you choose starting positions for your trains from a number of preset locations on the game's three sample layouts set in North America, Britain, and Australia. All the layouts are interesting, but it would have been better if the game had included more.
When you're ready to go, you can drive your trains using a model-railroad-style DCC controller with a knob to control direction and speed, or you can use realistic engine controls and physics, more like a simulator. Navigating the layouts is fairly trouble-free thanks to a track map and easily changed track switches. Coupling and uncoupling cars is a simple point-and-click affair, but since the game doesn't offer any scenarios, you'll have to rely wholly on your imagination in planning your operations.
You can watch the action from multiple camera views, including one inside the engine cab. The camera is very easy to zoom and pan, though it's unfortunate that you can't position it anywhere you want--you have to rely on preset layout-specific positions or follow the train directly. It would have been nice to get a truly free bird's-eye view.
Unlike in Microsoft's Train Simulator, which realistically re-creates huge stretches of track to scale, the distances between points of interest tend to be compressed in Trainz, much like in a real model railroad. Just as soon as you leave a town, you're likely to pass a towering grain elevator or cross a bridge over a rocky gorge with a stream winding far below. In Trainz, there's always something engaging to see.
Trainz's graphics beautifully bring the layouts to life. The engines are nicely detailed, with working headlights and exhaust billowing in the breeze, though not all of the cab interiors properly match the exteriors. The trackside scenery is also impressive, with varied buildings, working track signals, and moving automobiles. (If you look closely, you'll see one that looks suspiciously like the A-Team's van.) The dynamic weather is impressive, too, with lightning flickering across dark, distant clouds during a storm. It's odd, though, that while selecting "heavy snow" will indeed make snowflakes float down, the ground and rooftops will remain clear.
To complement the graphics, the game wisely features realistic sound effects, as opposed to those based on little model trains. Again, there are lots of neat details to discover, like a banjo playing inside a little rustic cabin.
When creating your own model railroading scenes, you'll turn to the superb Surveyor module. Thanks to a wonderfully clear and intuitive interface, you can start creating a layout in no time. You'll hardly even need the manual, though it's a fairly good one. You can quickly morph terrain before your eyes, alter ground textures, and preview the layout with different weather and lighting. You can set down office blocks, bakeries, roundhouses with turntables, groups of people, horses, trackside signs, and just about anything else you can think of.
Laying track is equally simple, though you're currently limited to standard gauge track. Between that and the lack of steam engines, there's presently no way to create, say, a classic Colorado or Maine narrow-gauge line out of the box. You're also currently limited to textures and objects geared toward layouts set in Australia, Britain, and North America. To re-create other regions realistically, you might have to wait until more appropriate textures and objects are released or create your own. Another problem with the Surveyor module is that the default choice in the "quit" dialogue box is to exit without saving your layout, which makes it too easy to lose an hour's worth of work.
That's really a fairly minor quibble, considering Trainz's many great strengths. By letting you so easily create so much, Trainz is one of those programs you can return to again and again. Since it's currently more a construction program than a simulator or game, imagination is required, but that's a good thing. If you're already an ardent model railroader or rail fan, you owe it to yourself to give Trainz a try. If you've ever been at least slightly captivated by the romance of the rails or have perhaps thought of dabbling in model railroading, Trainz could easily make an enthusiastic convert of you.