Railroad Tycoon 3 Preview

The next game in PopTop Software's Railroad Tycoon strategy series will have an all-new 3D engine and much more.

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It might not have sounded like the world's most exciting idea at first, but the Railroad Tycoon series has quietly secured the loyalty of many strategy fans over the years with its combination of in-depth economics simulation and equally deep railroad building and management. The concept was simple--build a financial empire by conquering the great wildernesses of the world by means of the iron horse--and the formula developed over time into the original 1991 game from Sid Meier and the 1998 sequel from PopTop. PopTop then went off to create Tropico, and was involved with Tropico 2, but after a long, long hiatus, the rail-building series will finally continue with Railroad Tycoon 3, a new game with a new engine and plenty of new features.

Railroad Tycoon goes 3D.
Railroad Tycoon goes 3D.

The most obvious addition that Railroad Tycoon 3 will make to the series is its brand-new 3D graphics engine, which will include the much-requested ability to create train tunnels, as well as bridges over bodies of water. The game's shimmering water will be pixel-shaded, and the game itself will feature full day-night cycles and weather effects, including fog, rain, and snow. In addition, the developer has worked tirelessly at improving the game's overall look, adding a new track set and new textures for the game's trains. Even the night sky in Railroad Tycoon 3 will look good, thanks to the game's realistically modeled starscape, mapped directly from NASA star charts (that's right--NASA star charts). When asked why PopTop decided to attempt to map the actual star chart of our known universe in its railroad strategy game, producer Frans Felsi replied, "Why not? We figured, if we could make our game [that realistic], let's go for it."

The team also decided to go for a powerful game editor that will let you create custom missions and custom maps using a landscaping tool that will let you click and drag bits of terrain to quickly and easily create mountains, valleys, and forests. The tool was already capable of putting together plausible-looking landscapes when we saw the game at this year's E3, but since then, the team has tripled the number of editing tools available to include detail-oriented options like blending texture colors (to make the transition between grasslands and beaches look more plausible for fastidious mapmakers) and quickly foresting or deforesting a certain area. You'll be able to choose whatever climate and vegetation you like, so you can create a snowy, pine-forested mountain range, a densely packed tropical jungle complete with winding rivers and palm trees, or pretty much anything else. And these terrain features will have a real impact on the way the missions are played--tall mountains will pose a real danger for low-grade trains, which will have to traverse them slowly, while forested areas can be great sites to build logging camps or even small logging communities. The editor will even let you create a series of linked scenarios, complete with triggered events that will be announced in the local newspaper. Most importantly, the editor will feature the often-requested "undo" feature, which should help meticulous mapmakers considerably.

Like the previous games in the series, Railroad Tycoon 3 will let you play as an ambitious would-be railroad magnate who will earn his or her fortune by building profitable trade routes throughout the countryside. The single-player campaign will feature historically accurate representations of venues around the world from the 19th century to the present day, including America, Europe, and Japan, and true to the game's historical setting, your railroad circuits will tend to be smaller and involve less rerouting than in previous games, to reflect the way trains have historically been run.

You Load 16 Tons, and Whaddya Get?

In Railroad Tycoon 3, you'll instead spend more time carefully planning your cargoes and your trade routes, which you'll be able to do with seven different colored overlays that indicate supply and demand for your cargo, as well as relative populations and several other parameters that you can use to effectively plan your route. According to Felsi, planning out your destinations will eventually be less like sending a train from Detroit to Chicago, and more like traveling along the American "Corn Belt," or the "Wheat Belt," or even the "Civil War-era Cannon Belt." The game will have more than 35 different types of cargo that your trains can carry, from crops to livestock to weapons, yet you'll be able to manage all your supply routes easily by setting simple commands for your trains to carry only set amounts of specific kinds of cargo and then automatically head off to their destinations.

This quaint little town could be yours, along with the rest of American frontier.
This quaint little town could be yours, along with the rest of American frontier.

But success won't simply be limited to who can haul what the fastest, since the new game will have an all-new passenger-appeal rating for each train. In the previous games, Railroad Tycoon veterans would play head-to-head multiplayer games to see who could build the largest, fastest, and therefore most profitable train first. In Railroad Tycoon 3, you'll actually be able to steal away business from your competitors by commissioning attractive luxury rigs like the sleek EuroStar bullet train, which can accrue plenty of capital just by drawing in crowds of passengers. It won't simply be enough to put together the fastest cargo train possible for as low a price as possible, because in general, the cheaper a train is, the more hideous it will be to behold for potential passengers. You'll also be able to make use of similarly competitive strategies, such as buying out key trade stations along your rivals' routes--if your opponents are making lots of cash on a specific train, you can let them drop off all those valuable goods at one of your stations.

New games of Railroad Tycoon 3 will have a deceptively simple start: You'll build a station in a prime location, hopefully near a good source of pricey cargo, such as an orchard of grocery fruit. You'll then build an additional station at your destination, buy a train, and purchase or build whatever service stations, repair facilities, and other ancillary structures you think you'll need. You'll want to plan carefully from the very beginning, since you'll be in it for the long haul--your eventual goals will include building thriving towns and cities that can be made up of more than 150 different types of buildings (with six distinct architectural styles).

The game will let you quickly and easily peruse a list of available trains and their statistics before you buy them, and it will also let you browse an expanded almanac with information on historical trains and their routes presented in a hyperlinked HTML-like format (similar to the almanac in Tropico 2). You'll even be able to keep track of your progress using a new game status page, which will clearly indicate how close you are to your goals. The game will also have a host of other amenities, such as distinct sound effects for each of its 40-plus trains, a new soundtrack, and multiple difficulty settings for its 16 premade campaign maps and nine premade scenario maps. Railroad Tycoon 3 will clearly have a lot to offer fans of management strategy games--as well as anyone who's ever wanted to do something more with a model train set than just sit there and let it run--when the game is released later this year.

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