Sid Meier's Railroads! Exclusive Hands-On Preview

We got our hands on Sid Meier's Railroads! to see if the famed designer still has the golden touch.

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Despite having a slightly different name from its illustrious predecessor, make no mistake that Sid Meier's Railroads! is the true heir to the 1990 strategy game that practically gave birth to the entire tycoon-building genre. The original Railroad Tycoon took a deceptively simple idea (build a virtual model railroad) and imbued it with incredibly deep and addicting strategic gameplay. You weren't just laying down track and watching trains move around the map; you were building an economic empire and battling cutthroat rivals along the way. Now the developers at Firaxis Games are revisiting Railroad Tycoon with Railroads!, and we got our hands on the finished version of the game for one last look before the review. And from what we've experienced, Railroads! has all the makings of another classic.

Of course, a lot has changed since Railroad Tycoon shipped over a decade and a half ago. Railroad Tycoon inspired countless imitators, and we've seen everything from theme parks to cruise lines to airlines to prison tycoon games. So how do you improve on a formula that's been thoroughly covered? The answer is to get back to the basics. Just like Firaxis did with Civilization IV, GameSpot's Best PC Game of 2005, the core elements of Railroads have been distilled and lots of the old clutter removed. The result is that you'll focus less on mundane tasks and more on decision making, since every decision that you make can have repercussions later on.

Railroads! may look like a model railroad come to life, but its looks mask a deep economic strategy game.
Railroads! may look like a model railroad come to life, but its looks mask a deep economic strategy game.

As with the original game, your job will be to start a fledgling railroad in the early days of industrialization and grow and manage it through the decades. The game has a number of scenarios set in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere around the world, along with some fanciful settings that offer unusual geographical challenges. You'll start with a randomly selected city that has a train station and a bit of track, and from there you must build a railroad and economic empire. At the beginning, the countryside will be dotted with small towns and villages, as well as various industries, such as farms, lumber mills, coal mines, and more. Your job will be to link all of these businesses together. Lumber from a mill must be transported to a city where a furniture factory or paper mill is. Those industries may already be there, or you can build them yourself to create demand for the goods. This has the upside of you being able to reap some of the profits, because you can create a vertical monopoly of sorts. You're not just making money from delivering raw materials and goods around the map, as you get a profit from the factories and mills that you construct, as well. However, keep in mind that cities only have three build slots, so you can't upgrade a city to have every industry in it.

Thankfully, Railroads! is a lot more user friendly than its predecessor. Laying track used to be a time-consuming task in the original Railroad Tycoon since you had to plot your route one tile at a time, but now it's incredibly easy. Simply click on the end of an existing track, drag the track out to the destination, and click to lay it down. The construction costs will depend on how you draw out a route. If there's rugged terrain, do you go for the shorter, more direct route that requires a lot of expensive engineering work, or do you select a cheaper, but more roundabout route that sticks to flat ground? The higher costs of the more direct route might pay off in the long run, as trains will be able to conduct more runs over the course of the game, though coming up with the money can be problematic.

Building tracks, connecting cities, and routing trains is easy and can be accomplished with a few clicks.
Building tracks, connecting cities, and routing trains is easy and can be accomplished with a few clicks.

Once two locations are linked, creating a route requires only a few clicks. Simply purchase a train, click on a start point, select a load, and then select a destination. With a few more clicks, you can create an elaborate route where a train picks up raw material in one town, delivers it to another to be processed, and then takes the finished goods to a city where they're in demand. Routing, or the handling of multiple trains on the same track, can be simplified at the easy level, with the lower-priority trains halting while the higher-priority trains pass by. At more difficult levels, you'll need to double the track, which is simple enough using the appropriate tool. Simply select which sections of track you want doubled and then connect the two ends of the new track to the main line. Other tasks, such as upgrading your engines on your trains, can also be done with a couple of clicks.

All Aboard!

While all these enhancements make Railroads! very user friendly, it's the strategic gameplay that really caught our eye. Though the fundamentals are all fairly familiar if you've played a Tycoon game before, Railroads! hones the gameplay to a razor's edge. There's always something to do, from expanding your empire to pursuing the various special missions that crop up throughout the game. These challenge you to be the first to link up a certain city or deliver enough goods to another to receive a reward.

Newspapers keep you up to date on current events, as well as significant accomplishments on your part.
Newspapers keep you up to date on current events, as well as significant accomplishments on your part.

Though you can choose to play unopposed in what is essentially a sandbox mode, you can also face off against stiff competition. The game lets you select how many opponents you'll face on each map, and you can tweak their difficulty level from fairly docile to cutthroat. If you've got rivals, you'll be in a race to expand and establish the biggest and most profitable railroad, and that means racing to link up cities and industries first. Competition also extends to the stock market. Each railroad, including yours, has publicly traded stock. At the beginning of the scenario, you'll usually own 50 percent of your railroad, with the other 50 percent on the open market. However, to generate cash quickly to start up operations or when you're in a cash crunch, you may sell your shares (in 10 percent increments). That opens the door for your rivals, and they may begin snatching up your stock, forcing you to buy up stock, as well. And the fewer shares there are on the open market, the more expensive the remaining shares become. On the flip side, you can also try to buy out your rivals. Purchase 100 percent of the voting stock, and you can liquidate the rival railroad or merge it with your operations.

Patent auctions are another cool feature. Every now and then, a critical new technology is discovered that can give you an edge. An improved tunneling device makes it a lot cheaper to drill through mountains, or refrigeration cars mean a sizable bonus when delivering perishable goods. The only problem is that you don't research these upgrades yourself. Instead, independent inventors come up with them and put them on the auction block, where you'll have to engage in a bidding war for them with your rivals. Win the auction, and you get a 10-year monopoly on the technology, which really makes you weigh the cost/benefit aspect of the tech in question, particularly when the bidding escalates to stratospheric levels. And no, you can't simply wait for the final second and then put in a winning bid, because extra time is added every time a bid is made.

We imagine this kind of auctioning can be even more fun in the game's multiplayer mode, which we didn't get a chance to check out. Still, the idea of racing against other human players sounds promising, and Firaxis proved that it could turn a traditionally solo strategy game into a fun multiplayer experience with Civilization IV. Imagine in an auction where all the players are trying to mess with one another, attempting to make the other side bid too much for a certain technology. Then there are stock-market wars, as players attempt to buy up their opponents' stock.

Patent auctions let you try and gain a technological edge on your rivals, or you can try and make them pay too much for the next big thing.
Patent auctions let you try and gain a technological edge on your rivals, or you can try and make them pay too much for the next big thing.

On a visual note, Railroads! may very well be Firaxis' prettiest game yet. Railroad Tycoon came during the dawn of PC gaming, and its 2D graphics are positively archaic compared to the sleek new 3D world provided by the Gamebryo engine that powered Civilization IV and the remake of Sid Meier's Pirates! There's certainly a similarity to those two games, but the graphical style fits in well with the subject matter in Railroads! The oversized scale of cities, structures, tracks, and trains gives the game the feel of a model railroad come to life. And while the maps feel smaller than those of Railroad Tycoon, that's not a detriment. The quick pace of the game seems suited to the smaller scale, and the months and years in the game will zip right on by before you know it. Meanwhile, the sense of atmosphere is also excellent, and we couldn't help but admire the clouds of smoke that linger in the air after a coal-powered train has passed by.

The good news is that we shouldn't have to wait to long for the final product, either. Railroads! will ship next week, in fact. The pace of development has been downright astonishing, especially considering the game was announced this past March, and Railroads! has come light years since we last saw it a couple of months ago. At this point, it's very safe to say that Railroads! is going to be another gem.

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