From time to time I like to divert from my normal content on the Stormbirds.blog and write about something else that is maybe just loosely related to flight simulation. I’ve occasionally covered Star Citizen and made the odd reference to Battlefield, Call of Duty and other entertainment titles out there when I think they have something interesting to consider in the context of flight sims. Today I wanted to look at a simulation that I’ve recently been enjoying – Train Sim World 2020.
You’re playing a train simulator?
I sometimes tell people in a sheepish fashion that yes I do enjoy flight simulations (and I write a blog about them) and that they let me get the experience of flying aircraft in ways or situations that I’d otherwise never have the chance of experiencing in real life. How many of us get the chance to fly a vintage warbird or launch an F/A-18 off a carrier deck? There’s an exotic quality to the experience. When a train simulation comes up it all seems a little less exotic and a bit more mundane… more grounded if you’ll pardon the pun.
Still, in this time of needing to socially isolate and all travel plans for the summer being cancelled, I’m finding operating a train to be a way to at least slightly satisfy the desire to travel and explore not unlike some of the flying I’ve done in X-Plane.
When a sale came up in April for Train Sim World I jumped on it and ended up buying the Deluxe edition on Steam (I bought one for my father as well who has been into trains and train simulations for a long time). Operating a trail on a set of rails seems oddly limiting when you come from a flight sim but I haven’t for a minute regretted getting into it!
What is Train Sim World?
Dovetail Games, the developers of Train Sim World, have typically focused on simulation titles and for a while they were even the custodians of FSX after Microsoft allowed the company to provide ongoing support to the title. They also had their own Flight Sim World title that was on the market for about a year before they cancelled further development. I missed out on it and it unfortunately never really gained the recognition that other titles in the genre had.
Meanwhile, Dovetail had also created Train Simulator and had found some success in that title. It’s still currently supported as Train Simulator 2020. Meanwhile, they were working on a next generation title which, after being called a few different things, ultimately being called Train Sim World (or TSW 2020 – not to be confused with TS 2020).
Train Sim World came out on July 24, 2018 and makes use of the Unreal Engine to power the sim. The first release was called ‘CSX Heavy Haul’ and came with just a single route available at the start. It has grown over time and traces a somewhat familiar growth pattern to that of IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad which eventually grew into the Great Battles Series. Train Sim World gained more routes as time went on thanks to various DLC packages that helped to expand the experience. It’s available on Playstation, Xbox, and for PC where it can be bought on Steam. The Steam version comes with the following:
- Great Western Express (London Paddington to Reading),
- Long Island Rail Road (Penn Station to Hicksville station),
- Main-Spessart Bahn (Aschaffenburg to Gemünden),
- Northern TransPennine (Manchester Victoria-to-Leeds route add-on),
- CSX Sand Patch Grade (PC only),
- and Caltrain’s Peninsula Corridor (San Francisco 4th and King-to-San Jose Diridon) if you buy Premium (or purchase later)
There’s another half dozen routes available as additional add-on packages as well as specific locomotives and train packages which you can also purchase separately. The available routes cover parts of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany.
You can walk around!
Using Unreal Engine has contributed something unique to the train simulator experience – the ability to walk around. The feature gives Train Sim World a very immersive feel to it and you will sometimes start a scenario standing on the platform at a station surrounded by passengers instead of seated in the train. While the world around you is largely constrained to the railway station or freight yard that you are placed into, there are still some opportunities to explore.
Better still, Train Sim World does make an effort to make that first person element part of the core gameplay. In some cases you’ll need to stop your train, get out, and walk over to a switch to change it from one track to another. Or you may need to go and connect an locomotive to the rest of the train once you’ve positioned it correctly. You may need to refuel the locomotive at the end of the night too.
Far from being a gimmick, the first person walking around experience is built into the sim’s gameplay even if the mechanics are fairly simple. It is ultimately based on walk here, push this button, and wait for the result. It still makes the world that much more interesting to me and provides a deeper understanding to train operations than just operating the train.
Flight sim fans have wanted the same ability for IL-2 and DCS World (which you can sort of do) but I feel that Dovetail have done this right in that walking around has a purpose and a point and not just something cool to have. If flight sims do this kind of thing as well, I’d want it to be purposefully similar to how TSW has done this.
Plenty of DLC like any other sim these days
Just like DCS World, X-Plane, or IL-2: Great Battles, Train Sim World has been created as a platform for content. The core engine, game mechanics, graphics and sound systems are all maintained as part of the core experience and then you add additional routes and specific locomotives and trains on as extras. Prices vary and can range from about $20 to $30 for a route or for an added locomotive and train.
Some routes are short while others are longer. The Canadian Oakville Subdivision for example is a shorter route at just 41 kilometers while others are 65km or more. That has lead to some criticism of Dovetail for putting out routes that are maybe not worth as much as others for the same price.
Other fans have found the shorter routes to be more detailed and engaging and thus worth a shorter distance in exchange. This is just like the tug and pull of the flight sim genre where more details and graphics have demanded some compromises over the scale of earlier sims with higher detail maps that are also sometimes smaller as a result.
How much of a sim is it?
Train Sim World has been designed to be multi-platform and very approachable which makes getting started with a train relatively easy. The tutorials are a strong point with detailed checklists and walk-throughs included for each locomotive. The starting scenarios are great at introducing you to both the route and the locomotive that you’re in charge of and Dovetail’s design here could easily stand to be copied by the likes of Eagle Dynamics, 1C Game Studios or Laminar Studios.
Far from being a push button and it goes kind of experience, Train Sim World provides medium fidelity train operations with a limited number of systems modeled. There’s a focus on basic operations such as setting direction, throttling up smoothly and within the engines power band (although I’ve never really been penalized for gunning it), and using the braking system.
The first train I operated was the BR Class 166, a UK commuter diesel locomotive, and it had a simple throttle/brake system that saw you push forward to go and pull back to stop. That was easy enough to get going. My next train was the BR Class 43 HST, a high speed locomotive, with a separate brake system. Going up another level of complexity was the F40PH-2 on the Peninsula Corridor route with a throttle, dynamic brake, automatic brake, and a variety of pressure based systems to manage to make everything work. It’s all modeled although I understand that some other sim titles are perhaps more detailed than TSW is – I have no experience.
There is attention to detail here beyond just systems. Trains speed up and slow down convincingly with great sound effects to support the experience, passing trains make a satisfying ‘woosh’ as they go by, and cars bank around graded turns or rock gently as you pass through a switch.
Finally, just like other sims, there are elements that can subtly affect your driving experience like rain and fog, snow, or different times of day. It adds variety and ensures that the same route never feels quite the same.
Is it fun?
The first time I played it I was wondering what I had gotten myself into. It is far from the exciting nature of air combat or the challenge of navigating a complex route around some mountains or through nasty weather. Being a simulated train engineer means literally being constrained to being on rails and so where’s the challenge or the satisfaction?
The game’s interface challenges you to run your route and to do it on time. You’re awarded points for stopping at the correct spot on the station. You are awarded or penalized for going too fast. If you go through a red light that pretty much spells the end of your run. You also get points for performing different operations both within the cab and out around the station. It’s clear that Dovetail spent some time making sure that there was a decent game side of the equation which I’m sure some love and others may want to just focus on driving the train.
The basic gameplay loop involves starting up, opening the doors on passenger trains, closing the doors (via pop-up menu or in cab control), and then accelerating along the track following the posted speed limits before finally bringing the train to a stop again.
It’s simple in concept but requires plenty of practice and some learned knowledge of how to make the train start and stop. Different styles of engine (from diesel to full electric) behave very differently and that means getting to know the quirks of your locomotive and how best to start and stop it.
Different scenarios can play out with some loose story elements to help provide a little background and context. It could be the last train of the night, or a special train for a sporting event, or you might be moving freight from one place to another. You may need to rescue another train and bring it back to the depot or decommission the train for the night by taking it through a wash station and refueling it.
It’s relaxing and low key while still being engaging. It requires some real thought on how best to approach a station so that you can stop at just the right spot.
It’s not perfect
I’ve mostly been talking about my experiences with Train Sim World. While this isn’t being written as a critical review (this is more about discovery and fun experiences), there are some issues with TSW. The graphics are mostly excellent and draw plenty on the power of the Unreal engine to drive the experience. But there are places where you can see that the graphics break down. I sometimes get odd shimmering effects and there are occasional stutters just like in flight sims. The clouds in the sky vary from looking not that great to really terrible.
There are also bugs in the simulation side of things. I have had to restart scenarios sometimes because a train just wouldn’t get moving. The DB BR 146 on the Main-Spessart Bahn seems to sometimes not want to move at all even after following all of the correct procedures in the tutorial. Repeat the scenario and it works perfectly. Occasionally its because I just didn’t do something in the right order but sometimes it appears to be a bug in the script that underpins the simulation and it can be frustrating – its fortunate you can restart from a check point!
The audio experience is often very good with great samples underpinning the experience but occasionally it can be less than impressive. There are frequent occlusion issues and audio levels never feel quite right with sounds often being too loud or too quiet.
There is no multiplayer or scenario editor either, two features that have long been asked for by tans of TSW. It’s possible that TSW 2021 will offer up some options here although I’m not entirely sure what a multiplayer mode would look like.
Flight sims can learn a thing or two
In my recent article about Microsoft Flight Simulator and the things that it needs to do right at launch, I talked about single player experiences and I was thinking of TSW while writing that article. TSW offers one way to approach a potential single player experience in a simulator while being “simple” enough to be able to offer in potentially thousands of possible combinations. There are hundreds of scenarios here spread out across the different routes that provide a little interactivity and a purpose while guiding the player through training and on to driving a route with specific stop points and goals. Even when not picking a specific scenario, you can still choose a “timetable” route which encourages you to drive from point to point within a given schedule. Flight Simulator could stand to incorporate something like that into their simulation.
TSW also saves your progress which means you can restart at a checkpoint without having the do the whole experience over again. This is a great feature and something I wish flight sims like DCS World or IL-2: Great Battles would offer. Doubly so when you’re on a long mission and something goes wrong or you run out of time and have to attend to other matters. Wouldn’t it be great to start back at that mission later? TSW gives you the option.
At the start of this journey I wasn’t really sure if I’d even like driving trains but I was convinced by many YouTube videos that this was interesting enough for me to give it a try. I’m glad I did because I’ve found Train Sim World to be a fun way to explore a little piece of the rail world while doing some challenges and generally just having a quiet time of it.
While real life has been hectic and flight simulators are often a highly challenging environment, Train Sim World encourages a slower pace with no enemies to shoot at you or complex avionics to manage. It’s a bit lighter on the simulation side but offering up a lower key gameplay that lets you blast along a rail route at high speeds. It’s very enjoyable!
There are other train simulators out there such as Derail Valley and the previous generation Train Simulator, but for me I’ve found Train Sim World to be in that enjoyable middle ground offering a mix of gameplay fun and simulation to hold my attention and while offering up something different when I’m not flying aircraft in X-Plane, DCS World, and IL-2: Great Battles.