A-Train. (computer game) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Eddie Huffman
When you hear the lonesome whistle of a freight train, do you (a) start humming "New River Train" or (b) speculate on how long railroad freight carriers will be able to compete economically with their counterparts in the trucking industry?
If you answered (a), chances are A-Train isn't the train game for you. If you answered (b), on the other hand, A-Train could be the diesel engine that pulls the profit-making train of your dreams.
Presented by Maxis, the company that created SimCity, A-Train is actually the second sequel to an "award-winning, number-one selling game in Japan," according to a blurb on its box. (The only previous U.S. release was a version of A-Train II called Railroad Empire.) If A-Train is half as popular in Japan as Maxis claims, it's no wonder Japan consistently wipes the floor with America economically. This is a highly complex, intensely challenging game that requires you to be railroad CEO, urban planner, stock speculator, and major contractor all at once.
At this point, gamers familiar with Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon may be wondering whether there's any difference between that game and A-Train. On a fundamental level, there are many similarities. Both games employ railroads as a means to economic expansion, allowing you to rake in (or bleed out) large sums of money as you build an empire. A-Train lacks both the broad geographical and historical scope of Railroad Tycoon and the computer-generated competition, however, making it more focused.
Instead of taking your railroad and its environs cross-country over the course of decades, A-Train moves along a day at a time, staying focused on a predetermined geographical area set by selecting one of the game's six scenarios. You can start off with a single rail line running through a rural area or multiple lines already encircling a large city.
On a more superficial level, A-Train simply looks better than Railroad Tycoon. You view your geographical area from an oblique angle rather than from the side or directly overhead, giving you a better perspective. A-Train has easily accessible pull-down menus in a frame around the playing field, allowing you to check with your broker about buying stock, build an amusement park, or obtain a satellite view to survey other areas of your burgeoning empire.
There are plenty of nice graphic touches, from the darkness-to-daylight change that washes over the screen every few minutes as a new day comes and goes, to the figure of Santa Claus flying over on Christmas Eve. The sound effects are pleasant but nothing special.
The ribbon rails and crossties were awash in red ink about a month into my game of A-Train, which goes a long way toward explaining why I'm a freelance writer instead of a railroad CEO. I found A-Train's hardcore economic emphasis awfully tedious, to be honest; I suspect CEO wannabes or diversion-seeking business devotees will enjoy it a lot more than I did. And while there are some elements of A-Train that will appeal to diehard railfans--you can set switches and buy better engines, for instance--you'll spend more time dealing with cold economic reality, such as determining whether to risk borrowing a few hundred thousand dollars for a new factory to be built along your latest spur track.
Ironically, there's more for railfans in the user manual than in the game itself: Not only does it include trivia and examples of railroad slang, but it also offers a concise, well-written history of railroading around the world.
If you're looking for a break from landscaping your model railroad layout, you'd be much better off with something like Abracadata's Design Your Own Railroad. But A-Train could provide you with a perfect coupling if you think you'd enjoy running an expanding railroad as a substantial challenge to your corporate skills. IBM PC or compatible, 640K RAM, hard drive; supports Ad Lib, Sound Blaster, Sound Master, Roland MT-32, and Tandy sound--$69.95 MAXIS 2 Theatre Sq., Ste. 230 Orinda, CA 94563-3346 (800) 336-2947 (510) 254-9700 Circle Reader Service Number 345