Just about every little boy gets a kick out of trains. Whether it's a model railway or a ride on an historic steam locomotive, there's something about trains that satisfy the desire for power and speed.
For most gamers, that translates into a love of racing sims, but train simulators aren't as dull as you might imagine. Train Simulator 2013 will surprise you, not only by rekindling a love of trains, but also for its compelling gameplay.
For new players, TS2013 is a great time to don your driver's uniform as the interface has had a major overhaul to make the a lot more user-friendly than before.
When you load the game, you'll see the new Collection screen, which provides a nice overview of the routes and locomotives you own. Routes have a green bar across the bottom, with locos having a blue bar.
Thanks to better integration with Steam, you'll also see related DLC (downloadable content) so you can click on a route or engine to open the Steam interface and by the extras.
For the standard version of TS2013, you get the excellent modern London to Brighton route, complete with the new Class 377 Electrostar trains. There's also the popular Isle of Wight route, and two US routes: Sherman Hill and Northeast Corridor. For an extra £10, the forthcoming Deluxe Edition also comes with the brand new Munich-Augsburg route, and the ICE 3 train.
The routes from TS2012 aren't included, but you can buy them from Steam for £10 each, which is considerably cheaper than the more usual £25 for brand new routes. It's well worth buying the East Coast Main Line and Great Western Main Line if you're a fan of UK railways.
Train Simulator 2013: new features
TS2013 also has a new Quick Drive menu where you can quickly choose a train, route and environment, allowing you to mix and match the trains and routes you own, as well as picking the time, weather and season.
Yet another welcome feature is Steam Workshop. This is a boon as you can download new scenarios created by other players much more easily than before.
A scenario involves driving a route, picking up passengers from the right stations according to the timetable. Scenarios can also involve yard work where you drive to various sidings assembling a freight train before taking the goods to another destination.
There are various ways of playing TS2013. As well as Quick Drive where you pick the starting and finishing stations, there are also standard scenarios, career mode and free roam.
Standard scenarios are ranked as easy, medium or hard and can vary in length from 15 minutes to a couple of hours. Driving all the way from London Victoria to Brighton will take an hour, just as you'd expect. This is a simulation, after all.
In career mode, you're scored on speed, timing and ride comfort, and there are achievements to be had for all your Steam friends to see.
Train Simulator 2013: Graphics and sound
As it still uses DirectX 9, TS2013 doesn't provide the same level of eye candy as the latest DX11 titles, but it's not bad looking. You'll need a top-end PC to see it at its best, though, as rendering high-quality shadows in big 3D worlds takes a lot of processing power. Railsimulator recommends an nVidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti or better.
At the highest quality settings, trains look pretty much photo-realistic with windows reflecting the sky and impeccable attention to detail, both outside and inside - at least as far as the cabs are concerned. Some trains have a passenger view, but the insides of carriages look hastily modelled with low detail levels.
The included routes are accurately modelled (as far as we can tell), including stations and landmarks such as Battersea power station. Trackside objects, though, are generally low-resolution affairs, but you'll notice this only if you're admiring the scenery from one of the external camera views rather than driving from inside the cab.
Sound is where TS2013 truly impresses. Each locomotive sounds authentic, down to the signal warnings and horn. In fact, you can only really appreciate just how good the game sounds if you have some decent speakers attached to your PC.
Shunting wagons around Cheyenne yard with a few SD40-2s isn't half as much fun if you don't feel the thundering roar of their engines from your subwoofer.
Sounds have been further improved for this version, with more realistic tunnel echoes which fade away as you exit rather that cutting off abruptly as with TS2012.
Train Simulator 2013: gameplay
One of the most welcome features in TS2013 is the ability to save your progress on multiple scenarios. There's no indication in the menus as to which scenarios have savegames, but it's still a big step forward from TS2012 which let you save only one scenario. When you don't want to spend an hour and a half on one scenario, it's a considerable boon being able to save progress and chop and change between a few.
You can make it as hard or easy as you like to drive a train. Newcomers can use the basic controls for accelerating and braking, while those wanting more control can have it. The heads-up display (HUD) can be switched to a minimal view where you'll need to use keyboard shortcuts for driving instead of clicking on the on-screen controls. Hardcore fans can disable the HUD entirely for a 'pure' driving experience.
Most people will need the HUD to keep an eye on the distance to the next station, speed and speed limit.
Most of the time you don't have to worry about changing points - you just need to obey signals and stop at the right stations. When doing yard work, you'll rely a lot more on the 2D view (accessed by pressing 9). This has a few new features, including buttons to show the next task, which is helpful when identifying which siding to collect wagons from, for example.
The task list has also had a facelift, highlighting the current task and showing a marker pointing at your next destination, along with how far away it is.
Weather effects are impressive. It completely changes the feel of a route when you're driving the first service in the morning rain and mist, as opposed to a summer's afternoon with perfect visibility. As well as the four seasons, there's also night-time driving which provides more of a challenge.
As some scenarios have you driving at sunset, it's impressive to watch the light fade as night falls and streetlights and houses light up along the route.
The inclusion of electric, diesel and steam trains mean there's something for everyone, whether you want to drive a relatively simple commuter route, from Victoria to Brighton, or ferry tourists around the Isle of Wight in a steam train.
Train Simulator 2013: the lows
Like any game, TS2013 has a few bugs which need ironing out. One is that we heard a lot of 'phasing' noise during our testing, a problem we've seen other users suffer from. It didn't happen all the time, but when it did, it was both distracting and annoying.
We also noticed a few other minor foibles such as trains running into each other instead of coupling when you drive too fast, and messages saying we failed to pick up passengers when we merely arrived late at the station.
A slight disappointment is that those with a second screen can't use it to display the 2D map. Instead, you have to use a single screen and constantly flip between 2D and 3D when shunting. There is support for AMD's EyeFinity, though, so if you have three displays, you can enjoy a super-wide view.
Train Simulator 2013: wrap-up
If you have even a passing interest in trains, TS2013 is a must-buy. It's not a game only for train-obsessives, although it's great for them too. Even if you stick with the four routes included with the game, there's scores of hours of fun to be had with steam, diesel and electric locos.
There's also a wealth of DLC available and, once you're hooked, you'll want new routes and trains to drive. With a big community creating new routes and scenarios, including some free content, there's no shortage of add-ons.
The new Quick Drive mode is a great addition, and the friendlier interface is welcome. It's clear that the Steam Workshop integration is popular as there are already scores of user-made scenarios to download to add more challenges for the routes you already own.