Simulators aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but if you’re even remotely interested in trains, you should certainly take a look at the Train Simulator series. This latest annual update does little to wow long-term fans, but it’s as good a time as any to jump on board if you’re looking to buy your first train sim. See also: Train Simulator 2013 review
Chief among the changes is the new menu system. The bright, fresh look is easier to use than before and lets you decide which train you want to drive on which route, and in the season and time of day of your choice.
There’s also a slightly more coherent career system, which looks as if it wants to mimic those in racing sims such as Grid 2, reviewed. However, rather than start you off with some short, easy scenarios you’re presented with the full list for all the routes you own, just as in previous versions.
Now, though, you do accrue (or, more commonly, lose) points for your driving ability, and get an overall score - XP points - at the end of each scenario (mission). But, since you’re free to do as you please and with nothing apart from Steam achievements to unlock, there’s no real sense of progress that you get with ‘proper’ career modes.
Having played Train Simulator for a couple of years and seen which routes and locomotives were included with the 2012 and 2013 versions, it’s slightly disappointing that only three routes are bundled with 2014: Donner Pass, London to Faversham and Hamburg to Hannover. Really, though, any version of Train Simulator is best thought of as a starter kit – much like that Hornby train set you were given on your seventh birthday.
Using the menus, or the main Steam interface, you can browse and buy scores of additional routes and individual locos to bolster your collection. Routes tend to be around £25, but Steam’s summer and winter sales often mean you can pick them up for around half that price. This is what your collection will look like when you've gone mad in the Steam sale:
Existing users of TS will get the core game updates for free, but not the new routes or trains. So, if you want them all, the standard edition’s £25 price looks a lot more attractive. For an extra £10, the ‘Steam Edition’ also gets you the Sheerness Branch Extension Route and Southern Pacific SD70M Loco.
Learning to drive the trains is easy, and the short tutorials will get you up to speed in next to no time. You can choose how easy or difficult you want the controls to be, even driving without the main overlay if you demand the maximum authenticity.
The game itself looks and plays exactly the same as before, which is to say that it’s good but not perfect. Even at the highest resolution and detail levels (for which you’ll need a powerful PC and graphics card) Train Simulator looks a tad dated next to the latest and greatest PC games.
It’s by no means bad, though. Attention to detail is highly impressive, especially where the trains and their cabs are concerned. Not only are they visually accurate, but the sounds are too, thanks to samples taken from the real-life versions. In fact, TS2014 sounds so amazing it makes up for the graphics. With some powerful speakers or decent headphones, you really feel the power of a diesel loco pulling a train of cargo wagons up an incline; even switches and buzzers sound like the real thing. Routes are accurate, too: the modelling of stations such as the beautiful St Pancras is a sight to behold.
However, general scenery is pretty basic and even your virtual passengers look like they're from a game made a decade ago. They materialise as the train doors open and vanish like ghosts after walking aimlessly to the end of the platform (instead of the station exit). Such details may be unimportant to some, but they do detract from an otherwise realistic experience.
Clearly the development team was working on other things, one of which was making it possible for players to create their own routes as well as scenarios. It takes a lot of time and dedication to build or even just edit a route, but TS2014 makes it possible for the many – rather than the few – to have a go. You can copy an existing route and modify it, or build your own from scratch. If you prefer, you can use Steam Workshop to merely download other people’s creations – it’s a bonus no matter in which camp you sit.