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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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Ups: Beautiful graphics, great economic model, engrossing gameplay. Cagey AI at higher levels; micromanager's dream. 
Downs: Only runs at 1024x768.
System Reqs:133MHz Pentium, 16 MB of RAM,

"All aboard!" the conductor calls, urging the last of the straggling passengers to board the train bound for Indianapolis. Working quickly, station hands have unloaded the cars of mail and lumber, and added a steel car demanded by auto plants in Indianapolis.

This is the thrust of Railroad Tycoon 2 from Pop Top Software, an updated and expanded version of the Sid Meier classic. Players are charged with starting a railroad company from scratch, placing stations and track to connect the various cities in the region, and hauling commodities that each city needs to grow and prosper. If done properly, the railroad will prosper as well, generating the funds necessary to expand their iron empire and make their stockholders wealthy and happy.

There are several modes of play available. Sandbox mode allows players to build stations, track and trains without worrying about economics. This allows players to get a feel for how the game operates and to practice routing trains and laying track. Normal game mode allows different ranges of financial and industrial models, along with a revenue modifier and 1 or 2 computer opponents (dependent upon which scenario you are playing) all vying for the same goal as you – financial dominance.

Graphically, the game is a feast for the eyes. Players have a choice between 8 and 16 bit color modes, and a host of detail settings, ranging from graphical detail to zoom levels. Note that Railroad Tycoon 2 requires a minimum resolution of 1024x768. If you run higher than this you have the option of playing in full screen or windowed mode. Game speed is affected by detail settings. The game ran fine at full detail level and full screen on my Pentium 2-300 with 128mb of RAM and a Diamond Viper V550 video card. The only effect of cranking the detail levels all the way up was that the scroll speed slowed down. At this level of detail, buildings look spectacular, with individual animations based on type. Terrain is beautiful, and you can identify the different car types on trains traveling between cities. The sounds are also well done, though the sound of a train breaking down was one I quickly tired of hearing. The music gets a bit monotonous after awhile, though it can be turned off if desired.

rrt2b.gif (16136 bytes)The game’s computer AI is pretty good, especially at the expert difficulty settings, where they become downright ruthless. There are dozens of great rail barons from history included, and their tendencies are modeled well. For example, J. P. Morgan specializes in consolidation, creating huge corporations, while Jay Gould is known for his ruthless financial attacks. If you’re not careful, the computer opponents will use the stock market to take control of your company, or short-sell stock and put your company out of business. I had games where the computer opponents built up a small railroad, then invested all their money in my stock just as it was beginning to do well, allowing them to reach the scenario goals first and win.

At the highest detail settings, the game is a micro-manager’s dream. Each train must be set up with a route from city to city, and the concise can be different for each leg of the trip. Supply and demand is different at each station, depending on which industries are within the station’s sphere of influence. At the basic industrial model, stations will pay almost as much for goods not in demand as they do for goods they do demand, but at the expert setting they pay almost nothing, forcing players to keep a close eye on supply and demand levels at each station. Trains themselves have maintenance costs that rise as the engines age, and so must be replaced periodically to remain profitable. As the years go by, new engines become available, such as electric and diesel, and older engine types become obsolete. Players can also hire different managers to run their companies. Each manager has a different salary and benefits, such as lowered building costs, a reduced chance of engine breakdown or increased public goodwill.

rrt2c.gif (19471 bytes)Laying track and placing stations is almost a game in itself. The various maps model different areas of the globe, from the Eastern and Western United States to Europe and Great Britain. Each city has different industries nearby, and these will grow and change as the game progresses. In order to generate maximum revenue, you must connect cities that demand certain goods with those that supply them and set up a train to carry these goods between them. For optimum efficiency, track sections should be straight, short and level, but this is rarely possible. Terrain has a big impact on track layout, often forcing you to choose between curves or hills. Each engine has its own acceleration and speed characteristics, which are affected by inclines, so choose your engines carefully based on your intended route.

Stations come in three sizes, each with a different cost and area of influence. Small and medium stations can be upgraded to larger types later, so you can save money by building small and expanding later. Large stations command the largest area of influence and thus are the most desirable. Numerous improvements exist for each station as well, ranging from necessities like sanding towers, water towers and roundhouses to amenities like hotels, restaurants and post offices. These improvements cost varying amounts but have positive effects on the station. For example, telephone poles are expensive but decrease a train’s turnaround time by 50%. Hotels and restaurants increase revenue generated from passenger cars, while a post office decreases the likelihood of mail getting lost.

rrt2d.gif (20465 bytes)The ultimate goal of Railroad Tycoon 2 is to amass a certain amount of wealth by a certain date. At the higher difficulty settings, the stock market has a major impact on your success or failure. Owning stock in your own company, along with other companies that are prospering, is a quick way for you (and your opponents) to make a lot of cash. If you’re feeling particularly lucky, you can buy stock on margin, meaning that you borrow the money from your broker to purchase the shares. If the price later rises, then you’re rich – if it falls, you could go broke. Similarly, you can short-sell, meaning that you sell stock you don’t actually own but will purchase later, hopefully for a lower price. If done properly, you can put a company out of business or make a lot of money, but if the price goes up you’ll go broke quick. I noticed that the computer opponents manipulate the stock market quite well, especially at the expert financial model.

The map editor is a neat little addition, allowing you to create custom maps or modify existing maps to suit your tastes. I was pleased to find that the tools that modify land height do not destroy building and track already in place, unlike other games such as SimCity 2000. When added, terrain types appear quite naturally, logically following the contours of the land. Placing buildings, stations and track was easy, though if you’re not careful you can clutter up cities and towns to the point where it is difficult to lay track effectively. Strangely enough, the "lay river" command is grouped under the "add buildings" tool. This one took me a while to figure out.

Railroad Tycoon 2 provides all the standard options for multiplayer, including Internet, IPX/SPX, serial and modem play. The number of players depends on the map chosen. For Internet play, one machine acts as the server, and all others connect to that machine by typing in its IP address. One nasty quirk of multiplayer is that if a player is dropped, the game will have to be reloaded after the players reconnect, so save often!

The manual is a good reference to the types of buildings and the various statistics of managers and opposing rail barons, but doesn’t provide a lot of strategy tips. There is a nice history of some of the high points of the railroad industry in the margins, arranged chronologically, but I found the manual to be a bit thin. The quick reference card is essential, providing a command reference, technology tree and industrial reference.

All in all, Railroad Tycoon 2 is a fun, challenging simulation of starting and running a railroad company. The resolution requirement may keep some players from enjoying it, but computer users with the right video hardware and an enjoyment of simulations will find a stimulating gaming experience.

cheat.gif (1707 bytes)--Derek Meyer