Written by  :  xroox (3970)
Written on  :  Jan 13, 2002
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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A unique and heart-warming game (no, seriously!)

The Good

Ahh, the hours I used to spend playing A-Train...

This is a lovely game. It is very, very sedate. Things happen slowly, and that is good. You can sit for ages, watching the lovely pastelly isometric graphics, slowly saving money to extend another rail service off to that distant cluster of farms, checking on how your hotels are doing, dreaming about that ski-resort...

There is also a detailed stock market in the game, and more laid-back fun can be had, watching the progress of shares over several (game time) weeks, feeling excited as your shares make money, being shocked (in quite a "That was cool!" way) when a stock market crash occurs (as does happen, sometimes, both in real life and in the nice world of A-Train).

This relaxed atmosphere is further enhanced by the day/night palette shifts, the changing seasons, the trains gently running around their tracks and all of the great easter egg-type things there are to see in the game (many of which are seasonal, or otherwise time-based - birds flying south, Father Christmas flying past at...Christmas, fireworks on Summer nights). The palette turns golden-brown in Autumn/Fall, and snow falls in December! Things also happen the further you get into the game. This is a beautiful world and is loaded with cute little animations and things to see and do.

It even gets to the point where you start to look on the single pictures of the ingame advisors as real people...almost. These characters only ever say a few lines ("The market looks good today."), but you start to imagine what they're like (or maybe I'm just totally sad!) Your bank manager looks like a nice guy, but a bit tired, a bit overworked. And what does that rail construction engineer do when he gets home? How many kids does he have? Sometimes you'll find a different person at the bank, and you'll realise the manager took a couple of days off. There are public holidays (different to those in our 'real' world, as this is a Sim-world) and a multitude of other tiny details that all fit together to enhance realism and enjoyment. It's a playground for the imagination.

Sound is merely a couple of beeps and the incessant clicking of trains, uhh, clicking their way around the tracks. Music is very limited. The intro music is great, perfectly suiting the mood of the game. In-game music consists of two tracks (the laid back one and the strangely 'mad' one), both of which are very short and both of which are looped constantly. The music is very beepy AdLib stuff, and many players may dislike it. I, however, found that it added peculiarly to the game's hypnotic charms =) You also get a special Christmas jingle, at Christmas!

The Bad

Unfortunately, like most of these world-building strategy games, A-Train has a big flaw. It gets to the point where you find yourself repeating the same optimum sequence of actions, building the same optimum track layout. It becomes formulaic. This is even more evident in A-Train than in something like SimCity 2000 because A-Train even has a requirement - Something you need to do, in order to stimulate city growth. I'm not spoiling anything here, by the way, because this is even laid out for you in the manual. You have to build a specific track layout - a square, basically, with 4 train stations on it, all back-to-back with each other in a cross formation. This triggers the building of roads out of the back of the four stations, which eventually connect up in a cross. Land prices around the roads skyrocket and the building of big buildings commences. The whole conurbation grows. I hate the fact that you really have to do this to get anywhere, and get to see the larger buildings. It was way too contrived and way too formulaic and is one of the main reasons I finally stopped playing the game.

There is also a big problem with the trains you can buy. There are lots to choose from, but sadly you're only going to end up using one of them, because there is one train type that is much, much better than any of the others. It is slightly more expensive, but you can afford it, almost from the start of the game, and it just makes all other passenger trains redundant.

You also need to move 'construction materials' around, in order to build things (This is where your freight trains come in). The whole system is rather fiddly, though, and is very unclear at the start of the game. On the plus side, it's very cute seeing your freight trains loading up with those cute little grey boxes - Aww! :)

Maybe it was just my playing, but I found money was very tight in the game. It was a couple of game years before I even got out of the red, and I had to take out a few loans. The game is pretty much a traditional Maxis (this game was developed by Artdink, but published by Maxis) 'sandbox', but you can 'win' by getting a certain amount of money. However, after many, many years of gametime, and having a successful little railroad empire, I still couldn't see myself 'winning', like, ever! That's OK, though - The 'sandbox' charms far outweigh any aspirations of being filthy ritch, and it makes a change to be tight on cash, after playing many games where it's just too easy to build up ludicrous sums of money and be able to do whatever you want.

There are other minor gripes, but I think that's mainly it. The scrolling (at least, on my 286!) was awful. It's fiddly setting up routes and instructions for your trains. It's a very difficult game to get into, but soon proves itself to be rather rewarding.

The Bottom Line

A cute game, built with love, A-Train benefits from a laid-back pace you won't find in many places. It's packed with interesting things that will warm your hard, gameplayer's heart, but ultimately becomes repetitive. Still, while it lasted, I liked this one a lot. Still one of my favourites of the 'world building' strategy genre.