Railway Empire Review – Steaming All the Way to the Future
Railway Empire26th January, 2018
There's something about the railway that's strangely soothing. Is it the rhythmic rattle of trains on the track, mixed with the intermittent sound of the whistle? Maybe it's just watching the world go by as you travel at high speed on the iron horse. Railway Empire looks to bring that and the challenge of creating the transcontinental railway to your fingertips.
Railway management games have been a strange thing. For a long time, they've gone completely ignored, with the last major release being Sid Meier's Railroads in 2006. While other titles like Cities in Motion, Train Fever and Transport Fever have included rail travel, it's never been able to scratch that same itch as the old Railroad Tycoon games. Maybe it's the lack of competition or the more limited scope, in that it's not about inter-city transport. Maybe it's just nostalgia. So how does Railway Empire fare in all of this?
Pretty good, to be honest. Maybe that's just been a spoiler for the end of the review, but it's the journey that counts. That's exactly what Railway Empire is all about. Spanning from the start of the 19th century right into the 20th century, the game follows the origins and expansion of the iron horse in the United States. Honestly, I've absolutely no idea if the story is accurate at all. Was Rock Island where the rail first crossed the Mississippi? Did the leaders of great American railroad companies all really have German accents? It all remains a mystery.
Okay, maybe that's a little facetious. Developed by Gaming Minds Studios, I know exactly why the voice acting in Railway Empire stands out to say the least. Being a German studio, it's not really financially viable to bring in native English voice actors to perform all of the spoken parts. However, there are a few that were, but are overacted for effect, so no complaints there. It's just the script could have really done with a touch-up. It seems strange having issues with a script in a simulation game. When a famous figure talks down to you in slightly off English, it's just noticeable.
That is a minor complaint at worst and something that you can easily get over. It's also the only real downright bad part of the game, with the camera only committing a few crimes. Aesthetically Railway Empire isn't anything to write home about. There's some charm in zooming in as close as you can and looking over the Great Plains. Watching the trains as they stop and start on the tracks, making use of your infrastructure.
One of the best parts is the fact that you can actually ride along with the train. This lets you watch the people waiting in a station or going about their lives in a city. It lets you watch as the train goes along its journey, seeing the birds, bison and other animals go about their lives. The crime is that the camera here is absurdly restrictive in the turning angle it offers you. I'm not kidding when I say that the ride-along feature is one of the best in the game.
Outside of the joys (?) of the locomotive, what else can be said about Railway Empire? Outside of the campaign, there's something just a little off about starting a game. Sandbox lets you build without monetary restrictions if you just fancy seeing what strange lines you can make. That can be pretty boring though. The challenge is what makes the game interesting. Free mode offers this, letting you pick one of the seven maps available and selecting your starting year, number of competitors and more.
Outside of these, you have the campaign that anachronistically goes through the building of the transcontinental railway. There are also eleven scenarios available across the seven regions. Some of these are more difficult than others, each with tasks to meet for success as well as side tasks that help towards your final ranking at the end of a game. What it really offers is just a framing point for the best railroad building since Railroad Tycoon 3.
Sadly it isn't as good as Railroad Tycoon 3, though it isn't far off by any means. There's a high level of tactical building to be done in Railway Empire. A large level of forethought has to go into every link you make, and how it will interact with the rest of your network. Most important is how you deal with the eventual overcrowding of your lines. This is where the most abundant of items comes into the game: switches.
Switch into this, switch into that. Managing your railroad and dividing it into sections just to let more than one train use a track. It's a difficult system to master, I certainly haven't. I've only just got used to making it so you can only travel one direction on a particular line, and even that I manage to mess up every now and then.
What particularly irritates me about Railway Empire is track crossing. This is something that was perfected in games fifteen years ago but is still messed up today. Rather than crossing over tracks as you can in real life and you could in older titles, you have to do a convoluted and expensive routing with extra tracks and switches. It's more complicated, but also a shallower and less realistic experience that developers need to stop omitting from any game that depicts railways.
Another problem is how shallow it feels in the actual network of rails you eventually build. Due to strange restrictions on map sizes and time limits, you can't really build up a huge impressive link of railways. What the game desperately needs is a complete map of the United States and the ability to go straight through the starting time of 1830, right through to 1940. If not later. This would be much better than segmenting it up, particularly in a free mode or sandbox game.
What also remains an issue is, regardless of what year you start in free mode, all of the cities are limited to the few starting resource buildings. Every city I come across works with cows or wheat, they then want to export meat or beer. The problem is, no other city is that interested because they already make meat or beer. It's once they develop that more becomes available, but it costs you an arm and a leg just to buy out and demolish old manufacturing buildings.
Though at least you can buy out these companies and add to your own revenue. It can be one of the tensest moments in Railway Empire, the auction that happens following a buyout offer. Underestimating opposition resources can lead to you missing something you desperately wanted, a business that makes up the cornerstone of your rail network. Then you'll be forced into buying shares of a competitor and eventually trying to buy them out, just for that business. One strange thing is that you can't actually buy shares in your own company to prevent a hostile takeover.
As well as business, as cities grow through the fulfillment of their needs, you can also build universities, museums and attractions in cities that further enhance the city or your company. The museum, for example, increases the research points you earn every month by 10%. These research points are used to unlock further technologies and locomotives that give you a leg up on the competition. Again, sadly due to the limited timelines offered in each scenario, campaign and free mode, you never get to go through the full tech tree in one game.
There is something undeniably compelling about Railway Empire. It's the return, albeit to a shallower level, of Railroad Tycoon 3. The management and railroad building simulation game that can grip even those who aren't huge fans of the genre. Railway Empire has likely compromised in areas to make the release easier to control and manage on consoles. I can appreciate this, but it's still a detriment to the game as a whole. A little more complex and more freedom and this could have been outstanding. It's still a pretty damn good game though.
PC version reviewed. Copy provided by publisher. You can purchase the game via Amazon.
Railway Empire is a strong but shallow entry into the railway management style of games that has gone long ignored. With a few slight downfalls, primarily as a result of the game only offering limited maps and time periods to operate in, it can go by a little too quick and become repetitive. However, the journey to get to that stage can be enthralling as it offers a high level of tactical thinking as you interlink your network of rails. Strategic purchases of businesses lets you get a leg up over opposition businesses in a race to become the dominant company. Railway Empire is a very good game in its genre, without a shadow of a doubt. It could become a great game, should Gaming Minds Studios open it up that little bit more.
- Strong tactical track building that forces you to think about placement and links
- Well realized scenarios that follow the development of the transcontinental railway and other historical events
- Strong management system of both the company and cities once further into a game
- However, the management is just a little too shallow to what it could have been
- Very restrictive, only offers limited time periods and maps
- The start of each game (in free mode) is insanely repetitive due to each city sharing the same manufacturing base