Railway Empire is the latest resource management/simulation/strategy game published by Kalypso Media – they love this genre and I love them for doing so. Not only this, the developers of the game are Gaming Minds Studios – to those who aren’t familiar with their work, they are behind the brilliant Patrician and Port Royale series’!
Railway Empire takes you on a (train)journey from 1830-1930 as you take part in the race to establish the most dominant and powerful rail empire in all of North America. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t excited about this game, who wouldn’t want to run their own empire of steam trains as you mercilessly sabotage, buy out and take over other budding competitors all while managing your resources to ensure your trains run as efficiently as the spies you send to steal your competitors’ research?
So, come with me as we see if the hype(train) was real and Railway Empire really is the choo choo-sen one, or if it’s bought itself a one-way ticket to nowhere…
Railway Empire has a few different gameplay modes, the one you will most likely want to experience first is the campaign, this has undergone a few changes since the game was first created so be sure to update your game if you buy this physically, otherwise it will be a lot less informative than it should be. Our adventure begins in the Great Plains of the good ol’ U.S.A. where you are placed in charge of completing the last chapter in the monumental undertaking of the Transcontinental Railroad. You are guided, by a famous historical narrator, through the process of creating your first railway line running from Omaha to nearby cities and rural businesses. Once you have done this and all of your trains are running efficiently and your towns are becoming bigger with more resources, inventory and people; you begin to venture further west, through the wild heart of the North American continent.
At present, all deliveries and transport are being handled by carts, carts which must travel many days to venture through vast, empty lands over mountains and brave the fierce weather conditions. It is your job to show the people that with steel, fire and steam, your masterpiece of modern engineering is the future and the answer to their dreams. Not everyone will agree at first and will be stuck in their old ways but the more people you convince by offering faster and more efficient travel and services, the more people will succumb to the idea of the railway. This, in turn, leads to bigger profits and more money for you to reinvest back into the railway to make it bigger and better than before.
However, you aren’t the only person in this world with a dream – you will face up to three competitors who are aiming for a similar goal, only they won’t be so nice about it. Expect to see sabotage to your trains and stations, blackmail placed against you, spies coming and stealing your research, and worse of all they can buy you out if they are “considerably richer than you”. You must listen to your narrators, overcome all challenges and complete all of your objectives as you work through five lengthy story-missions which will take you about 90-120 minutes per chapter to complete – longer if you have the game set to realistic track behaviour. Can you become the number one railway or will you succumb to debt and the opposition? The only way to find out is to give it your best shot!
Where do I begin? Railway Empire is your basic resource management simulation game with a twist, the twist is you aren’t building canneries, crop fields or fishing ports – like you would in Tropico for example – instead, you are building railway stations and connecting them to cities that require a certain resource in order to become profitable and thus, expand. This is where the game becomes it’s own in this genre and you can tell a lot of time and effort has gone into making everything work as it should. First things first, the difficulty. You have the option to play in easy or realistic mode – realistic mode means trains can’t collide and easy means they ‘ghost’ right through each other, thus making the game considerably easier.
This is where you will get the most out of Railway Empire, if you put the game on ‘easy’ then sure, all trains go through each other so you can have a few lines merging together with a hundred trains going back and forth with no issues of colliding or obstructions, that will work fine. But, if you want to play the game and get the most out of it then the realistic mode is the one to choose. This mode will require you to set up either two tracks or, to save money, you can create a break-off in a track for a short distance and set up signals – this allows one train to divert to the sub-track and wait until the main track is clear before continuing. This mode is really interesting as not only do you have to try and complete your challenges, objectives and watch out for what your opponents are doing but you also have to strategically plan your routes and tracks accordingly.
You also need to ensure that all your lines have access to a ‘supply tower’ and a ‘maintenance shed’ as these will allow your trains to stock up on fuel and repair any damages they incur along the way. I constantly received messages saying my locomotives have slowed down due to ‘missing equipment’. This had me confused for a long time yet it turns out I just didn’t have a supply tower. I’m not sure if this was lost in translation or just a poorly worded warning message – either way, it had me swearing at the screen a lot until I realised all I needed was a tower to restock the coal. You can play Railway Empire in whichever difficulty you wish but I recommend you at least give realistic a try for a few missions as it does test you and adds a bigger challenge to the game.
One thing I can’t avoid talking about is the controls – They are great! Okay, so they aren’t the most intuitive and there are a few things, like setting up the train on the track, which is a bit confusing and kind of annoying at first – but they have managed to totally overhaul the UI from the PC game and make it controller friendly, which a few of the other simulation games don’t bother with. You have your standard move and zoom with the sticks and most of the other options are chosen via a dial you call up with R2. Another good thing about the controls is the game always tells you at the bottom of the screen what each button does which is really important as, when flicking between screens, the same button may not do the same things all the time.
Another thing to mention is how easy Railway Empire is to control – a lot of people are put off by RTS, tycoon and strategy games which originated as PC games due to the fact they will always play best with a mouse and keyboard. Everything from selecting your train to choosing which business to build in your city – it all works as if the console was the base unit and the PC was the port (which most likely isn’t the right way around). So, if you take anything from this section of the review take this – don’t be put off that it’s controlled with the controller – it works great once you have got used to the fiddly operations!
Once your train is on the track and chugging along, you can switch to a first-person mode. This will allow you to see what your driver does as he looks out the left or right of the engine. Alternatively, you can view the world from the very front grill of the train or overlook the cargo you are hauling. This is a nice touch and is a nice distraction if you are waiting for your train to make some money for you – just pop it in first-person mode and enjoy the journey!
Probably the biggest part of Railway Empire, other than laying tracks, is taking care of the cities along your routes. At first, you place a station in a city, see what goods they require for their local business and then ensure you have a train supplying this town with the said item. As the town gets bigger, you can choose to build your own businesses within the town. For example, you could build a slaughterhouse which means for every cow you bring in, you will export meat and leather boots to make a profit elsewhere. Similarly, you can choose to buy a business or even auction for it if there are CPU players on the level – this allows you to actively force towns to grow faster as you bring in more business and thus more consumers.
You’ll hear me talk about the CPU quite a bit in this review and this is where the first major complaint comes into play – there is no multiplayer. Don’t get me wrong, as you’ll find out further down, you get a load of content with this game, enough to last at least 100+ hours if you were to try and complete everything. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t think it should have a multiplayer because I do. I loved the Tropico Multiplayer and I’ve played Open Transport Tycoon Deluxe in the past on the PC with friends and that was lots of fun as we fought to beat the others whilst buying out and messing up the other person’s train lines. So to see this feature missing was both confusing and a little disappointing. Like I said though, it has an amazing amount of content but you will be playing solo against CPU opponents.
I can’t do a review on Railway Empire and not talk about the spectacular trains on show, can I? There are over 40 historically accurate locomotives. Not only do some of them look a lot better than others (see above for my favourite) but it also plays into the strategy of the game. The trains come in three different types; a train that is good for freight, a train good for express goods, and a train that’s good at both aspects equally. So, with that in mind, you must ensure you assign the correct trains for their purpose. For example, you won’t want a freight train that runs slower but has a more powerful engine in order to pull tonnes of cargo to be dedicated to transporting passengers. Likewise, why use a speedy train for cargo when the weight of it will eventually wear out the engine and cause damages? Again, circling back to the difficulty, you could just play it easy and pick ‘mixed’ locomotives for all the journeys and have the best of both worlds – however, if you want to truly succeed then you should strategise and ensure you use the correct trains.
One of the things I love yet also dislike about the trains is the customisation. As I’m playing on the PS4, I’m limited in what customisations are supported. Once unlocked, you can equip your trains with either a refrigerator car (to get more food revenue), a dining car (to get more ticket revenue), a caboose (to get a bonus for your staff), and a mail car (to get more mail revenue) in order to adjust them to their set job. Using a mail car, for example, will use up one of your eight carriage slots but if your train is carrying mail then you will get 20% extra revenue. So it’s swings and roundabouts as you plan out what purpose you want your train to have. The thing I dislike is, that’s the end of customisations on the console versions – you can’t paint the trains, name them, slap a company logo on them or even change their stats. I can see where the developers are coming from – they want the game to be historically accurate and I doubt in 1836 there were any trains with gold wheels and neon lights, yet the PC version has built-in Steam workshop support so they do have some level of customisation. I would love for them to bring out a DLC, paid or free, in the future with new fantasy trains like the one from Back to the Future or even the Harry Potter one.
Instead of train customisation, we are presented with a massive selection of research to undergo within the game. There are over 300 research options in total, spread between ‘Trains and locomotives’ and ‘Company and construction’. A lot of the research options are the same, 10% more of this, 20% less of that, trains will be X% faster and the number of Y is Z% more… But within the train and locomotive section, you can research and unlock new trains, new carriages and various modifiers to make your trains less likely to break down. You gain research points by just playing the game – you can increase your points by researching options that increase how many you earn a day (catch 22, you need the points to learn how to make the points faster) or you can build universities in bigger cities.
Personally, I’m not a fan of the research and development in Railway Empire, it does the job it was set out to do but it feels a bit cheap and tacked on. If you build a few universities and play for a few years, you can buy pretty much all of the available updates and give yourself a massive advantage both financially and in terms of train performance. That may sound great but it makes the game a little easy – as such, I’ve been playing it where I only put points into the locomotive side to unlock the new trains and the updates on the train. It means the chapters take a bit longer but that’s fine, nothing is mandatory so everyone is free to play it as they wish.
Okay, so you’ve completed the five chapter missions and scored the highest possible score on them all, is that it? Of course not! We have three more modes for you to jump into and enjoy, each of which allows you to choose a new character to play as, each one with their own unique boost regarding different gameplay mechanics.
As you would expect, you have the choice of eleven different scenarios which are spread across seven different maps. Each scenario has its own mini-story and set of new challenges and goals. For example, I’ve loaded up an 1850 Cattle Drive scenario and you are required to deliver a certain number of cattle to various locations and then distribute the meat to other cities off of that. This particular mission requires everything to be done before you hit your fifth year – so if you are playing the game at normal speed, that’s two hours. You’re looking at about 15-20 hours worth of extra content in these eleven scenarios.
In this mode, you can pick any of the seven maps and any of the five set-times to start at. You begin with a small amount of capital and must try and complete as many of the tasks given to you in order to increase your score. Within this mode you are against three other CPU players and these can last a very long time. For example, one day is five seconds so if you start a game at 1830 then you have until 1850 to complete your tasks. This works out to be around 10 hours of normal speed gameplay. Considering there are 35 levels in free mode, that’s a lot of extra gameplay.
Sandbox mode is probably best used to either create masterpieces or practice the mechanics if you still don’t get it. There are no opponents and you have unlimited money with all the research options unlocked. this mode is purely for fun and serves no purpose if you are looking to complete tasks to progress with a score.
The graphics in Railway Empire are great – as far as I’m aware it is native 1080p on the PS4 and native 2160p (4k) on the Pro. It does have a bit of motion blur when turning but not enough to distract you – the image you see on the screen is really crisp and clear.
The sound is also great – ye olde Western-style music to really get you in the mood. as a bonus extra, the manual and soundtrack can both be downloaded from the official website for free here: http://download.kalypsomedia.com/RailwayEmpire/
Railway Empire is a really fun and challenging tycoon simulator on modern consoles. It adjusts itself for both beginners and advanced players by giving you the choice of how you wish to play with no penalty or punishment for choosing the easy route. Some people may find certain aspects like the research tree a bit overwhelming and may get confused with some of the controls, but if you stick at it then you will see that it isn’t that difficult once you have played it for a while. I would recommend this to anyone who likes resource management games such as Tropico and the old Patrician and Port Royale series’ just don’t expect it to be fast-paced and quick, you’re best off taking your time and enjoying yourself but be warned, you can lose hours of your life playing Railway Empire!
- Very detailed and realistic tycoon game
- Various settings to make the game as easy or hard as you want - opens up accessibility to everyone
- Great soundtrack (which is also free online)
- Hours and hours of content if you try and play everything
- Lots of different trains and modes to play with
- No human multiplayer
- Tasks can get a little repetitive after a while
- The research and development seems a bit cluttered with similar items
- No customisation of the trains or town names (supposedly you can customise the trains with letters and a logo but I can't see that on the PS4 version)