EA SCOUT the last line of defense for buying on Steam's Early Access
by Sergio Brinkhuis
previewed on PC
Shrinking the world
Few things intrigue me more than the period in which Western nations tamed large areas of the world with a - back then - strange and foreboding new technology called railway transportation. Steel bars and steam powered locomotives shrunk the world into manageable proportions and would inspire generations of builders, explorers and conquerors to boldly go... wait... that’s a different show.
The latest game hoping to capitalize on the sense of romance surrounding this era is Railroad Corporation which went into Early Access late May. In its current form, it is a business simulation that tasks players to build railroad networks and transport goods along them for profit.
If this isn’t your first train rodeo, you’ll be familiar with what the game has to offer. You’ll start a map with limited money and a single train station. You’ll build a second, connect it to the original by laying train tracks, buy an engine and set up a route. The simulation doesn’t go as deep as to make you buy wagons, all it asks you to do is select which freight you’ll be transporting.
What freight is available depends on what industries are present near the stations that you’re building. This means there is some strategy in how you expand your network so that it connects complementary businesses. Providing the furniture factory with cloth (which needs cotton) and lumber (which needs wood) may require building and connecting stations across the map. Most maps will provide you with all the basics, but occasionally you’ll have to set up a factory yourself to complete a production chain.
Need for Depth
While I had some fun setting up my networks, and really enjoyed the ease at which the tasks involved in expanding my company could be completed, I did start to see a pattern of things not being very fleshed out.
Railroad Corporation features a lobbying mechanic through which the player can influence taxes and incentives. The very idea is promising but the current implementation is rudimentary at best. Being taxed or making a bit more profit on specific goods doesn’t affect the game all that much. I can imagine, though, that more outspoken measures could be tremendous fun in multiplayer games. Imagine eyeing an opponent’s profitable furniture industry and then successfully lobbying to stop deforestation in the town he’s depending on for his wood.
Research is perhaps a bit too simple as well. After building a Research and Development department you’ll gather points to be invested in research. You select what you want to research and wait for the work to be done. That’s it. There’s some branching in the tech tree but it’s not that intricate, new technologies are too incremental and come by so often that you’ll stop paying attention before long. I’m hoping to see some variation here, perhaps branches that are closed off until you reach a specific goal (bigger coal trucks when you’ve hauled x amount of coal... faster engines that become available if you focus on passengers... anything really).
I mentioned setting up factories. That’s as easy as finding a free plot of zoned land, clicking on it and spending money. Factories do not grow, cannot be upgraded, and once you build it, you own it. There’s no going back as it cannot be sold and should you ever end up with an oversupply of whatever the factory makes then you can’t cut your losses. It’s possible the devs do not foresee any losses - the profit/loss reports are very sparse and if a train is operating at a loss there is no way to tell other than to follow it in its tracks and do some manual calculations. But if there are never any losses, what fun will it be to play against the AI that is scheduled to arrive in fall?
There’s still time
While the above isn’t overly positive, I do find it refreshing that the game is both fairly stable and relatively bug free - I’ve seen much worse EA titles than this. That said, there are a few.
For starters, the game runs smoothly until I reach 15-20 trains. After that, the performance starts to drop and framerates get choppy. Trains also inevitably get stuck and my feeling is that this is partially because there is no route management - trains will take the fastest route available, and you have zero influence. Newly bought trains always start at the station you started the map with and it can be a bit of a pain to get them to their route, especially on larger networks. That’s not really a bug, but it exacerbates the lack of route management. Trains need regular maintenance, but figuring out which ones you’ve sent for repairs involves clicking on each and every one of them. If you think that is a bit of a headache, wait until you want to know how many service slots the station still has available....
On the plus side, the devs are actively updating the game and the roadmap shows that there are some good things to come, like a sandbox (any day now), a stock market and AI competitors. More importantly, though, there’s a good foundation for a solid train management sim underneath the hood - just how much fun it will be is still very much in the hands of its creators.
The game has potential, but we're not ready to jump in with both feet. If the game interests you, look, but don't touch - yet.