Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Rail Nation

I'm not what you'd call a computer games fan. I think I fall in the category "Casual Gamer". Angry Birds was fun until I reached a level where it was difficult. Tetris addictive until I cleared 100 lines and then I've never played it again. Bubbleshooter can also absorb my time but I've convinced myself the Flash version I found on-line was doing bad things to my PC so I stopped playing it. Not sure if that is true, but in my head it is, to save hours of time.

Against this background, being asked to test-drive a new computer game called Rail Nation was a bit of a surprise. Never mind, I thought, I'll give it a go.

Rail Nation is a simulation game where you get to build your own rail network. Starting from a single loco and line, you can expand your empire to your hearts content. If you've played "Transport Tycoon" or similar games then you get the idea. The big difference is that Rail Nation is played on-line and doesn't cost you anything to get started. It seems the income will be generated through in-game purchases, although since you don't (as far as I can tell) have to make any of these, then for many players, it will be free fun.

Anyway, after registering you can chose which world you begin in. An on-screen helper leads newbies through the process of buying trains and setting up schedules so you get an income. It's recommended you being in the "coalbox" world (a play on the concept of "sandbox" worlds in other games). I'm not sure how different this is from other worlds as the only other one I looked at seemed to work in the same way.

The graphics look pretty good to me. You can see your trains in action, keep tabs on what they are doing and move around the world by dragging it. Icons take you to different screens. If I'm honest, it looks every bit as good as a game you would have to pay for.

Obviously you can't just spray track everywhere, you have to manage the process. Engines sheds have to be upgraded to house your growing collection of rolling stock. Wagons (no coaches in the game as far as I saw) are purchased based on the haulage capabilities of the locos and traffic they will be moving.

There's also other businesses you can invest in for added income, even lottery tickets to buy if you fancy your luck.

The games appears to run in 14 day sessions and the winner if the person who earns the most money. Yes, there are other real people playing alongside you. It's possible (desirable if you want to progress quickly) to join with them in organisations. You can chat too, making it a social experience.

With all this taking place over several days, it's useful that you can leave the game and come back to it and it's all been happening while you've been away. I hadn't expected this but was surprised to received an e-mail alerting me to a problem with one of my engines. Logging back in, I found they had been hard at work earning money for me overnight.

Money is important, as is time. Time allows your research people to develop upgrades for locos. Initially these are bigger domes to improve tractive effort and thus the number of wagons haulable. Stay with it long enough and the engines available improve from basic steam models to diesels that look a lot like German engines and something a lot like a UK Class 66. Charting these developments is possible on a screen that looks a bit like a family tree.

Anyway, is it any good?

Well, yes. I had a fairly light play, no more than 3 hours on and off. From this I could see that to get the best out of the game, you really need to immerse yourself in the world. There were several other Beta testers playing and most were doing a lot better than me. I guess that practise makes perfect - where should you allocate resources to increase the pace of development for example? Or how do you set up the most effective and profitable schedule to keep the trains earning their keep ?

The interactive element, working with other players apparently makes a huge different to your earning potential too but I'll admit I didn't do much in this direction.

The idea that the world keeps changing while you are away is neat. New industries will spring up to be serviced and next time you log in you'll have to decide where your resources are best deployed. Because of this, you'll need to be more than a casual gamer to get the best from Rail Nation but then I suspect that putting effort in to the game will be rewarded.

Will this keep me away from the modelling bench? No. I spend enough time in front of a computer and not being able to throw myself in to the world means I wouldn't get the best from it. Having said this, I can see that learning about allocating resources and working with other people could be both entertaining, educational and enjoyable - something you can't say about most computer games.

Play Rail Nation for free here.

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