When I was a child, like many other kids I had a love of all things trains. Building toy tracks and pretending to rule the railways was one of my favourite things to do, although growing up in an old Victorian railway station might have played its part in that. As somebody who never really got into the PC gaming scene I never really had much chance to get into the railway tycoon games of a decade or so ago, so upon hearing that Kalypso Media’ own in-house studio – “Gaming Minds” was putting together a Railway Tycoon type game and porting it to console, well its fair to say the kid in me was foaming at the mouth to finally get to try and build up my very own Railway Empire in glorious 4K and HDR on Xbox One X.
Set out over one hundred years starting from 1830, Railway Empire puts you in control of building and managing of the railroads during the industrialisation of America. You begin the campaign in 1863 during the final stages of the Trans-Continental railroad that was completed between the great plains area from Omaha to its finale near Salt Lake City. As you could probably guess, the opening scenario teaches you the basics of track building and signal settings as you lay your first lines between Omaha and Norfolk for your very first locomotive, the 1863 Coal powered Philadelphia engine.
Staying true to Kalypso Media’s own Tropico game style, you are joined by a person of significance from the specific era who will act as your guide through the missions giving hints of what to do and mumbling on about themselves that gives you little tidbits about who they are and their own, sometimes arrogant reasons for expanding the railways. You carry on through the scenario, laying tracks, connecting metropolitan areas to farms and other towns and cities in a mission that will take between thirty to sixty minutes to complete whilst knocking off tasks that must be completed before certain dates along the timeline. Nearly everything you do is accessed via the circle menu which will be your go-to menu and selection hub for the console version of the game, from selecting staff members for your trains and company, to unlocking new technology and upgrades for your cities and trains.
Once completed, you then carry on through the rest of the campaign which takes you from coast to coast, New York to Los Angeles, each taking in a separate regions and times of historical importance from the humble east coast beginnings of the network to the railroads significance in pushing back the Confederates during the American Civil War. Although there are only five missions in the main campaign, it will still take you up to fifteen hours to complete and possibly more if you want to go back and reach perfect scores which can only be attained on the hardest difficulties which include being unable to stop time during gameplay, laying tracks realistically and having to use signals correctly. All of these settings can be dumbed right down for novices taking their first steps into a tycoon game including allowing all trains to pass through each other on the same track line and the reversal of the other mentioned settings.
The campaign is just one area of content in Railway Empire, with other options including Scenarios, Free mode and Sandbox all available from the get-go. As expected, Sandbox lets you do what you want with unlimited funds, no A.I. rivals and all technology unlocked. Now we have Scenarios which expands on the campaign with new missions and is the largest piece of content within Railway Empire. Here you will undertake Eleven new missions that all have their own task list to complete, from helping build transportation routes for the gold rush era of the mid-1800s to help with the massive growth of the metropolitan areas of the northeast like New York and Pittsburgh. Scenarios add some great standalone content and all missions can take up to two hours each which adds up to another twenty-five hours of play time for the most dedicated of tycoons. Finally you have the Free mode game type which is a mash-up of Sandbox and Scenarios, the biggest difference here is that you select the era, area, A.I and more, but you still have to complete timeline quests to max out your final scores, but if you don’t like the milestones given to you, just back out and reload till you get a list which is more to your taste or playstyle. With seven separate regions of a well designed, scaled down version of America each consisting of five eras each, depending which way you look at it, this area of the game gives almost limitless ways to play and is definitely my favourite mode due to the customisation available.
As much as I have had bags of fun with Railway Empire in the forty or so hours played for this review, there is still a few problems and missing features that I would love to have available to me. To begin with, multiplayer is nowhere to be seen and is a big omission in my opinion, especially considering that Tropico five had this feature, and while the development might have been done by separate studios, they still fall under the same Kalypso umbrella which is more than apparent in the art style and feel of the game. Hopefully this is something which could be implemented in the future if the game is a big enough success.
I cant talk about problems without bringing up the biggest killer for me in the game, that killer being the immersion breaking, cheating and highly annoying A.I opponents. To begin with, as mentioned earlier, you can set your train lines to an easy difficulty so trains pass through each other with no need for parallel lines and signals etc, but on any map where you have realistic settings, your opponents just ignore this altogether. At one time I witnessed a good five or six trains all ghosted through each other at an AI station delivering their own goods and passengers whilst my own locomotives are queued up in a nice orderly fashion waiting for space to become available. This becomes quite infuriating at later stages of the missions when you see the value of your competitors go through the roof because they don’t abide by the rules you set for the active mission. Because of this, the options of buying shares in your opponents companies and making large bids for industries become much harder for a relaxed playstyle, so you end up with scenarios that can turn into a frantic mess and hoping that your own company does not get bought-out which brings an abrupt end to the mission leaving you to start again or reload an earlier save to change your tactics. If only you could use a keyboard and mouse to help streamline the slow map scrolling and management late game, but that’s a debate for another day.