It’s not an easy task to find a new strategy/sim game when you’re being this picky. Up until now, I have spent hundreds of hours in Sid Meier’s Civilization V and before that (and I mean waaaay before that), I played Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2. And that was pretty much it. I have something new in front of me, a neat product called Railway Empire. No countries to conquer or bases to build but the strategy element certainly seems to be there. Let’s see if this one manages to slide into my super exclusive club of strategy/RTS/sim games that I enjoy playing.
Hm, story. Should I say story or stories? Once we boot up the game, we are greeted with an infomercial cutscene about trains, train tracks, and train stations and the history surrounding them. You know, just so you don’t forget what game we’re playing. Other than that, there isn’t much of an overarching story in the Railway Empire. However, you have multiple preset scenarios at your disposal consisting of building stations and connecting cities. In any case, you’re on your own.
Railway Empire hides a lot under the hood. Your initial task is to connect a few cities (with train tracks, of course) and bring prosperity to the glorious land of US and A. That is until the other Railway tycoons start going for your throat. So now instead of managing our empire all over the USA, we have to watch out for the competitors and try our best to establish our presence in various cities before them. So what is that thing under the hood that I mentioned above? Railway Empire is a surprisingly serene experience. Once I connected the first few cities and watched by trains go from point A to point B, I found myself being distracted by the scenery. Nature, the mountains and the cities. Sometimes it’s just enough to zoom in on your train(s) and follow them as they go. Track laying mechanic is the most intuitive piece of work I’ve ever seen. While you connect the cities and train stations to one another, you can curve and swerve the train tracks around hills, rocks, and ponds with simple gestures of a mouse. And that’s one of the beauties of this game. While there is a lot to learn to really master the game, every step is well explained and easy to replicate. Whenever you feel like you are stuck in your skirmish play (or a scenario), there are occasional info bubbles above the cities or train stations to carefully nudge you in what direction to play the game next. Think of it as a subtle neverending tutorial.
What’ interesting is for that “train zen” moment to work properly, we also need sufficient power. And power indeed we have. You have a whole USA map at your disposal with cities and train stations that you can zoom in on immediately but nothing is lost visually in that process. Railway Empire has the same level of details from the overview map to the point of zooming on the individual moving trains. Sometimes I felt like a careless NPC tycoon from Red Dead Redemption, just minding my own business with trains and tracks, completely oblivious to the destruction beyond my world. The immersion is there, alright.
While you definitely aren’t alone while puffing and whistling with trains through the landscapes of Railway Empire, I’d often find myself just turning off the game music and playing my own that goes better with the game. Nothing against it, except that it’s a bit repetitive after a while with almost the same motives through all the tracks. I found that the playlist(s) from Fallout New Vegas worked way better from my train managing skills in that regard. As for audio, nothing there required changing. We are going back to that serene part again, enjoying the chirping of the birds and various sounds of the landscape around us while we’re on the way to the next city.
Railway Empire feels like a game that doesn’t really try to sell itself. At all. Instead, it just sits there on a shelf (or in your hard drive), waiting for you patiently to discover it. Then, it lulls you in with a user-friendly interface, superb audio atmosphere, and a great (but never too exhausting) learning curve. The rest is up to you. If you feel like scratching that strategy itch and you’re not in the mood for constant city burning, pillaging, and political backstabbing, the Railway Empire might just be a fresh cup of tea you need.
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