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A Satisfying Virtual Vocation
BILL WOOD | FEBRUARY 18, 2021
A couple of years ago I penned an article on Farming Simulator 17, praising it as a refreshing and rewarding gaming experience. Well, I’m happy to say that farming sims are still quite popular. In fact, we’ve evolved into fully-realized agricultural RPGs these days (Stardew Valley, Farmer’s Dynasty), with all that that entails. However, an entirely different sim genre has been consuming my gaming time as of late.
Locomotive enthusiasts have been developing and nurturing their own passionate pastimes for decades, heck, maybe even centuries. Model hobbyists devote countless hours to perfecting their ideal railroad landscapes in miniaturized form. Others ride the subway not as a necessity, but as a form of escapism. And while I’m not exactly sure what trainspotting is, I know that it’s a thing. Finally, gamers have a valid railroading experience for themselves in Dovetail Games’ Train Sim World 2. It’s a bumpy ride in areas, but it’s also a brilliant diversion for those of us who love to visit new places and are currently unable to do so.
At its heart, Train Sim World 2 (TSW2) is a full-on locomotive operation simulation, placing you in charge of a vast array of passenger and freight trains and requiring you to run timely routes throughout North America and Europe. Actually, you can opt not to participate in driving the train at all, hopping instead on a commuter line and staring out of your virtual window at virtual rolling countrysides and acres of virtual farm land. You can even ditch the train entirely and start walking the tracks, which renders a potential Hobo Sim spin-off entirely invalid. But as a straight-faced video game sim experience, TSW2 really wants you to master the ins-and-outs of train operation. Have no idea what a cut-out valve is, or how many braking systems are on a Caltrain Baby Bullet? You’re about to learn.
As it turns out, driving a full-scale locomotive is really complicated. Make that really, really complicated. The simple act of preparing for departure can require as many as a dozen individual actions, everything from setting rail junctions to raising pantographs. Switches, lights, dials, brakes, gauges...things can quickly get overwhelming. TSW2 features an assortment of tutorials and introductions, but at the same time the game often leaves you hanging when it comes to major functions after you’re seated in the engineer’s chair. As a result, I found myself jumping on Google or even hitting the Restart button when I couldn’t make the train do what I wanted, which was mostly move forward.
Once you familiarize yourself with the cabin of your train (there are literally dozens available in TSW2, each with its own unique control scheme), it’s time to get familiar with your route. This is where TSW2 really gets on the good foot. There are loads of accurately-detailed lines available, every one a rewarding experience unto itself. In England alone, you’ve got the storied Bakerloo Line (or “Tube,” as the locals say), the Great Western Express, the Tees Valley Line, the Isle of Wight, the Northern Trans-Pennine, the West Somerset Railway. and the Southeastern High Speed, with additional routes available in Germany, France, Canada and the United States, and even more currently in development. Note that most of these routes are sold separately and are on the pricey side. Trains are also sold as DLC, so if you’re a gaming completionist you could be looking at upwards of $500 to experience everything TSW2 has to offer. Thankfully, this is not even close to a requirement. You get three routes (one American, one German, one English) and their corresponding trains with the core game, and these alone can keep you occupied for hours upon hours. The DLC is totally optional and sales are frequent.
Two of my personal favorite routes are the aforementioned Bakerloo Line and East Coastway. Bakerloo is the quintessential London commuter train experience, it's a route that many tourists dream about experiencing and it’s well represented in TSW2. You'll hit the stops for Baker Street (home of Sherlock Holmes!), Piccadilly Circus, and numerous other iconic London locations. Note that you won't actually see these locations as the Tube runs mostly underground, but if you crane your neck along the above-ground Wembley stops you just might catch a glimpse of Wembley Stadium's famous rooftop. East Coastway is almost the polar opposite of Bakerloo, a charming countryside line that runs the southeastern coast between Brighton and Eastbourne. Smaller towns decorate this mostly-rural region of England, and spotting Brighton and Hove Albion's football grounds in Falmer is always a highlight.
Customization options are surprisingly robust. You can design your own liveries and scenarios within the game, you can even choose the season, weather, and time of day. Want to head out of Manchester with a custom-themed livery at 6am with a light summer rain? You can do that. Whichever train, route and environmental setting you choose, settling into the virtual engineer’s seat, checking the timetable then heading out is a relaxing experience.
While TSW2 succeeds in most areas, it definitely has it share of technical snags. There are a few nasty bugs that occasionally detract from the experience, and performance can be problematic in areas. I’m on a PS4 Pro and have encountered some distracting pop-up and frame rate issues, mostly when moving the free camera around from the external view. This is perhaps not surprising when you consider that the game has to render terrain several miles in the distance around a locomotive that is moving in upwards of 200mph. On the upside, the developer is very transparent when it comes to providing timelines for bug fixes as well as release dates for upcoming content.
The wife and I have had London and Paris on our agenda for awhile now. Early last year it seemed as though it was finally going to happen, and then, well… you know. Now I’m not suggesting that we all abandon any hope of resuming normal travel schedules and start living inside the matrix, but at the very least Train Sim World 2 does temporarily scratch the itch and allow you to experience a fraction of what you may be missing out on. Sure you can hop on YouTube and watch any number of 4K videos that highlight these regions, but TSW2 provides this experience from a virtual touring and operations perspective that many sim gamers will appreciate. - BW