Hands-on Preview: Transport Tycoon for iOS & Android

Well worth the ticket.

All aboard.

Transport Tycoon is that rare nostalgic lust object that is actually as good as you remember it. That cartoon you recall so fondly is formulaic and actually for children. That comedy you laughed so hard ten years ago? All of the jokes are dated now and if you make your significant other watch it with you, it’s going to get awkward on the couch. But not Transport Tycoon. No, Transport Tycoon still works.

The enigmatic Chris Sawyer’s first game from 1994 was an open-ended sandbox time-pit when Notch was still learning how to make “Hello, World” programs. If anything, Transport Tycoon was nerdier than Minecraft ever could be: this was a game about logistics. Given a randomly-generated world, your task was to unite its isolated cities with railways, bus services, and airlines — while ensuring that you turned a profit.

Transport Tycoon was so good that not even Chris Sawyer himself could duplicate it: after the Roller Coaster Tycoon games, he tried his hand recapturing the logistical magic with a game called Locomotion. It was roundly rejected by critics and fans alike and afterwards Sawyer just vanished into the ether, seemingly hanging up the game development spurs.

When the return of Transport Tycoon was announced, I was ready to be disappointed. Nostalgia vampires like EA have taught us to be skeptical about familiar names worn on new shirts. But Transport Tycoon still works — and that goes for this new edition, too. And it’s got the fingerprints of Chris Sawyer himself on it.

Chuffington

Transport Tycoon’s penchant for charmingly weird fictional English towns continues.

This new mobile Transport Tycoon is no cynical cash-in. Built by London studio Origin8 under the auspices of Chris Sawyer, it is a proper premium game with nary an in-app purchase in sight. Those who shuddered at EA’s mechanically separated Ultima and thought to Transport Tycoon needn’t worry.

It’s a game that respects its source material. The new Transport Tycoon takes great care to maintain the look and feel of Simon Foster‘s graphics for the original Chris Sawyer games: the vehicles look like die-cast models and the land is sculpted with that familiar geometric chiselling. The music is that strange midi jazz that you’ll nod along with for ten seconds and then turn off forever. The visibly pixelated textures might be a touch too retro for some, but that backward-looking sentimentality doesn’t creep into the UI, thank goodness, which was clearly built from the ground up with a touch interface in mind.

The UI is actually a bit of a bear at first, not because it’s poorly designed but because the game is so uncompromisingly complex. Transport Tycoon isn’t a mobile time-waster, it’s a full-on business sandbox like the original. Vehicles get less reliable as they age and need to be replaced with newer models. Rail networks can be made as labyrinthine as you like, with signals, over-head electrical power, and bridges built from a choice of materials. Competitors will arise and attempt to steal away your customers with more efficient routes. Because a lot of details are tucked away in menus, the first half-hour with the game involves a lot of reading the in-game help and starting over scenarios to recover from expensive mistakes. But once you’ve got the UI down, it’s very rewarding.

No more Hereford Leopards.

Planes and trains now have their real-life names in Transport Tycoon.

A working knowledge of the original Transport Tycoon helps, of course, but there’s elements here that incorporate some of Sawyer’s post-Transport Tycoon UI thinking: laying down tracks and roads is done the segment-by-segment way you put together roller coaster tracks in RCT 2, for example, and the map rotates the way that RCT’s did, as well. Like the RCT games, the content is structured around a big helping of different scenarios (both fictional and historical), rather than on randomly generated maps. There’s a few things borrowed from the open source fan extension Open TTD, too, like copying & pasting routes from one vehicle to another.

There’s still a few weeks to go until Transport Tycoon comes out for iOS (the projected launch date is 3 October for iOS and Android) and the game definitely needs those last few weeks of polish. The app suffers from the occasional crash, vehicle pathfinding can be wonky at times, and the absence of an autosave feature is slightly mad for a mobile game. If Origin8 can rub out a couple of those problems before launch day, this new Transport Tycoon will be exactly the mobile update that the game deserved.

Transport Tycoon was played on a 4th-gen iPad for this preview.