Review: Transport Tycoon

By Owen Faraday 09 Oct 2013 0
Basically science fiction. Though mostly realistic, Transport Tycoon occasionally gets a bit fantastical: here's 12 people who want to go to Milton Keynes, for example.

The only reason Transport Tycoon doesn't seem completely strange to us is because it's so familiar. This is a game about setting up trucking lines and train service. I'm pretty sure that there aren't too many people around the world that go to bed at night to dream about train timetables and other minutiae of logistical planning.

Clearly then, Chris Sawyer is some kind of wizard -- a Willy Wonka who takes mundane stuff and transmutes it into fun. Maybe you dream about Space Marines and fifty-four-yard field goals, but while you're awake, Transport Tycoon is as good value as any of that for entertainment.

Over the decades, Sawyer has never really decided that he was finished with Transport Tycoon. His breakout hit RollerCoaster Tycoon was really just a re-themed Transport Tycoon with some under-the-hood re-jiggering, and RCT 2 was a gradual evolution of that. Chris Sawyer's Locomotion (his last game before going off into the wilderness ten years ago) was basically Transport Tycoon 2, another incremental upgrade on the same framework.

This new iOS & Android version of Transport Tycoon continues in that vein: like all Sawyer games, it's built directly on top of the foundations of its predecessor so it bears a very strong resemblance to Locomotion, and though the UI is scratch-built for touchscreens, it's clearly channelling its PC ancestors. It's not perfect, but it still has that "Have I really been playing this for the last four hours?" magic.

It's electric. Even veteran tycoons will have to dig around to find all of the infrastructure options.

Transport Tycoon is a fully-featured Chris Sawyer game with no compromises at all for the platform it's on. You're handed the directorship of your own logistics firm, a starting purse full of money (a bank loan that you'll have to pay back, actually), and a goal to work towards. You lay down railroad tracks and roads; buy planes, trains, and automobiles (and ships); upgrade vehicles as new models are invented over the years.

At some point in the past decade or two, Sawyer has fallen out of love with procedural generation -- his later games lack the truly randomized starts of his earliest ones, and this Transport Tycoon is no exception, offering only pre-built scenarios to play in. There are an awful lot of scenarios, and many of them are very open-ended, so the absence of a true randomized sandbox mode isn't as big a deal as it would have been otherwise.

The scenarios range from fictional worlds with very specific problems that need tackling (create a profitable transport network in an archipelago, or through a narrow mountain pass) to stylized versions of prime train-spotting turf like the United States, Switzerland, or the British Isles. Some scenarios allow you only to build rail networks or forbid you to build airports, but mostly they're wide open for you to construct as you wish.

As a sandbox game, Transport Tycoon is as complex as you want it to be. If you're after a more casual experience, you can just set up bus stops and depots in a big city and grind out a profit from fares, and grow your network as the city develops. Keep your eye on the bottom line (and your AI competitors) and you can just relax.

In the backseat, there. The birth of Gregg Allman.

Proper logistics nerds can go after more complex bounties, feeding raw materials into a factory and then shipping out the goods it creates -- which is lucrative but more prone to delightful oh crap moments where the livestock farm at the top of your supply chain goes out of business, or the price of one commodity falls and your carefully constructed grain network suddenly isn't covering its operating costs. If tweaking your railroads to find a slightly faster (and thus, more profitable) route for your freight sounds like a really baller Friday night in (it sure does to me), then there is no better past-time for you on a mobile device.

So the core gameplay is, predictably, every bit as good as it has been since the Clinton administration: how's the port? That's a slightly less rosy picture. On my 3rd-gen iPad, Transport Tycoon suffers from the occasional crash, especially on the giant-scale Expert scenarios. That wouldn't be so bad, but for the fact that there's no bloody autosave -- an oversight that will have you near tears when you realize that the majestic cross-country passenger train service you've been sweating over for the last forty-five minutes has just gone the way of the carrier pigeon because you forgot to make a manual save. On the plus side, the game seems to handle big old save files relatively well -- I played a US Midwest scenario for near 50 years with no noticeable slowdown.

Transport Tycoon's other sins are comparatively minor, and are mostly down to the complexity of the game's interface. Switching between laying down tracks and landscaping the earth is cumbersome; frequently-used options like making buildings and trees transparent are buried a couple of clicks too deep. There don't seem to be any options for renaming vehicles or stations, which is a silly oversight. After spending several weeks with the game, I wouldn't go so far as to say that I prefer Transport Tycoon on a tablet, but the experience is very nearly the equal of its mouse-and-keyboard PC ancestor. It's a shame that developers 31X didn't throw out the entire PC-inspired interface and start over from scratch with a purpose-built touchscreen UI -- in that regard, the game is shown up a bit by the recent iOS clone Transport General, which isn't as nice to look at but offers superior touch-screen track-laying.

Veterans of the original Transport Tycoon will slot more or less right in to this new game, though newbies will find a fairly steep learning curve. There's pages and pages of documentation included with the game (which will be required reading for any newcomer hoping to puzzle out the game), though I can imagine a first-timer struggling to take advantage of some of the less intuitive interface options, like adding an electrical third rail to an entire railroad or copy-and-pasting orders from one truck to another.

If you're a fan of the original, you shouldn't hesitate to pick Transport Tycoon up. The technical problems are relatively few and are likely to get ironed out in an update or two. This is far and away the most complex and rewarding sim game on mobile devices. It's in no danger of replacing the PC experience, which benefits from a mouse and a big widescreen monitor, but it's a nice complement to it.

Transport Tycoon was played on a 3rd-gen iPad for this review.

Review: Transport Tycoon

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