Has there ever been a proper train simulator on a console? We've had legendary arcade racing games like Xtreme Express on the PS2, and maybe the odd obscure A-Train game, but as far as we remember, there's been nothing of the sort on the simulation front - or at least, not on these shores, and not on this scale.
With the genre being pretty sparsely populated even on PC, Train Sim World: Founder's Edition, then, is something of a groundbreaker - a game designed to test the waters, and see just how much demand there is amongst the console market for a proper, deep, complex, and sometimes challenging simulation of everything train related. And as it turns out, there's a lot more to it than just complaining about the wrong types of leaves on the line.
Though it may be dubbed "Founder's Edition", what you have here is, for all intents and purposes, the Train Sim World expansion "Great Western Express" that launched last September on PC, only released here on the Xbox One in stand alone form. Packing in 40 miles of accurately modelled track, scenery and stations, you'll be able to take three very different Great Western Railway trains from London to Reading (and everywhere in between), as you either pick a service and try and stick to its realistic 24 hour timetable, or try one of the game's five challenging scenarios.
However, Train Sim World is more than your average simulator. Made using the Unreal Engine 4, this is a game that channels the first person credentials of its engine to let you get out of the driver's seat, wander down the train, stroll around the platforms, and even jump onto another train if you get bored of the one you're driving. Making it feel less like you're just a random camera in an empty train, and more like an actual person in the game's world, it's a little touch that really adds to the immersion - especially when you have to jump off a goods train to go and hook it up to whatever you need to pull.
In terms of the trains themselves, while there are only three different varieties here, each one actually feels markedly different to the last - and once you've driven one train, you certainly won't be able to drive them all. With fully recreated cabs, each full of levers, switches, buttons, and other assorted gizmos, it can all feel a little bit overwhelming at first - but with a handy series of tutorials telling you where all the most important bits are, you'll be feeling like a pro in no time.
At the bottom of the difficulty pile (weirdly) lies the British Rail Class 45/InterCity 125/or HST - a high speed intercity train that, as you may guess from its name, can hit a top speed of 125 mph (or faster if you're willing to break the speed limits)... With a separate throttle and brake, it's one of the easiest trains to handle, with the right trigger increasing your throttle, RB decreasing it, and the left trigger/LB doing the same for your brakes. Rather than having to squeeze to go (or slow), most trains in the game work using "notches", where squeezing the right trigger increases your throttle setting by a notch, while pressing the RB takes it down a notch, with the same principle applied to the brake. Once you've learnt how to turn off the master lock and put it in forward gear, you're pretty much good to go.
In the middle is the Class 166 - a bog standard commuter-style train designed to operate stopping services - although sadly not named so because it can reach 166 mph. With a totally different layout in the cab, the biggest practical difference here is that the throttle/brake are now on one stick, so you have to ratchet up through four or five different settings of brake before you can make the train start going (and vice versa when it comes to stopping).
Meanwhile, in the "pro tier" of the game's trains sits the Class 66. A diesel freight train, this is a hugely powerful locomotive, yet one that feels like it's been really over-engineered. Again with a completely different cab, the thing that makes the Class 66 stand out is its immensely awkward braking system. Rather than a simple brake like in the other two trains, the Class 66 instead uses two separate brakes, which operate on a pressure system. Holding the left trigger will increase pressure on the brakes, and you'll need to watch the gauge in the bottom right of the screen (or on the train dashboard), as the dial slowly moves up or down. Stop pushing the brake lever, and the pressure will stay applied to the brake, with the gauge staying where it is - meaning you'll keep slowing down. You'll need to release the pressure manually when you want to start off again. Where things get more complicated is that there are two types of brake - a "direct" brake, and a "automatic" brake (the game doesn't explain the difference between the two), with both having their own separate needles on the dial. With the train itself having cabs at both ends, those journeys where you need to switch from one end to the other can be particularly confusing, as releasing the brake at the one end doesn't appear to release it at the other...
Disappointingly though, there's no "advanced" tutorials, to take you through what the rest of the dials and buttons do in each train. The Class 66, for example, has a gigantic fuse box behind your head that you can open, and interact with - but why you'd ever need to change a fuse mid-journey, we're not sure (have Dovetail even simulated random fuses blowing? Not that we've seen - but maybe we're just driving carefully). We also can't help but wander what the "hot plate" option does - it seems to be next to some sort of stove (and according to a quick Google, that's exactly what it is), but sadly, the "boil a cuppa" option appears to missing. Similarly, while it might be nice to be able to set the air con temperature in the HST, it'd be even nicer to have a reason to do so - passenger comfort, perhaps?
In terms of what you actually get to do when you've made the trains go... well, that's where Train Sim World starts to get a little bit disappointing. On the plus side, you have a range of five scenarios to play through, each of which take anywhere from 45 to 75 minutes (or in our case, over two hours...) to tackle, and which attempt to recreate tricky issues from the day in the life of a driver. From Christmas maintenance works (ho hum), to broken down high speed trains that need recovery, there's a pretty wide range of scenarios on offer considering there's only five of them - but then again, there are only five. In terms of any structured missions, that feels a bit thin on the ground. Entertaining though they may be, there's not actually all that much that goes into each scenario - it's just a sequence of waypoints/objectives, and a brief bit of intro dialogue at the start. 30 would feel like a fairer number.
Outside of the scenarios, you can try your hand at driving one of the many services on the game's realistic, 24 hour timetable. Choosing to either start at the helm of a particular service, or spawn "on foot" before hijacking a train of your choosing, everything in the game works to a realistic schedule - and sadly, you're not allowed to drive outside it. While it is cool having a timetable to try and stick to, we do miss the ability to set our own routes, and put together our own trains/stock. More frustratingly, sticking to a timetable means there's a heck of a lot of waiting involved in the game, too. Both the services mode, and the scenarios will often see you having to sit around for five or ten minutes, with literally nothing to do, just waiting until it's time for your train to go.
Really, all Train Sim World needs is a "fast forward" button, or a time-skipping autopilot, like all of the old flight sims used to do, which could both take control, and forward time until you're actually needed again (like when you're approaching a yellow signal, or a station's coming up). While actually going and recovering a train may be fun, the hour long drive back to the depot afterwards just ends up feeling a bit mind numbing after a few minutes, with nothing at all to do bar stare out the window at the scenery. Maybe it might feel different if you recognised the bits you're driving past - as soon as Dovetail come out with Train Sim World: Stourbridge Junction to Birmingham Moor Street, we'll let you know.
Perhaps more disappointing, though, are the technical issues. Seemingly needing a little bit more polish, Train Sim World: Founder's Edition has a frame rate that can be all over the place, going from silky smooth - even in train stations when several trains are around - to a juddery, screen-tearing game that chugs (but not like a train should), in the middle of the countryside. More worryingly, there are some pretty serious bugs here that can force you to have to save and reload your game. Any switches and dials in the cab are interacted with using the left analogue stick - you hover over it, hold A, and then select the option you need by sliding a selector up and down a pop-up bar using the left analogue stick. The only problem is, sometimes the left analogue stick will stop working for interacting with controls. When that happens, if you're trying to do something the game doesn't have a specific shortcut for, you're basically screwed unless you reload your game - or you're lucky enough to have the game suddenly fixes itself (which happened to us on several occasions).
There are other technical issues that get in the way too. Sometimes, the engine sounds on trains really play up. While you're sitting in the cab, the engine chugs along in the background - but if you stand up out of your chair, it'll suddenly sound like you're outside, and will stay that way. Similarly, doors are there to prevent accidents, yet at times the driver's doors on the trains (particularly the stopping-service Class 166) don't actually work as such, meaning it's possible to fall out of your moving train while wandering around the cab. And as for why the snow and rain seem to be worst inside the covered concourse of Paddington station...
But that's not to say Train Sim World is broken - it's just a bit rough around the edges. In fact, we really appreciate what Dovetail have tried to do here - and we're keen to see it do well. Designed as a sim that both the simming hardcore, and hobbyist newcomers will enjoy, it's a game that genuinely does make driving an incredibly complex train easy - although we can't help but wish there were a few more tutorials. For starters, something telling us what a yellow signal means would be nice, while little things like an ETA to your next station (so you know if you need to floor it more than your otherwise would), and the ability to have your next station call listed in the "upcoming things you need to pay attention to" bit that shows up at the side of the screen would make our life in the game a lot easier. It'd also be nice to have a bit more advice when things go wrong - like a tooltip about why your train isn't moving (have you forgotten to take the emergency brake off?), or something to tell you why the signal's on red, and how long you'll have to wait.
While we may have preferred having a few more scenarios, and a few less waits, Train Sim World: Founder's Edition is still a really impressive simulator that manages to be both incredibly complex, and surprisingly accessible at the same time. Managing to start a train from cold gives you a real sense of achievement, while the first time you manage to make your service actually reach every stop on time is a true cause for celebration. It may not be your average Xbox game, but we hope Train Sim World finds an audience on consoles - and that this is the first of many yet to come.
Format Reviewed: Xbox One