Rails Across America
Rails Across America, the brainchild of Seattle-based Flying Lab Studios and Canadian publisher Strategy First, is a very in-depth and intense look into the world of cutthroat railway management. From the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution to the present day and beyond, Rails Across America combines financial and territorial based strategy to see who will become the greatest railroad magnate of the last century. Will it be you?
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
Rails Across America is easily explained: Overpower your opponents to become the dominant force in railway travel and commerce. The purpose of the game is to garner respect rather than merely having the most money or track mileage; a novel concept. This respect is allotted in the form of Prestige points. Prestige can be earned in many ways: through completing important rail lines, such as the Intercontinental Railway or the Trans-Canadian, through continually posting profits on your lines, or even through direct purchase.
That’s not to say money’s not important, though. Finances play a big part in this game, allowing you to purchase track, trains, access rights, influence, and many other things. You also have access to bank loans in case your cash on hand gets low (and it will, trust me). Combine this with a constantly fluctuating economy and you’ll see just how important a good grasp of finances can be. I found myself on the edge of bankruptcy several times, building what I thought would be a financially sound rail line when the country suddenly went into a recession. While bankruptcy is severe (the game auctions off some of your lines to raise money to cover your expenses), you can still win the game after coming out of it. I personally needed to use some "influence" to get back into the game.
While we’re on the subject, let’s discuss my favorite aspect of the game, the "Dirty tricks" department. The game allows you to do a lot of behind the scenes dealing (meaning "illegal"), everything from a mildly annoying safety inspection on your tracks to the devastating stock raid. As the game is played, randomly generated "cards" are dealt to the player. These cards have different point values and can be traded in for cash or used to influence your opponents. Be warned, though. Using such tactics may be harmful to your Prestige if you aren’t careful.
Gameplay is extremely simple, yet can become complex quite quickly. Laying track is a matter of clicking a button and selecting a destination city. Building tracks is the easy part, but maintaining them, making sure you have enough trains or decent switching, and constantly monitoring traffic becomes quite difficult quickly. The game does provide you with the ability to hire a track manager to take care of the day to day maintenance, but if you like doing it all yourself, the option is there for you.
The game is a fantastic tactical experience, pitting you against either live or computer controlled opponents with rail lines such as yours, along with owners of "shortlines," small market railways connecting just two cities. Shortlines themselves add strategy to the mix, as you can buy them out, control them, or simply try to bankrupt them into submission or auction. Believe me, your opponents will try to do the same as well.
All of the aforementioned aspects of the game are mentioned in a ticker at the bottom of the screen, which works in real time. If a player makes an offer on a shortline, a bankruptcy or dirty trick is played, or if lending rates rise or fall, you’ll see it happen. The ticker can be your best friend in this game.
The folks at Flying Lab stress this is the best part of the game: the ability to link several players together online, either locally or via the Internet. The game itself works either via LAN or Internet and supports up to 10 players simultaneously. I can see this is the real draw for this game, unfortunately, I received this game before the Internet site was up. My opinion is that it would generally not have the latency problems associated with FPS or other real-time strategies in that the interface seems to be quite simple and not a lot of data would have to travel across the wire at once.
Graphics are standard, but not anything to shout about. While cut-scenes and in-game menus look to be hand drawn and nicely done, the playing field itself is rather mediocre. Simple city locations and some terrain and rail iconography a la SimCity pretty much tells you what to expect visually. In the game’s defense, "eye candy" is not actually necessary, as the game’s main draw is its strategic aspects. My guess is the designers sacrificed graphics for pure gameplay, to their benefit.
This is possibly the weakest aspect of the game. While in-game noises like train whistles, construction noises, and the like are rendered admirably, the repetitious soundtrack leaves something to be desired. Maybe it’s just me, but I can only listen to a banjo version of "I’ve Been Working On The Railroad" so many times… Mercifully, the controls allow you to turn off the music without losing any of the ambience.
P200, 64MB RAM, and Win9x/ME/2000/XP.
Fans of strategy gaming (as well as the rabid "Tycooners" out there) will easily enjoy the detail and strategy associated with this game. However, if you’re looking for a lot of graphics, like with Railroad Tycoon II or others, or for a decent soundtrack, it might be better to look elsewhere. Never having played any of the Tycoon series of games myself, much of this was new territory, but an extremely enjoyable time nevertheless. Recommended for all strategists out there who like a good, non-violent competition, both singly as well as for the multiplayer aspect of it.