It's typically said of horror games that you should play them with headphones on and the lights turned off. I think the same should be said of train simulators, because driving a diesel train down the side of a mountain while pulling so many cars you can't see the end of them can be just as intense and heart-pounding as any haunted house.
I spent a little time this week with the alpha build of Train Simulator 2014. What's changed in the past year? Well, there's a slick new menu that lets you quickly and easily get get rolling down the track of your choice. You can play a tutorial to learn the ropes, begin with some career scenarios, or engage in a “Quick Drive,” where you pick a train (or put together your own by snapping together cars), choose your route, and decide on the time of day, the season, and the weather. There's also a button to access Train Simulator 2014's Steam Workshop, a brave inclusion for a series that thrives on selling official add-on packs.
This year's “career mode” presents you with a bunch of scenarios along different routes of varying difficulties and durations. You can pick some shorter, easier challenges if you're playing with time constraints, or go for the long haul with some extended scenarios. The reason I put it “career mode” in quotes is because I was expecting it to be a series of progressively more challenging scenarios that you would tackle in order as you increased in skill, but (at least in the alpha build I played) you can play them in any order you choose.
If you own Train Simulator 2013, you'll get most of the new stuff as a free update via Steam. The Train Simulator series is best seen as a single game that's expanded organically over the past few years. These annual releases are convenient stepping-on points for new players, and come with extra routes and engine improvements.
TS 2014 ships with three routes that were previously sold separately. There's the snowy, craggy route of Donner Pass through the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and Germany's Hamburg to Hannover route, both of which were add-ons to TS 2013. There's also the London to Faversham high speed route in England, which could be purchased standalone. You also get ten new trains, including the ICE 2, which, I have on good authority, is a type of train.
As it did when I played TS 2013 last year, driving trains in TS 2014 is almost entirely enjoyable. At times it's incredibly tense and nerve-wracking, at other times it's perfectly pleasant and hypnotic, and, yes, it can occasionally be kind of boring, all of which I imagine driving a real train is like. The trains, of course, are wonderfully detailed and the optional control overlay is easy to use.
I gave the snowy and woodsy Donner Pass route a couple tries, seeing as how I only live a couple hours from that region and drive through there every now and then. I also pulled a long chain of identical tractors through Germany: in my mind I was saving the day as I made a rush delivery for Germany's world-famous Festival of Tractors.
I also collected passengers and distributed them through London, or at least I tried to, though one early morning commuter trip didn't go so well unless all of my passengers worked at a hospital and were planning to go there anyway. Once they were on board I throttled up, unfortunately in the wrong direction, and collided with the end of the track. Another particularly enjoyable nighttime scenario had me moving my engine from junction to junction, slowly driving to one location, backing up to another, moving like a diesel-powered chess piece as I closed in, eventually, on the cars I needed to couple with.
If you enjoy the Train Simulator games, this probably won't feel particularly new (apart from the menus), although it could be a good chance to get the three additional routes and ten extra trains for considerably less than you'd pay for them individually - Train Simulator 2014 costs £35 / $55, the routes alone cost £25 / $40 each.
If you've never played Train Simulator before, this probably isn't a bad place to climb aboard. The basic controls tutorial takes only a couple minutes to learn and jumping into the driver's seat, either in an existing scenario, or one of your own making, is incredibly easy.
Train Simulator 2014 is out tomorrow, September 26.