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volume 1, issue 22

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Off the Shelf:
The Top Shelf






By Jason "loonyboi" Bergman

Title: Railroad Tycoon II
Publisher: Gathering of Developers
Developer: Pop Top Software
Average Price: $40


’ve come to the conclusion that there are, essentially, three kinds of strategy games. The first group is the "instantly accessible" kind. This category includes such titles as Starcraft and Warcraft, and a good chunk of the real time war titles out there. Usually anyone not familiar with the title and/or the interface can get into the game in a matter of minutes. The second category, is the "instantly accessible plus" kind of game. Like the "instantly accessible" games, these are fairly easy to understand, but unlike those, there are a number of really complex features under the surface if you get really into the game. Games that fall into this category would be Civilization, and Age of Empires. I’m not trying to trivialize the complexity of the above war games, but generally speaking, these are more complex.

And then there’s that third category. Oh yeah…you know what I’m talking about…those games that are for the uber-strategy fan. Generally these can be spotted a mile away, since well…their manuals tend to block out the sun for at least that distance. Games that fall into this category would be Imperialism (and any other major war strategy game) and naturally…Railroad Tycoon II. But the weird thing about Railroad Tycoon II is how deceptive it is. For a game as dense as it is, you’d expect a major manual, right? These games carry with them a giant RTFM sticker, so naturally I was expecting a serious phonebook. Imagine my surprise when I discovered I could actually lift Railroad Tycoon II’s manual with one hand. Heck, it took a garrison to lift the Falcon 4.0 manual…I was at least expecting to call in some help. But nope…easy lifting.

And easy reading as well. A bit…too easy. Maybe it was just me, but I didn’t feel like I understood much of anything about the game when I finished reading the manual. Of course, I had yet to put any of that skill to good use…so blame it on lack of experience. So, I picked up the foldout quick reference card (any decent strategy game has one, of course) and hopped in to make me some hard cash in Railroad Tycoon II. Ooh yeah. I popped in the CD, started a game at the normal skill level, and proceeded to get going. Dig it.

The first thing you’ll notice about Railroad Tycoon II is how much it resembles the original title (that being Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon). From a distance everything really looks very similar. Well, except of course, for the major resolution leap…Railroad Tycoon II runs in 1024x768 in 16-bit color…yow! The game is pretty, no doubt about it. The world maps are pretty dang big, and there’s a major thrill you get when you zoom all the way in to see all those little houses become big, polygonal buildings. Mighty cool stuff, all things considered.

So after getting over the initial shock of how cool it looked, I started playing. Oy. I lasted maybe…ten minutes before I went broke. All I did was build a single station and some track, and already I was broke. I floated a few bonds, issued some stock, did everything I could before I realized…I wasn’t getting to far without doing the tutorial. It has been a few years since the original, and even then, I don’t remember how to play that one especially well anyway. :)

So okay, I loaded up the tutorial. Now, maybe I’m just an incredibly stupid, stupid person, but I couldn’t even do the tutorial right. Yowza. Personally? I blame it on the interface. It’s not that it’s a bad, or poorly designed interface, in fact, I think it’s a pretty efficient use of space. The problem is that there’s just so…much stuff on the screen at any given time that it becomes a bit hard on the eyes. Compare the interface in Railroad Tycoon II to the one in Starcraft and you start to see what I mean. In Starcraft, there’s a strip along the bottom with all the important stuff on it displayed. All of the major commands are done via simple left and right clicks, while looking at the bottom panel. A few readouts on the top of the screen keep you posted as to how you’re doing with resources.

So that’s Starcraft. So now look at Railroad Tycoon II. Railroad Tycoon II has a similar strip at the bottom, only there’s a number of extra buttons along the bottom, and along the top right (a total of eight in all at the bottom part alone). Then, alongside the left side, there’s another eight buttons. Now we’re talking about sixteen buttons on the screen at all times…and three readout displays. That’s a bit intimidating at first, to say the least.

After getting over my initial shock of the interface, I slowed things down a bit, and studied the screen. I attempted to build my empire again. This time around I was slightly more successful. By successful, I mean I was able to set up two stations and have a train connect them without going broke. :)

The game is unbelievably complex. While you’re building your railroad system, you’ve got to worry about your cash flow. That’s nothing new for people who are used to Sim City and its ilk, but here your cash is determined not only by how much you spend/earn, but also how much your salary is (the stockholders will raise or lower it depending on how they think you’re doing) and how your stock is doing. If you start loosing cash you can issue a bond or two…but just hope you finish the scenario before you have to pay it back, buddy…that’ll kill you in the long run. For the financial types out there, you’ll get a kick out of the more advanced things you can do with the stock market. Here’s a particularly interesting one…when one of your competitors issues a stock, you can buy it up and sell it short…causing a market panic, and making their net worth suddenly go through the floor. Muhahahah.

After a while I got reasonably good at Railroad Tycoon II, but I’ll be honest…it was a lot of work. The game’s light 100 page manual is a nice introduction, but it’s hardly as comprehensive as it should be…games like this really call for some serious phonebook action. Since there isn’t one, and the tutorial only covers the most basic of moves, expect to do a lot of figuring out for yourself.

There’s all kinds of things you can do here that you would never initially think, and every teeny weeny thing effects the gameplay. There are different kinds of engines, different bridges, a billion and one add-ons you can get for each station, and so on. The game features the expected multiplayer modes via IPX and TCP/IP, but I just couldn’t do it. I remember a six hour game of Warcraft I played once…I don’t think I could take a version of that with Railroad Tycoon II. Although, I suppose once you learn every last command in the game you’ll want to humiliate your newbie friends…so it’s nice that it’s there.

So who is Railroad Tycoon II made for? Well, I’m the farthest thing from the kind of person who gets into those overly complex strategy games, and I found myself enjoying it (although it’s doubtful that It’ll still be on my hard drive in six months…compared to Starcraft that’s still there). If you’re into complex strategy titles, definitely check this out. Of course, if you’re the type who dreads these like the plague…well, you might enjoy it, but it’s pretty doubtful. Spiffy graphics don’t make up for the hours it’ll take you to get proficient at the game, but they do help the medicine go down. :)

- Jason "loonyboi" Bergman is the editor-in-chief of loonygames. He likes believes Dilbert to be a pawn of satan. You got a better explaination?


Credits: Bargain Bin logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. This edition of Top Shelf is © 1998 Jason Bergman. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is a majorly hostile gesture.