Obligement - L'Amiga au maximum

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Review of A-Train
(Article written by James Walker and excerpt from comp.sys.amiga.reviews - January 1993)


Brief description

A-Train is a financial empire building game based on railway building, train scheduling, land speculation, real estate management, city planning, and stock trading. To put that into perspective (I can see everyone saying "Uh... OK"), it can best be described as a cross between Sim City and Railroad Tycoon. If that doesn't make any sense to you, take the first sentence of this paragraph again real slowly. :-)

This game was originally published as "Take The A-Train III" in Japan for the FM Towns computers; but since none of the other versions of A-Train ever made it across the Pacific, it got renamed. Or so the manual tells me.

Author/company information

The game is written by Artdink, Japan, and published by Maxis Corporation for release in the United States and Canada.

Name: Maxis
Address: Two Theater Square, Suite 230, Orinda, CA 94563-3041, USA
Telephone: (510) 254-9700

I suppose Maxis is doing the European version too, since on mine the box says NTSC version.

List price

I paid $63.00 (Canadian) including the all-conquering GST tax. I hope this is a representative price! I guess that's about $49.95 (US) retail in the United States.

Special hardware and software requirements

Hardware

A minimum of 512K of chip RAM and 512K of fast RAM is required. If you want to use interlaced screens, the box says that "1MB of RAM is required plus 512K of fast RAM." I think this means 1MB of either chip RAM or fast/chip RAM and 512K of fast RAM, since I think you could fit it into 512K of chip and 1MB of fast. Don't quote me on that, though. 2 floppy drives or a hard drive are recommended. To that I add that a 68030 makes the whole thing more pleasant to play. It's extremely usable on a 68000, though.

Software

It even works under Kickstart 1.2 (does anyone still use that?). It runs fine under Kickstart 2.04. There is an HD install program (the Commodore "Installer" program) provided.

Copy protection

None. Nothing at all. And it's HD installable as I said above (the program is provided with an Installer script and Installer itself).

Machine used for testing

Amiga 3000/25Mhz, 2MB chip RAM, 8MB fast RAM.
Maxtor 213MB SCSI HD.
Commodore 1950 multisync monitor.
Kickstart 2.04, Workbench 2.04.

Review

NOTE: A-Train can be run in either Hi Res (640x400) or standard (320x200), with the menus in 620x200 (I believe) in both cases. I have an A3000 with a multisync, and I always play it in Hi Res. It gives 4 times as much display area, and it's still fast enough on an A3000. The display is good in 320x200 - the graphics are the same, only you can't see as much at once.

A-Train

The first thing you notice about A-Train is the beautiful graphics (in Hi-res, anyway ;-)). Everything is shown in an isometric perspective, with beautiful little details such as trees and lots of different sorts of houses and farms. There is a night/day cycle (which can be switched off if you want) which starts to darken the landscape as the evening approaches. After everything turns rusty red at sundown, the building and train lights turn on. The grey of early dawn turns into the bright sunshine of the daytime around 7am. Snow falls in winter, and you occasionally get other little details like Santa Claus flying past on his sleigh and reindeer at midnight on the 24th of December. There are UFOs (very occasionally), and the amusement parks sometimes have fireworks burst above them on Friday nights in summer. Skyscrapers under construction have hammerhead cranes (red and white) on top of them, and the streets have streetlights. The commercial buildings have neon signs, and so on. The attention to detail is incredible.

A-Train

There is a lot more to A-Train than just good looks, however. There are six scenarios in A-Train, addressing different problems with differing amounts of money. The most open is called "New Town," which presents you with a small community with a rail line and station already running through it. Passenger and freight trains (over which you have no control) arrive and depart 24 hours a day. You get the profits from these trains, however. The challenge is to build a feeder line to this town, essentially causing other new towns to spring up. The rest of the map is covered with scattered farms, with no real concentrations of settlements.

At the other end of the scale is the scenario entitled "Downtown Reorganization," where you must make a stagnating urban commuter line in a large city into a more dynamic operation. The other four scenarios fall between these two extremes.

A-Train

I suppose I should start by explaining some of the ideas in A-Train. The first is that you are dealing with urban commuter lines, not main lines. One glance at the rolling stock for sale will show you that these are all subway-style trains. Second, if a line runs off the map, it is assumed to connect to a major city slightly off-map. Trains running off the map come back bearing materials (on which more later) and passengers.

Materials look like little off-white boxes which freight trains carry in and dump next to your station, if you have land that you own within a certain distance, on which the materials can be stored. An empty freight train stopping in a station will remove materials if there are any nearby and carry them to its next stop. Materials are used to build buildings. Depending on what you're making, you need more or less materials available locally. Houses built by the program also require materials. If there are no materials available, growth stops (which can really ruin your day). Trains are the only way to carry materials and passengers around and get them where they're needed.

A-Train

This brings us to the trains themselves. There are five different freight trains, with differing speeds (high/low) and different capacities (2 or 4 boxes of materials. There are about 18 different passenger trains, either 2 or 3 car, and high or low speed. These trains may or may not be able to pass through stations without stopping, which can be important. The trains also cost different amounts to buy and to run.

Every train must be scheduled. A small map is presented showing the tracks available, where you decide what orientation you want the track switches (points or turnouts) to have when the train goes through them. You can then have a test run of this. Also, the departure times of trains must be decided. By default, the train runs a shuttle service, stopping 1 hour at each station on the route. However, for passenger trains it is more logical for them to leave the suburbs at 8:00 in the morning and return from the rail interchange in the city at 6:00 in the evening, to carry all the commuters. Each station can have 2 tracks, and it's possible to time the trains so that you can run 2 trains on a single track with a passing loop.

A-Train

When you've laid track and made stations and so on, you can turn your attention to building apartment blocks to encourage commuters. Later, you can build lease buildings (5 to 40 stories), commercial buildings, hotels, factories (which make materials), amusement parks, golf courses, ski resorts, etc., to encourage greater profits. Other developers also build these things, and occasionally these come on the market if you wish to buy them. These provide employment, accommodation, and create more activity for your railway.

There is a stock market with 24 different stocks for you to dabble in, and a bank to make loans (up to 10% of your net worth). Both of these are only open 9 to 5 weekdays, though. The interest rates change for loans (there are 3 types of loan available), so it's best to borrow when rates are low.

While this might seem a bewildering array of options, everything is easily accessible through a series of clear menus. After working through the tutorial, I had a clear idea what everything was for. A bit more playing around and I understood more or less how everything operated. Like many of these kinds of games, a little experimentation can go a long way.

The financial model in this game is very complex, coping as it does with tax, corporate tax, capital gains taxation, land prices, building prices and stock prices (which rise and fall depending what you do - if you are building a lot, for example, you can expect steel company and building company stocks to rise. As more lease buildings appear, management stock go up.). At no time does this feel overwhelming, though, since much of it is handled automatically by the computer. I've never encountered a strategy game before that had such a feeling of authenticity in the way it worked. There are balance sheets available instantly to give you an overview of what's going on, hour by hour if you like. There is also a "radar graph" which shows in what sectors the greatest growth is being experienced. Stimulating this growth without going bankrupt is the challenge in this game.

If you get an urban commuter network which you're really proud of, you can print it all out through the program. I haven't tried this yet, though.

This is an extremely complicated and complex game, and I haven't created a really successful company yet. There's a lot to this, and I haven't really got a formula that works well yet. That doesn't mean I haven't had a hell of a lot of fun trying, though, and I'm going to continue. The clear menu system is a boon in this game because it makes what is a very complex game easy to access at all times. Hats off to Artdink and Maxis.

Documentation

A-Train comes with a beautifully printed, well written and informative manual. This manual includes a tutorial, a reference section, and a history of commuter railways throughout the world. The documentation is the same for the Macintosh and Amiga versions, but the differences are noted where applicable. Thank God this is a well thought out, clear and interesting manual. Getting into A-Train otherwise would be much harder than it is, and less enjoyable.

It's not often one can be so positive about a game's documentation.

Likes and dislikes

Before I get increasingly gushing with my praise, I must say that the sound is really awful, and I'm glad you can switch it all off. The music is repetitive, and the "sound" (something that is meant to sound like train wheels going over rail joints when your trains are moving) sounds like someone firing a flintlock rifle. Apart from that, there isn't much I can complain about. So here's the catch-all "like" section: this is a really prototypical, accurate, complex, and fun to play game. I enjoy it enormously.

Comparison to other similar products

OK. This isn't Railroad Tycoon ("RT"); the emphasis isn't as much on railway building and freight carrying to make your profits. Unless you get a huge railroading empire, most of your profits will come from stocks and bonds or real estate. However, the track laying and station siting is very important, just as in RT, and there's a bundle of trains to pick from. Don't get me wrong; there are a lot of trains in this game. It's just that A-Train is much closer to what railway companies are really like. I like RT for the sheer megalomania of building routes across continents and watching the cities get huge; but in A-Train, your only opponent is your own lack of business acumen, and, A-Train being that much more realistic in so many other ways, I think that gives it the edge for the serious player (?) over Railroad Tycoon.

I mentioned Sim City earlier. Again, this isn't Sim City. You don't have the control over the roads, the power stations, traffic, electricity etc. etc. But then again, Sim City was never that prototypical -- no-one has that amount of control -- and A-Train brings it down to the real level of day to day real estate wheeling and dealing. And what you build has a real effect on how the city develops. Again, this is what it's really like. That's not to say that Sim City isn't great fun; it is, and in its place it can provide hours of fun. But now, after playing A-Train, I would go back to it as relaxation from a hard day's A-Training.

And on top of all that, A-Train is real, honest-to-gosh fun.

Bugs

I have found no bugs so far, except that tall buildings (over 10 stories) sometimes lose the graphical representation of the building above the 10th floor if you think about selling them but change your mind. Everything is fixed up if you scroll away from the area, then scroll back, though. I'm sending a message to Maxis about this -- but it's only a small glitch in the display routine, after all.

Warranty

The disks are guaranteed for 90 days, or 2 years if you send in the registration card.

Conclusions

This is a great game, and in my opinion the best thing to have come out of Maxis since Sim City. I give it a 9.5 out of 10. The only gripes I would have are that the sound is abysmal, and that it would be nice to be able to speed time up even further at times. For sure, this is a game with depth that no one is going to be able to throw off in a couple of extended playing sessions. There is just too much that must be regulated and looked after, and while everything is pleasingly logical and understandable, this doesn't mean that if you have an MBA you'll toss this game off with ease.

It's extremely addictive, complex, and fun to play. My pick for best strategy game of 1992 (since it came out just before Christmas ;-). It has to be one of the most engrossing and prototypical strategy games ever. And that's saying a lot.


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