Seeking serenity in Train Sim World

Meditative gaming

On the game shelf in my room, there exist some of the greatest video games of this generation. Titles like NiohShadow of the ColossusGravity Rush 2Uncharted 4The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for Switch, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2. They sit largely unplayed, maybe a couple dozen minutes spent with each title here and there. It’s not because I don’t want to play them or that I don’t have the time. In fact, despite working a full-time job and doing all the preview and interviews I do for this site, I have more time than ever before. They’re sitting there because every day after work when I need the stress of life to fall from my shoulders, I’m not killing orcs or shooting up enemy encampments. Instead, I’m taking the BR Class 43 HST from Slough to Ealing Broadway in Train Sim World.

I’ve never been a train person. I don’t remember ever owning a Thomas the Tank Engine set as a child though I’m sure I did as it’s one of those toys that always finds its way into children’s bedrooms. I do remember the first time I rode a train, though. It was through the forests of Washington. My family and I were on a day trip and the folks thought it would be a fun family activity. I remember sitting there, looking out as the trees moved slowly by, the light peeking through the canopy illuminating the stream a few yards from the tracks. It’s a lovely image, but it’s not when a fascination with trains began to bubble. That wouldn’t happen until Animal Crossing.

The opening of that landmark title, where Rover chats me up on my way to my new, takes place on a train, and a pleasant one at that. For all the years of train levels in platformers, shooters, and that steam engine you suplex in Final Fantasy VI, this would be the first time I would appreciate the marvel of the locomotive. That appreciation only grew with games like The Legend of Zelda: Spirit TracksTicket to RideResident Evil 0Paper Mario: Color Splash, and now Train Sim World.

My curiosity to give this game a go actually began with a contest we had here on Destructoid giving away copies of Bus Simulator 18. I had a chuckle at the concept of a game having you do nothing but drive a bus and laughed out loud when I saw this series has been going strong since 2010. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was just another form of those great, relaxing, melt-the-day-away titles that I played after finals in college. Fishing games and the sort. Those weren’t the experiences I usually dabbled in, but when I didn’t want to focus on something overwhelming, they fit the bill for what it was I needed.

I honestly thought I was over needing those kinds of experiences a few years ago, but the past three weeks with Train Sim World have proven that to be incorrect. From Dovetail Games, Train Sim World is available now on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 and features three major routes from across the world: the Great Western Express in England, the S-Bahn railways of Germany, and the Northeast Corridor in New York and New Jersey. Each route features different engines to take control of, such as the A Class 166 and the BR Class 66.

Though each different type of train has a unique control panel, they all feature coordinated controls. So what makes me stop and go in one train will work the same way for all of them. Getting a handle on how everything operated in the game took roughly an hour going through all of the tutorials and since then, I’ve been familiarizing myself with the quirks and qualities of each engine. Braking continues to be my biggest issue, especially on those transit runs, but the game is only ever overly punishing if I completely screw up a scenario.

That lack of correction when I don’t make it to a stop on schedule or I blow through a caution light at 75 miles per hour is what has allowed me to simply relax with this game. I ride the train every day to work and it’s never on time and always over capacity. Coming home to Train Sim World lets me experience almost a fantasy world where train travel is pleasant for me and where the world passing by can be enjoyed without having to peek between heads.

It has to be relaxing because, for many of the scenarios in the game, there isn’t that much for me to do. In one, I literally start the train and drive for 45 miles, all in real time. The only moments where I have to pay attention are right at the beginning and roughly five miles out from the destination. That’s 40 miles of sitting back in a calm, almost meditative stupor. 

I don’t even have to drive the train if I want to remove the remote possibility of stress in this unwind gaming session. Train Sim World features a passenger mode where I can just ride the train, enjoying the scenery between Paddington and Reading, taking pictures at my leisure. The game even features the actual schedule these trains operate on as well as adjustable weather, giving me the option to sit blissfully by as the snow falls between New Rochelle and the Newark Airport.

Train Sim World‘s only faults lie in its lack of ambition. These routes just aren’t enough, especially when you ignore the many more exotic tracks found in India, China, and Japan. Also, on my PS4 Slim, it doesn’t make the best use of Unreal Engine 4. The scenery can’t always keep up with the pace of the train, it’s easy to see unfinished towns and forests in the distance, and the world is incredibly sparse of people despite these being three of the busiest train routes in the world. Oh, and the controls don’t always work and scenario instructions aren’t always the clearest.

But besides all that, the lack of Asian and Indian train routes is, for a game that prides itself on its features that let players take a back seat and just enjoy the world they’re in, a missed opportunity. Perhaps with DLC down the line, we could see something new, something to really show off a place more brilliant in color than soggy old Germany, England, and New Jersey. I have just one more scenario to complete to do everything the game has to offer, and the serenity this game has brought me over these past few stressful weeks has been a blessing. As we enter the busy season for game releases and reviews, I know I’ll be falling back into it whenever it all becomes too much.

[This hands-on  is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

CJ Andriessen
Just what the internet needs: yet another white guy writing about video games.