Railroad Tycoon 3 is fantastically good. The curious economic system works really well, and unlike previous games it’s no longer a chore to transport goods to cities that specifically request them. Indeed, with the default settings, trains will simply carry the cargo that pays the most.
However, the option of micromanagement is still there, and that’s what allows RT3 to succeed where so many economic sims fail. The tedious details of running the company can be left alone, or you can run them to ever-greater benefit. Have your eyes on a particularly profitable brewery? Set your trains to transport anything but the grain that a brewery needs, and that brewery will start losing money (and its purchase price will drop) faster than you can say “This is the kind of abuse that led to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.”
The campaign confronts the player with about twenty scenarios with specific victory conditions for bronze, silver and gold medals. These are complemented by general scenarios on the same maps, with different conditions. Conditions generally aren’t too difficult, however we caution anyone from allowing the USRA to run their railroad during WWI… it’s not a pretty sight. A typical requirement is to connect cities A, B and C by such-and-such date for Bronze, have a company value of X also by that date for silver, and haul 20 cars of product Y by an earlier date. In general they’re smart and challenging, adding a sense of purpose to a map, but they don’t mask RT3’s two greatest flaws.
But before we get to that, a few words on multiplayer: if you manage to find a game, it’ll be vicious and cut-throat. While the stock market and tycoonery in general take a back seat in the singleplayer campaign, in multiplayer it’s a completely different story. Everyone runs the ragged edge of safety on margin buying and (occasionally) short selling, because to do without means financial ruin, but going too far into debt exposes one to the risk of margin calls and short squeezes.
AI? What’s that?
Railroad Tycoon 3’s AI is just plain terrible. One of the warning signs we should have caught onto is in the difficulty levels, which merely seem to affect the economics of the game. On Easy, the player gets a bonus; on Normal, things are even, and difficulty levels after that simply penalize the player and/or give benefits to his competition.
Competitor behavior seems completely unaffected by the difficulty levels. There are two things necessary to success in RT3: expansion and proper management. The only facet of the AI that is worse than its expansion policy, is its management. The AI will run multiple trains on the same one-rail track, it will ignore connections between some cities, and be satisfied with five or six cities, tops. Occasionally it’ll go wacko and expand like crazy, but its management never seems to improve as the debt load generally grows and grows.
Which brings us to the other flaw in RT3. Scenario challenges aside, all one needs to do to succeed is expand. Small, big, medium – the city size doesn’t matter. All that matters is increasing the number of potential destinations for goods and passengers. The modern era is a touch more difficult since passengers shun rail transit, meaning that more trains will have to be designed that deliver cargo straight to the destination and skip cities in between, but this is a minor adjustment and not really worthy of complaint. We speculate that the “critical mass” syndrome is what led to the AI being toned down, since once a company achieves a certain size, it becomes nigh-on unassailable.
Other minor problems affect RT3; there’s a rare crash to desktop error that comes on without warning, for example. There are gameplay issues like having to put both maintenance stations and water/sand towers along all routes, even though one would think that a facility equipped with the gear to repair a train would be able to spare a little water and some sand. We’d like to be able to play more expansive scenarios, such as the entire map of the US or Europe, rather than dealing with small, no-name towns in Texas or Germany.