If there was one over-riding message from our review of Train Sim World (and later, the West Somerset Railway expansion), it was "make it seem more like a game!". While the original certainly offered plenty of trains to get to grips with, it felt like at least half of the simulation side of thing was missing - though the dials and switches were all in the right places, you never really felt all that much pressure to do anything, because nothing actually mattered. Want to drive 100mph through a 15mph zone? Feel free. Jamming your emergency brakes on at every stop? Who cares! Trying to drive the sensible way just didn't pay dividends, so the game kind of encouraged you to stuff the rules - and in the process, ended up not really making you feel like you were driving a train. For once, it's nice to be listened to, as for Train Sim World 2020 Dovetail Games have responded in suit, with a series of tweaks designed to make the game feel more like a game - and keep you coming back for a lot, lot longer.
Seemingly the beginning of a series of yearly upgrades, Train Sim World 2020 is a bit of an odd one, as it's not really a new game as such. Instead, this is probably best thought of as a game of two parts - a free upgrade to Train Sim World, which adds a host of new features on the one hand; and a collection of three of the finest tracks from last year on the other. If you already own Train Sim World, the 2020 update will start downloading for free as soon as your console realises it's there - but if you want access to the bundle of routes, you'll need to shell out for this.
Along with a change of interface colour (ooh!), the main new addition for Train Sim World 2020 is that of "journeys" - essentially a way of pulling together a few of the game's "scenario" challenges and standard timetabled routes into a sort of career mode. Along with being added to all three of the routes that come bundled with 2020, the Great Western Express route also gets its own "journey" mode, so those who haven't paid for the upgrade can see what a difference it makes.
But by far the biggest change here is the new scoring system. Now, the speed you're doing matters - as does how accurately you can pull up at the station. Pay attention to the speed limit signs, and you'll clock up points as you're driving. Pull up in exactly the right place at the station, and you'll earn a bonus. Though it may sound like a little change, it actually makes a huge difference to the gameplay, as suddenly it's a lot more involved. Forcing you to keep an eye on speed limits, you can't just go and make a cup of tea while you blaze inter-city any more - now, the trick is in keeping your train going as fast as humanly possible, without going over the speed limit. Even going 1mph above the restriction sees you earning far fewer points - and if you go too fast, you'll be earning nothing at all. Though it is a bit disappointing that there's absolutely no leeway - go over the speed limit for just a few seconds, and you won't earn as many points for that section of track - you'd be surprised at how much of a difference it makes to the game.
At the end of each service, your total points will be totted up, and you'll earn one of three medals depending on how you did - even if you wouldn't technically know it. Weirdly, although every service and scenario has its own set of medals to be won, the game doesn't actually bother telling you which you've earnt. There's also nothing that tells you what the points levels required for each medal are, with the difference between a bronze and a gold seeming pretty slim. Even being a few yards out on stopping your train, or breaking the speed limit that few too many times could see you relegated to bronze.
In terms of the new routes, though, how much fun you get out of this will largely depend on how many tracks you already own. The bundled routes for 2020 are Great Western Express (which everyone who owns Train Sim World will already own), Northern Trans-Pennine (Manchester Victoria - Leeds), Main-Spessart Bahn (Aschaffenburg - Gemünden) and another New York route, Long Island Railroad (New York - Hicksville), which is apparently a real place, and not just a joke on the Simpsons. If you've shelled out the extra £15 for the digital deluxe version, you'll also get your hands on Peninsula Corridor (San Francisco - San Jose), which is certainly a cool route, but it's not the best value prospect when the other three together cost £25.
Which route holds the most appeal to you will likely depend on where you live, but each offers something distinctly different.
Main-Spessart Bahn is a mostly rural track, taking you through the Barvarian forest in double decker DB passenger trains, or pulling huge industrial loads of fuel, or even car transporters up the Spessart Ramp - a 5.4km long incline which, in places, climbs at a rate of 2.1%. It may not sound like much, but taking a heavy load up there with wheels that have next to no natural grip is no mean feat. The route comes with five scenarios, which see you doing things like hauling aviation fuel up the incline, or running a convoy of cars to the Aschaffenburg yards, and three trains - the aforementioned double decker 766.2 DBpbzfa (a german name if ever we've seen one), which has a total of 62 services you can try your hand at (services are basically less objective based jobs, which still have timetables and goals to achieve); the BR185.2, a chunky freight train which has a massive 193 services it can take on (many of which involve the Spessart Ramp), and the BR146.2, a pretty much identical train which is used for a towing 54 passenger services.
Over in the UK, we have Northern Trans-Pennine: a route that heads from Manchester Victoria to Leeds, but which is set in 1983. Taking in a mixture of heavy industrial scenery and the greenery of the Pennines, you'll be able to stop at such wonderful places as, er, Dewsbury. Better put your foot down to get out of there... With five scenarios, the Northern Trans-Pennine pack comes with three trains: two heavy diesels - the Class 47/4 BLU, and Class 101 BLG - along with a really retro looking passenger train, the Class 45/1 BLU - a train unique in that it has a car-like gear system, forcing you to come off the accelerator when you want to change up. Needless to say, running passenger routes is pretty involved on that one.
In the obligatory American pack, things are a little bit different. Instead of three trains, there's just the one - the M7 LIRR - in a route that runs from underground in New York, to the deepest darkest corners of Hicksville. With 5 scenarios which see you doing things like driving from Jamaica to Atlantic Terminal and back due to engineering work, this is surprisingly not as built up as you might expect - although it did show us that New York has a Kew Gardens too, only with far fewer flowers.
With a lot of positive stuff then, you may be wondering if there's anything that lets Train Sim World 2020 down - and if you know Dovetails' history, you've probably already guessed it's a mixture of the bugs, and a lack of accessibility. In terms of bugs, this is probably better than Train Sim World originally was when it was released, but it's still a long way off feeling polished. Certain tracks seem to really chug and churn in terms of frame rate, even when there's not that much going on on-screen - Leeds in Northern Trans-Pennine, and Jamaica in New York being particular examples. Then there's weird graphical issues. Northern Trans-Pennine features a gigantic tunnel that takes several minutes to pass through- but even with all the lights you have on, it's still completely pitch black. Still, at least it means you can marvel at the efficacy of those hardy Yorkshireman, as they construct an entire fence before your very eyes.
In New York, at one point the tunnel we were driving through completely disappeared, letting the rain from overhead start spattering on our windscreen, as we glided through a mysterious kind of nowhere underworld, before the tunnel popped back into place. Bar the German course, the performance on all of the tracks is nowhere near as good as it should be had it been optimised - and the textures in some places, particularly in the Northern Trans-Pennine course are really rather poor.
Yet an equally big issue is the accessibility. One of the things we picked up on in our first review, Train Sim World still has a much steeper learning curve than it would like to admit. With each train being plastered in buttons, screens, dials and knobs, it'd likely be impossible for the game to run you through what everything does - but even so, it'd be nice if it'd at least point you in the right direction when things go wrong, and you need to do something. Whether you're coupling your train as a "banking locomotive" (essentially, one on the tail end of a heavy load), and you can't remember how to set it up to switch the controls to the other cab, or you simply find your train stuck and refusing to go (something which happens far more than we'd like to admit), it'd be immensely helpful if the game just gave you some advice about where you were going wrong. Often, it's something to do with not having the brakes on quite right - but we've had times where we've lost power, others where we've kept rolling backwards, and others still where the doors have simply refused to lock - and without access to a manual (something which isn't anywhere near as easy on a console - how about a built-in digital manual for us, Dovetail?), you have nowhere to go to find the info you need for yourself. A kind of troubleshooting tutorial system would go a long way, especially as you often need a reminder.
So, while it's a step in the right direction, it's fair to say Train Sim World still has a way to go before it starts to reach out to a crowd outside of the hardcore train fans, and achieve some real growth. Though the scoring system is nice, it'd be nicer still if it was a little more refined, and went a bit further - you can still slam the anchors on when approaching a station, and the game won't care about all the old women you've just upended - while the many, many "gotchas" you can find yourself in at the unforgiving controls of the game's wide range of trains could really use some sort of hint or prompts to put you back on the right track. Still, bundling three tracks in for the price one normally goes for, this isn't a bad buy if you haven't dipped your toe into any of these routes already. Let's hope Dovetail keeps building on what they've started here.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4