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Review: Rascal and Cottonwood for Rail Simulator
Developer: All Aboard, Publisher: Just Trains
Reviewed By Matthew Peddlesden
Date: 26 April 2009



Route map - click for detail

Rich Garber is well known among the MSTS community, in the states perhaps more so than here in the UK but never the less a known name. His fictional add-ons for Microsoft Train Simulator are all well respected for their fine attention to details, rich scenery and immense playability. Rascal and Cottonwood marks Rich's first foray in to the world of Rail Simulator development and he's certainly made the transition well.

Rascal and Cottonwood is a fictional route representing an area of the United States. Rich describes his route in terms of the story and the passions surrounding it, what's causing its decline or whats causing its regrowth and reading his descriptions of this route (which are also included in the PDF Manual shipped with the JustTrains version) are certainly highly recommended to get you in to the spirit of things around this delapidated old railway now starting to be brought back to life.

JustTrains are the UK publishers for Rascal and Cottonwood and it is available both in electronic online form (with the usual DRM) and on a DVD both for 14.66 each.

The route features the same incredible level of detail that Rich is known for and he steps it up a notch to take advantage of the rich scenery possibilities there are with Rail Simulator. In addition to creating many of his own scenery items for the route, he has also taken advantage of 3DTrains excellent Rural Landscapes pack and the RSDL Foliage Pack. Included within this version you get the low-res version of the 3DTrains Rural Landscapes pack and some of the items from the RSDL Foliage pack. 3DTrains do have a hi-res version of their pack which you can purchase for $12.50 USD from here. The pack will install over the top of the route and upgrade the scenery items. Note: All the screenshots in this review and indeed further commentary are based around the JustTrains electronic distribution with no additional packs or upgrades added, so if you do go for the 3DTrains Hi Res pack you can expect things to look even better.

Included stock in the route is borrowed from the RSDL Cajon Pass add-on, the SD40-2 in Union Pacific livery and 10 mixed american freight wagons. Of course if you have the Cajon Pass route then you can operate the other items of stock it includes as well. As these stock items are not new to this add-on, this review will not really spend much more time talking about them - various items are featured in screenshots if you require a reminder of what they look like.

Finally, just to clarify in case there's any confusion from the above: The JustTrains version does not require any additional items to make it work, it comes with everything you need to get going. If you want to take it a bit further then just the same as with any other add-on you can take various steps as commented on above.

Ok so really what you're buying when you get this product is the route itself and a few scenarios to get you going. The route is based on a model railway style design, so it loops around on itself. Rich explains in the manual why he's gone for this approach and rather than paraphrase him and risk getting it wrong... i'll just quote him from the manual:

Typically, when a train route is created, it is built using a linear method. I began to think that if I could work in a more compressed area by looping track over itself, then the time to build a route would be reduced. I also thought I would be able to "super detail" a route more consistently with everything nearby. AI trains would also benefit because they would have a greater impact within the scenarios if their visibility was increased thanks to the circular nature of the route. Super detailing a route in Rail Simulator has little impact on the frame rate and stuttering is non-existent. Rail Simulator also handles looping track without a problem. These are the reasons why I made Rascal & Cottonwood appear like a model track plan.

So how does this really work in the end? Pretty well, but you must keep in mind that this is approximately 20 miles of track looped over a couple of times so you're going to see similar things during a run. To combat this Rich has tried to make the subsequent journeys around the same section on different levels and with different scenery. For example, one time around might be out in a more forested area, the next time you've gone up quite a bit and now there's a cliff to one side and a small town on the left. It has to be said that it's a lot less tedious to drive than big long straight sections of track. Some parallels can be drawn between this and an older release for Microsoft Train Simulator published by Abacus and, I believe, developed by 3DTrains, called Scenic Railway. This, too was a fictional route that was designed to give you a great place to perform railroad operations.

There are two basic types of route that you can produce, either a completely fictional one or one that attempts to mimic reality. When you mimic reality you can end up in a situation that the route really isn't all that interesting from an operational perspective even though it replicates reality faithfully, so the aim is to find some area that is interesting to operate as well as to model. A fictional railway gives you the freedom to focus on producing a fun product at the end of it all, if you think a siding would make this bit easier, or a cross-over there to aid in a particular movement then you can just go ahead and do it. You can create your own story around the railway and then let people enjoy that world. For me, I expect much greater things from a fictional railway than I do a model of a real one in terms of the entertainment value. If the shackes of reality are going to be thrown to one side then you should really use your imagination to take full advantage of it and then use your artistic skill to push it to the limits.

Has Rascal and Cottonwood achieved this? Well, pretty much. Remember it's only 20 miles or so, but also remember it's only a 14.66 add-on we're talking about here as well. What you get in the route has some great opportunities to shunting within a few yards along with the scope for 15-30 minutes of haulage between operations so there's some good operational interest here. In addition, as i've mentioned, Rich has employed his artistic skills well to the scenery, one of my biggest grips about most routes for any simulator is that flat barren landscape problem - it might be green, but it's still completely flat. Rich has used all the foliage and rural landscape packs to great effect and it's hard to find anything flat. It's all overgrown or specifically planted areas, a nice mix of colours and textures all over. I've tried to capture this in some of the screenshots.

The manual describes various aspects of the route such as giving you the historic "background", an overall route map and then proceeds to give you detailed schematics of key points in the route such as the various yards, which will help you navigate them while you're trying to complete the scenarios.

I guess i'm looking forward to when the route developers start producing realistic routes for Rail Simulator, in my experience at the road shows the public has always related to them better and been far more fired up about them covering some region that they're interested in. Rarely do people say to us "i'd like a shunting route please", it's normally "GWR Welsh please" or "Modern ECML" or something like that. I certainly think there's plenty of room for the fictional routes (as long as they're done well, as this one is), but I'm not convinced there's a huge market for them in the UK arena. You only have to look back at the commercial and freeware route releases for MSTS over the last few years to see that there's been very little fictional content released, almost everything is at least based in reality even if then editorial decisions are taken to extend or enhance the route for playability (such as the approach North West England took for example). Still, it's good to see some new content starting to come out for Rail Simulator that's a bit bigger than single stock items!

So, bottom line, is it worth the money... Well, I think so - if you're interested in the short american switching type routes then there's something here that you probably want to take a look at. If you're not interested in American routes, or you actually prefer the completely authentic long straight routes through the desert (i'm not knocking it, it's no different to those folks that watch their 747's fly for 7 hours transatlantic in Flight Simulator!) then you might not feel the benefit. That said, there are some great ideas in here for how to use the Foliage and Rural landscape packs so if you're thinking of doing a US route yourself then it might be money well spent just purely for the opportunity to see how Rich has done it.



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