I've often said there are two aspects, not just the one, that can make or break a route as a commercial product. The first is the quality of it, if it's not done to a good level then people will return it. The second and less obvious one is the choice of route - it doesn't matter how immaculately you model a route if that route itself is utterly boring or doesn't meet the needs of enough people.It comes with passenger stock in a variety of liveries and it comes with freight.
If you take every demographic of UK enthusiast, the only people not satisfied with that lineup are going to be the electric/underground/tram folk - the vast majority of other users have a product here with the potential to keep them very happy.
Let's break it down in to the usual categories and see what's in the box.
Nene Valley comes in the common plastic DVD box format, the only difference that has caught a couple of people out is that Contact Sales (publisher/distributor) have taken to putting the manual in the outersleeve rather than in a book that goes on the left hand side inside the box. To get to the manual you have to fold the box backwards and pull the sleeve out, then you can unfold it and read away. It's a bit easy to miss if you don't know what you're looking for but it does offer much more room than a booklet would and the larger print makes it easier to read for those with reduced vision.
Installation is no different to any other product, just insert the CD and go. One important note about this route is that it is built using Tim Booth's fantastic 'UK Finescale' track to give a much more realistic look to the route. This means that you have new track pieces going in and the obligatory modification to your tsection.dat file - this is where problems always seem to crop up in other products. I'm not aware of any particular problems so far that people are having and it certainly didn't cause any problems with my XTracks or existing UKFinescale installations so I don't think you have to worry about compatibility there. It might be worth backing up your GLOBAL directory just in case things go wrong however - but then that's just general good practice!
I am a little disappointed to note that nowhere on the manual or packaging does it say that new track is installed with the route. While this information is of little use to the average user of the product, those who are aware of the difficulties of such thing would immediately have alarm bells going off and start making backups just in case.
Locomotives and Rolling Stock
Included in the product is a nice selection of stock, nobody is left out.
Bulleid Battle of Britain No. 34081 '92 Squadron'
Coronation Class No. 46235 'City of Birmingham'
BR Standard Class 5 No. 73050 'City of Peterborough' (Black)
BR Standard Class 5 No. 73031 (Green)
LNER Class B1 No. 1306 'Mayflower'
Class J94 No. 75006 0-6-0 Shunter
BR Class 40 No. D306 'Atlantic Conveyor'
BR Class 31 No. D5504 (Green and White)
BR Class 31 No. 31108 (Railfreight)
BR Class 14 No. D9516 (Green)
BR Class 14 No. D9523 (Red)
BR Class 08 No. 08308 'Nene Valley Railway'
Each locomotive comes with its own new cab that has been put together using photographs so it's about as real as it can get. While I think photographic cabs work quite well for Diesels due to their convenient placement of controls and dials I do not think they work very well at all for steam engines. I found that the gauges were basically only of any use from an aesthetic point of view, I certainly couldn't tell you what my boiler pressure was at any given moment in at least one of the loco's other than physically where the gauge was located in the cab. The reason for this is that Steam Engines are a lot more spread out, designed to be operated by Driver and Fireman with two different views - these cabs attempt to photograph them using wide angle to capture the lot and consequently the viewing position doesn't feel right and the gauges just aren't particularly usable. I enjoy manual firing and this causes a lot of problem, meaning I have to use the F5 view to find out what these critical readouts actually are telling me. While i'm on the subject of manual firing, I often found that some controls were not on the cab for mouse operation but the key controls worked ok (usually something in the area of injectors). The diesel cabs however really look good, you feel like you're in control of the locomotive and everything is easily readable.
The sounds are a major let down in this product, while the team who developed it can reasonably explain that the Nene Valley are renowned for not bringing much of their stock out, I feel that they could have attempted to source the sounds from other places such as videos etc. As a result, many of the steam locomotives have got default Scotsman sound effects, very poor. The steam sounds used are literally the same as the default scotsman, the sound files have also not been improved with modern understandings of those files so for example the chuffing doesn't stop when you close the regulator. Additionally, AI locomotives will run past you using the default sounds whether they have their own ones normally or not - so if you are shunting a yard and the Class 40 trundles past on the main line it'll sound like a Dash 9, yet when you're in the cab of the 40 it'll sound like a 40. This is all easily fixable stuff and it's disappointing to hear so much default sound-work.
Where sounds have been done they are excellent in all but one instance. I detest the sounds of the B1, they are scratchy, out of balance, have not been cleaned up properly and do not loop very well. The rest of the loco's sound marvellous indeed, it is to be hoped that as the developers get access to more sound recordings they will be able to update the sounds of these locomotives to the same standard as the ones that have correct sounds.
The 3D Models of the locomotives are, overall, very good. They are all instantly recognisable and many of the unique characteristics of each class have been captured nicely. To be honest, there is only one problem I have with the steamers and that's the valve gear and connecting rods, they look almost inflated, far too big and far too bright - I know preserved railways keep their stuff looking nice and clean but I can't see them wanting to clean the rods every few hundred feet to keep them this shiny. For the diesels, the only loco I don't much like the look of is the 31, something doesn't seem quite right about its front - all the rest of the loco's look great, I especially like the 08!
The AI versions of the steam locomotives have also not had the 'high speed wheels' bug fixed, you can observe this by watching an AI steam engine go past you in an activity - you'll see the wheels are rotating about 6 times faster than they should be. Again, another really simple thing to fix especially thanks to Mike Simpson's superb Route Riter free utility that does it for you.
Also included in the pack are BR Mark 1 coaches in Blood and Custard, Maroon and Blue/Grey liveries. These coaches look excellent and have passenger views too - although I found the passenger view to be a little restrictive in where I could look, perhaps it's modelled after someone wearing a neck brace? I did find the bright red axels to be a little odd, but apparently that is indeed how they come out of the paintshop - again, as with the conrods on the steam loco's, I just don't think that they'd stay that clean for too long and it might have been better had it been weathered down a little (even if the rest of the coach is spotless and shiny).
Finally, there is quite a large selection of freight stock included in the pack from coal and mineral wagons to tankers and brake vans. They look excellent and fit the part very well indeed. Unfortunately from a physics perspective the wagons, which in reality are all unfitted stock as far as I know (i.e. they have a hand brake but they don't have air or vacuum brakes, so you need a guards van on the end to help stop the train) are represented in the simulator as having fully functioning air brakes - so the guards van is entirely unnecessary and suddenly you are able to stop a massive freight train without breaking a sweat. Similarly, every wagon whether loaded or not and no matter what it's type (including the brake van) is exactly the same weight.
My overall comment on the rolling stock is that on the whole it's good, there's a good variety there for everyone to enjoy and it's not bad at all. Bounding boxes on the stock do not appear to have been set up correctly and in some cases activities don't actually work because as you reverse your loco in to the wagons you just bounce off them and can't couple up to them.
As an extra bonus, there are actually two extra loco's on the product that are shown as AI loco's only, they are not driveable. These are a Class 50 and a Class 37.
There's only really one word that sums up the route cleanly and efficiently: Green.
This route is very green indeed. You're not going to see anything other than the standard green tile grass underneath you except in one place just before you get to the Nene Valley Railway itself. In my opinion this detracts severely from the look of the route.
From a scenery perspective the route is a mix of stations, tree's and the odd bit of housing around stations. The stations have almost been over modelled, you'll see one foot bridges that appear to have used phenomenal amounts of polygons where a simple texturing trick would most likely have sufficed - this tends to mean that entering areas with stations causes a lot of stuttering as these larger objects are loaded in to memory. The stations are quite good, varying between pretty reasonable (probably quite accurate representations of minimal stations) to quite spectacular in some cases.
In between stations it's just miles of tree's for the most part which I didn't find particularly enthralling! I can't believe there's so few houses, or anything else for that matter, in that area, it's just green, green and more green.
The majority of the route is fully fenced and also has telegraph poles following the line, this is quite nice, although the fencing does occasionally just disappear and appear again later on which detracts from it a little.
There has been some attempt to place clutter around yards but this is again something that a terrain texture would have helped enormously with, without adding polygons to be rendered. Duston, for example, has a few odd bits of rail laying around (unfortunately with one laying across the track in one bit) and while it's a nice attempt, it looks like it was something that was started but only half heartedly. Terrain Textures would have really made that look grey and messy, the odd model of junk around would have then looked great.
One of the downsides with using UKFinescale is that it's quite machine intensive, as I entered Northampton Bridge from Blisworth my framerate dropped down to an average of about 7fps - bearing in mind my machine is 2ghz with a 128mb card it's certainly not a slow machine, it makes me wonder what kind of experience those using lower spec machines will have (I note the manual does not specify a processor speed in its recommended system spec). The reason for the slow down is due to enormous amounts of trackwork in the yard(s) in that area and similar slow-downs occur in other areas that have an enormous amount of track for yards and so forth.
While we're on the subject of yards, it's worth mentioning that the route has a great number of yards throughout the route - if your thing is wandering a route picking up and dropping off wagons with a bit of shunting as you go then there's plenty of yard room here for you to do it, and with those lovely UKFinescale points it really does look gorgeous.
Signalling on the route looks very nice indeed, there is a mixture of conventional semaphore signals and occasionally the rather more bizarre looking 'Somersault' signal - the first time I saw one of these at the North Norfolk Railway I assumed the signal was broken! There is full information on these signals in the manual however, so if you read that then there won't be any surprises.
Overall, I find the route a bit dull in many places with just tree's upon tree's. Perhaps it is like that in real life, I must admit I don't know but I just don't find it very interesting to drive through. The stations are done very well indeed, it looks like enormous effort has been put in to the stations and their surrounding areas and as you can see from the screenshots, some quite spectacular views can be had. Framerates can be really slaughtered as you go from a tree-laden area to a highly detailed station, so you will probably want to make sure your machine is at least in the same kind of range as my one (Athlon 2100) in order to get reasonably good use from all areas of the route. It's great to see UKFinescale being used in a commercial product, it looks stunning and definitely raises the bar on this route nicely.
Personally I found the activities to be the poorest part of the product, they appear to be quite badly documented, not clearly telling you what you're supposed to be doing - which is no problem on a simple passenger run but if you're shunting wagons around a yard it's nice to know what goes where without having to resort to deciphering the work order screen. I also found AI traffic on the activities to be a bit on the hurried side - for example, one activity had me running from Blisworth to Peterborough, and on that journey I passed 92 Squadron no less than six times. Given the amount of stock in the product, I would have thought it would have been easy to show off a good range of the stock instead of just putting the same pair of consists in three times each. The timetables for passenger activities have not been set up so the times are all set the same.
Overall I was very disappointed indeed with the activities. They do not bring out the shining qualities of the route or the rolling stock. There are some typographical errors on names and paths that are minor but again they serve to tarnish a product further from looking professional to looking quite amateur. Activities are, for me, one of the most important parts of the product - a really bad route with limited stock can be turned in to a fun product simply by implementing some innovative and fun activities - here we have a pretty reasonable route that has oodles of potential in the track plan, loads of rolling stock, and it's not being taken advantage of properly.
Overall I have to say I was disappointed with this product, but I think I am more disappointed because they got so close to it being another really great product - all the boxes have ticks in them, it has a broad appeal, it has a load of rolling stock and locomotives, it has a route that is good for high speed, low speed, shunting, freight, passenger whatever you like, but the final product just lacks the polish that I would expect from a commercial release.
Credit must go to the team for their work, some of the team members are still young teenagers and they have managed to pull together and produce a product, and that is more than many of us older folk would be able to do - but at the end of the day, if it's put out as a commercial product on the shelf then it must stand and be counted just like all the others.
I understand that Firelight Design, the team behind the product, are working very hard on a number of updates to the product and that already they are close to producing a patch that will radically improve almost all aspects of the product but most notably the route itself - so if my review has turned you off the product, don't write it off yet - keep an eye out, I have high hopes that these folk will come out shining yet.