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Review: Protrain Cultural Heritage Semmering Railroad
Developer: Bluesky Interactive, Publisher: Contact Sales
Reviewed By Matthew Peddlesden
Date: 9 January 2003


By this time most people will recognise the name Pro Train, it has come to stand for leading edge products that come along each time and show you just what Microsoft Train Simulator is capable of. Curiously this product, the third in the Pro Train series is not called Pro Train 3 - however unlike the other products this one is Austrian rather than German.

The version of the product that I am reviewing is the European release from Bluesky Interactive, however it is going to be released in the UK under a title something like Protrains:Austrian Scenic Routes at some point mid to late February for around 24.99 via Contact Sales.

Please note that I have taken screenshots of this product at 1600x1200 resolution, and kept the publication images at this size, you'll see why. Each large image is around 500k in size, click on a thumbnail to bring up the large version in a new window.

The big question for this third offering is can, it live up to the high standards set by its predecessors?

Opening the box the first thing that struck me (besides falling registration cards etc!) was the existence of a second CD. This 'Bonus CD' doesn't appear to be mentioned anywhere (though I don't speak good German and much of this version of the product is in German) so I immediately put it in to my computer to find out what the bonus was... What a treat! The Bonus CD contains two 30 minute movies from the real route, cab rides from either end as far as I can tell. When a route developer includes cab ride footage from the route they have modelled you have to start expecting something quite impressive from the Train Simulator version. The movies are both worth watching to get a good feel of the route. I have confirmed with Contact Sales that the UK release of this product will contain the Bonus CD.

Next there's a reasonably standard manual and a fold out signalling guide to keep by your side as you drive. As per usual with Pro Train, the signalling is very comprehensive indeed so you'll need the guide to help understand what everything means - even so, I found some combinations that weren't explained, though it was still possible to work out what was going on.

Inside the manual, besides the usual installation instructions and so forth the single most valuable thing you will find is a double page spread map of the route. They've gone one step further, at each station there is a blow-up to show you the track layout at those stations so that you have a much better idea of what you're doing. Top marks for that one!

I have also confirmed that the map will still be present in the UK release.

Installation of the route went very smoothly and then I was ready to fire up Train Simulator and take a look!

There is a good selection of activities of varying difficulty ratings and timings so there should be something there for everybody. The route is primarily a passenger one so don't expect to see much freight and there are no freight activities.

Unfortunately all the activities were presented in German so I found it almost impossible to work out what was going on - the UK release version of this will be completely translated so this won't be an issue. Those activities I did try however were good, included other stock at what appear to be pretty realistic times and took you through varying parts of the route.

The stock included on the CD is completed to a high standard, with a good selection of coaching stock as well as alternative numbered versions of the locos to use, including different destination boards for the EMU.

You'll find 1044, 1110, 1142 Electric locomotives, plus the 4020 railcar to drive along with all the appropriate coaching stock to go behind.

Cab views are very nice indeed, looking photo realistic in many cases, I think my particular favourite is the cab view for the 4020.

Most of the coaching stock (including the EMU) also has internal passenger views, a nice touch that has been executed very well.

It would have been nice if the stock was 'fitted' with Specular Lighting support as I find this adds a significant amount of eye-candy to the visuals, however I suspect that the frame rate hit given the other places your CPU and Graphics Card will be working (namely the route itself) would probably not be justified, so I am not overly concerned.

Overall I consider the stock very good indeed, it fits the part and there's a little variety to it all.

Now we come to the final bit of the product and by far my favourite - the Route.

There's only one word to sum up the quality of this route, outstanding.

One of the common problems I've noted in the past about commercial products is that a collection of very talented people get together to produce something and then end up choosing a final product that lacks enough to keep you amused - whether the scenery is marvellous or not, if the route is badly chosen then you're in trouble from the beginning. This is most definitely not a problem for this route. With the caveat that this is not a freight route kept in mind, those of you that enjoy passenger work will get a lot out of this route.

The cleverly chosen start and end points of this route provide about half of the route as a high speed mainline and 41km of the route as a very slow and winding mountainous track. The mainline is pretty much arrow straight with three or four stations on it across its length. Again, another gripe I have had in the past is that mainlines tend to get a poor treatment for scenery and you end up going faster and faster just so you can see something other than flat terrain. Pro Train rarely suffers from this problem (although it is not immune, it is very rare and almost a welcome break!), you'll find yourself in view of plenty of scenery a lot of the time including bridges over the track.

As you come in to the other half of the route suddenly your speed limits drop from around 140km/h to more like 40km/h and then begin the sharp turns, tunnels and bridges. By far this is the part of the route that I enjoy the most. The route twists and turns so much around the mountains and valleys that you will often be able to see track you will eventually be going over way in the distance across the other side of a valley. As you can see from some of the screenshots, there are some fairly tight areas allowing for some really great scenery. I am happy to say that the developers have taken the maximum advantage of this area and have really gone to town in putting the scenery in place. While I was taking screenshots of the route for this review I found myself travelling for a short while and taking a shot, then a few meters later I would round a bend or pass a mountain and suddenly there's a completely different but equally gorgeous scene in front of me!

The twisty area of the route (I recommend taking a train from Semmering heading towards Wr. Neustadt) also has a lot of varying gradients that will have you watching that speed very carefully. You definitely feel like you're driving a train in this area having to push it up the hills and brake it down them to stay on time but not fly down the hillside. This rates very high for me, there's nothing I find more boring and tedious than setting a control and then just watching it for an hour, I have Microsoft Train Simulator because I want to simulate driving the trains and Pro Train Semmering delivers in spades :)

The developers have also spent a good deal of time on the look of the Winter version of the route and as you can see from the screenshots it has paid off very well indeed.

So what's wrong with the product?

The short answer to that is very little indeed. Packaging and attention to detail as regards getting it on your machine and working is first rate. The route has had a lot of loving attention poured in to it and the stock and activites have received no less care.

The only slight (and I mean slight) deficiency that I did see was that some of the track joints are a little loose, especially around the tighter areas of the mountainous portion of the route. They are not particularly serious jolts of the train however, I've seen far worse.

Overall I would have to say this is the best Pro Train product to date and by that reasoning probably the best MSTS product to date, and receives my full recommendation.

Overall Score

98%



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