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Review: Auran Trainz Service Pack 3
Developer: Auran, Publisher: Mindscape
Reviewed By Matthew Peddlesden
Date: 29 September 2002


Click on any thumbnail to see full size version, hold your mouse over for a description

You can purchase Trainz direct from Auran in Australia, this will get you the latest SP3 version on the disc and require no further downloading. The total cost for this works out to around 28 pounds in total.

You can also get it in stores in the UK for between 19.99 and 24.99, though this version is only 1.1.1 and you will therefore need to obtain the 250 megabyte Service Pack 3 patch to get the latest and greatest version as described in this review.

Introduction
We last visited Trainz for review in February and since then Auran have been hard at work on updates and new content for it. With the release of Service Pack 3 we have decided that the product is now sufficiently different that it warrants a completely fresh review to do justice to all the work that has gone in to the product since its initial release.

Trainz main menu My Collection: Mark 2 Coach My Collection: Intercity 125 My Collection: Two-tone Green Deltic

I'm going to pitch this review as a complete overview/review of the product in general rather than just run down the list of features that have been added or tweaked through the last three Service Packs, the change list is rather large so this will no doubt be the simpler and more readable method and newcomers to Trainz can just read about it without needing to do background research to find out about "the story so far".

Trainz used to come with three 'modules', those being My Collection, Driver and Surveyor. New in the latest version of Trainz is a further one called Scenarios. We'll walk through each module in turn and discuss what it does and its ups and downs.

My Collection
This module allows you to view all of your stock in full 3D. Each locomotive or stock item you select is placed in to a 'shed' setting and you are able to walk around it and look at it from all sorts of angles.

This is especially useful if you have just installed something new and want to take a quick look, or want to remind yourself of what a livery looks like to see if it goes with something else in your collection to make a consist up.

The list of items can be sorted on numerous categories including the country of origin, though you must click a right-arrow in order to be able to see these extra fields.

One thing that this also shows is that Trainz is designed to support uniquely numbered locomotives - that is, one locomotive installed could be present with four different running numbers and not be done using four completely different locomotives. This means that you can have a reasonably plausible railway running without having to have 8 loco's that are all the same number.

My Collection: Railfreight Coal 37 My Collection: Yellow Ends 37 (with selector fully expanded so you can see other sortable fields) Driver: Building a consist Driver: Building a consist

Originally I gather this numbering was intended to be Auran-only and when you purchased new stock items from them you would be getting uniquely numbered items - however changes in the market, and their understanding of the market, seem to have put that idea on the back burner as Service Pack 3 now makes it easy for 3rd party content creators to be able to add unique running number support to their own stock.

All in all, this is a useful module but you probably won't spend a great deal of time in here - the other modules are much more fun :)

Driver
This is the simulator part of the system. Driver is just that, it allows you to get in to a cab and start driving trains. Auran have taken a different approach to Microsoft and it is very usable indeed.

First off you build a number of consists that you want. So you could have a 37 with some freight behind it, a 55 with some coaches and an HST as three consists that you define. Building consists is as simple as drag and drop using the same sortable view as was present in the 'My Collection' module, so even with a large amount of stock it's quite easy to find what you are looking for. I would have perhaps preferred a country drop-down box as you are unlikely to want to choose loco's from two different countries for use on a single layout but this is fairly minor.

Once you have built your consists you move on to the next screen. This allows you to choose the route that you want to drive on. A map of the route is shown that you can zoom in on and scroll around so you can get a good idea of what the route is about. On this map you will also find a number of red triangles, these are 'start' markers - you select each consist in turn and click on a start marker to place your consist on the route. So you have now defined some consists and then placed them at various points in the route - this is something that you can't do in MSTS without using an Activity, which then places restrictions on what you can actually do - so effectively what you're doing here is a hybrid of the setup and placement from an activity and the Explore the Route mode.

On the final screen you choose simulation characteristics such as realism (how easily will it derail), whether you want to drive 'properly' in the cab or as a model railway using a knob style control called DCC, what kind of weather you want, what time of day, time acceleration and so forth. One interesting feature is that the weather can be made to be changeable - so during the course of your driving it might actually go from bright sunshine to a raging storm.

Driver: Choosing the route and setting start points (the '0' and '1' you can see on the red triangles indicate where consists 0 and 1 start) Driver: Final set up screen, choosing various settings for our driving session Driver: Here's one of our consists Driver: Cab view of the 37 looking out of the window ahead of us, note reflections in the window

Once you are happy with your settings you proceed in to the simulation itself, if you chose DCC view then you are placed outside looking at your loco and if you chose cab view then you are placed inside the cab ready to go.

The Cab Driving experience is my favourite, I find driving using the cab in Trainz to seem to be very realistic indeed (at least from the point of view of someone that has never actually driven a real train :) ). A lot of work has gone in to the latest update for Trainz to improve the realism and physics of the cab driving experience and it certainly feels like it as you drive. If you go around corners too fast the view sways gently - which gives you good visual feedback of your passengers discomfort :)

The Cab View in Trainz is a fully 3D view that you can scroll around smoothly. All of the controls are full 3D objects that you can manipulate gently and smoothly with the mouse, there's no 2D animations in sight here. I did try out my 3D Glasses on Trainz to see how it ran and while it wasn't too fantastic outside the cab I can definitely say that the in-cab experience with 3D Glasses is outstanding :) Sitting at a busy station in a 37 with a HST sitting beside you was just something else :) Being able to move your head around the cab is a very nice touch and adds a great deal to the immersion in to your role as the driver.

One of the other things that Auran have done with the latest Trainz is to finally add in all the missing cab views. All of the locomotives now have relevant cab views, without exception. At least now when you drive your Class 55 Deltic you aren't looking out from a Class 37 cab view anymore. The caveat here unfortunately is that many of the cab views are actually very similar - suspiciously so :) It looks very much like all they did was create new base cabs and then slap existing control panels and gauges etc in to them. So your Deltic has the right window layout for a Deltic but it has all the control panels from a Class 37 - maybe they do in real life and either way it doesn't detract (in my opinion, as a non-deltic-driver :) ) from the experience, just having the cab views close enough is far far better than it was in the past with completely wrong cabs.

If you chose to drive your train using the DCC control then you have a simple twisty knob, turn it right to make the train go forwards and left to make it go backwards. Very reminiscent of a model railway. There are a number of buttons for things such as your headlights and the pantograph as well.

Driver: Moving the camera down we can see the controls, we literally interact with all of these controls to move the train Driver: Map view, you can see and operate points and signals as well as see any consists (including your own) Driver: Angling the camera to the right a bit for a more atmospheric shot Driver: Going over a level crossing, even that is UK style :)

Driving using DCC used to be a bit of a pain as it was far too simplistic. As an example, if you set it on 10% power it would get up to a speed and sit there on level track, as you would expect. If the track then started to go down hill the train would race away - dropping the power a bit would more often than not bring your train to a grinding halt. I am happy to say that in the latest version of Trainz they have cured this, if you are on 10% power then the loco will do its best to maintain the same speed whether it goes up or down, making it actually usable now in my opinion. They have also cured the "sliding to a rapid halt" behaviour that setting the control to 0% would cause originally by applying the same loco physics to the DCC controller, so if you set it to 0% now the train will come to a graceful stop as quickly as it can. While this goes against the whole 'model railway' style of controller it is very much in keeping with one of the aims of DCC - realistic operation of Trains.

What is DCC?

DCC stands for Digital Command and Control, it is a standard that has been quite widely adopted in the US for control of model railways. It hasn't been particularly popular in the UK but it also hasn't been widely publicised either from what I can see.

In conventional model railway control you simply apply voltage to the rails, the wheels on the loco's pick up this voltage and pass it directly to the onboard motor causing it to turn. Therefore the more voltage on the track, the more speed the loco gets.

The problem with this is that in order to have more than one loco running at a time you need to do something called 'blocking' on your layout and then have a complex control board so that power is where you need it and nowhere else.

You can also have problems with poor motors and bad pickups when you are on lower voltages trying to run your loco at a slower, more to-scale speed.

DCC comes to fix this by seriously modernising the way you run your layout. You install a small microchip in to each locomotive and use a special DCC controller. The voltage on your layout is always at maximum meaning that there won't be any trouble with low voltages that don't work well on pickups etc. The rails are then used to carry a set of encoded instructions around your layout. The DCC controller will issue commands such as "Loco 5, Set Speed 4", the loco that has the microchip in it that understands itself as being Loco 5 (you use a programming track before hand) will then set its internal target speed to 4 and begin a process of acceleration according to a pre-programmed pattern until it gets there.

With DCC you no longer need to block your track, loco's can run completely independently even if they are right next to each other.

Various kits available from manufacturers such as Lenz make DCC an extremely easy thing to add to your layout and the benefits for more realistic operations are enormous.

Overall performance of the graphics engine has been improved considerably since the initial release of Trainz so you will now see healthy framerates even in built up areas and with plenty of other traction present. These improvements became critically important when the Scenarios module was added as having more loco's on the screen was causing a major impact on framerates. Happily, this is quite nicely fixed.

Driver: Once again looking down at the controls but this time i'm focusing on one of them, you can see the red and green lines that come up when you select a control to move it. Driver: Cab view from the 37 as we come in to the station Driver: Coming out the other side of the station we see our other consist! Driver: Going over one of the spectacular bendy spline-bridges in Trainz

One thing that you will be able to quite easily see about a Trainz loco is that the number of polygons used to construct it is fairly high. Indeed, you're looking at around 10,000 polygons on average for a loco - and yet the framerates still easily reach 30's in built up areas, so it's a pretty efficient graphics engine. Another thing that you may be able to observe with Trainz stock is that the wheels do not go around. While this personally doesn't bother me (I don't spend much time watching wheels on Diesels and Electrics!) it does bother some so it's worth keeping in mind - it is not a limitation of Trainz however as a number of third party loco's are coming out with fully rotating wheels so it's just a design decision that the Trainz team have taken on their own models.

There is a fairly healthy supply of loco's from around the world including British, German, Swedish, Australian and American stock to name but a few. Unfortunately at this point Trainz does not fully support the concept of Steam so there are no Steam loco's present, only Diesel and Electric.

Trainz and Steam

Officially, Trainz does not support Steam engines. It has no support for operating a Steam engine using realistic controls and it has no concept of the physics involved.

In reality however, people in the community have been busily constructing 3D models of steam engines that you can quite easily operate using the DCC controller. Auran responded to this by extending the particle system quite considerably so that people can now put some quite superb and realistic smoke effects on their models. The end result is that for DCC control at least, Steam is supported 'enough'. If you want to drive that Steam loco as Driver or Fireman however you will have to wait. Auran have suggested in the past that they have plans to implement Steam support but that right now they have other priorities - indeed, the whole rail simulation concept is so vast it would be unrealistic to expect everything to be available completely from day one and by leaving Steam off the list they have been able to spend extra time on other items such as the Scenario support.

I, for one, will be very much looking forward to the cab driving experience from a Trainz steam loco however!

Driver: Some Scenery Driver: Going over another of the spline bridges Driver: Firing up the Deltic ready to go Driver: Cab view from the Deltic, it's only difference with the 37 is the window layout, all the controls are exactly the same.

There is also a selection of routes from around the various areas that Trainz comes with content for. These are Britain, Australia and the US. Unfortunately (but not too unexpectedly) more care and effort have been placed on the Australian and US layouts which are considerably larger and more detailed than the one British layout that is provided (and is essentially nothing more than a simple loop).

That said, it is well worth a visit to the supplied US and Australian layouts as they really are quite superb and you'll see just how much scenery you can put on to your screen and not suffer frame rate problems in some areas.

One of the other areas that Auran have made significant improvements to is the robustness and reliability of Trainz when dealing with very large layouts - specifically the kind needed to be able to do a 150 mile prototypical length route. Just to demonstrate this they have included the 'Robe River' route done by a member of the community, this is a scale length route in Australia and it's going to take you a long time to get from one end to the other. My hope is that at some point we will see some scale British routes appearing rather than just layouts.

Another bugbear of mine with the original release of Trainz was Transparent Windows. It makes a heck of a difference to the visual image of a model depending on whether it has transparent or opaque windows. Opaque windows make the model look like something from a model railway, transparent windows make it look much more realistic.

All of the loco's in Trainz now have transparent windows on them, which looks far better. Unfortunately the Passenger stock is all still stuck with opaque windows, a great shame as it is often the passenger stock that really adds that extra touch of realism to a whole train length.

Due to the way that the track system works in Trainz it is not possible for points to be animated - this is partly due to the fact that in reality, the way that it works doesn't even understand the concept of points specifically. That said, while it would have been nice for points to be animated I don't personally see this as a big loss. It would have been nice if they could have done something about the flashing effect though as the two pieces of track fight to be displayed in the areas they overlap.

Driver: Looking out from an HST 125 Driver: Looking to the right a bit Driver: Looking down at the controls Driver: External shot of the HST

Another area where Trainz beats MSTS is being able to control multiple loco's at once. Once more in true Model Railway style it is necessary for an operator to have multiple pieces of stock running around the layout, or at a minimum to have the ability to shunt with one loco and then have another one come and take the freight away afterwards. This isn't possible with MSTS as once you are in your loco that's it. MSTS takes the view that you are a driver of a loco and therefore in one 'session' are unlikely to hop from one loco to another all over the place - Trainz takes the model railway view and says that it would be absolutely necessary for a single operator to control multiple trains. Even in the 'real' prototypical type simulation that MSTS offers it is in fact quite advantageous to be able to control multiple trains as there are no other drivers that will do that shunting for you. Activities in MSTS allow other trains to operate but limitations in Activities mean that they can't build a train and set it out for you to take by the time you arrive at that depot for example. This is all possible in Driver, just switch to the shunter and build up the train and then go to your main loco to pick the train up and haul it to its destination. Sure, nothing is happening simultaneously but at least you can do a variety of operations in a single session.

There is no passenger view support in Trainz, something that I quite enjoy in MSTS. There is also no head-out view from the cab of a loco so shunting or coupling operations will require you to go to external view.

Another nice surprise in Trainz is the presence of fully functioning turntables. They are present both in the simple form of a turntable on its own for you to use in the construction of a yard and also in the form of a traditional 'Roundhouse' shed to store locos in.

Finally, the last point I'll raise about Driver is that it is not possible to get in to both cabs of a dual-cabbed locomotive. For example the Class 37 and 55 locomotives have two cabs - but only one end is driveable, therefore if you connect with the "front" (ie. cab side) of the loco towards the train then you will be forced to use your external view to drive the train as your cab view is just going to be filled with what is behind you. Where a train has two locomotives however such as an HST or a top-and-tail set-up with something like a 37, you can flip the loco's so that their respective "fronts" are facing in opposite directions (which indeed you must do with an HST or it looks rather odd :) ) and then you are able to drive in both directions using the cab views of each loco.

Driver: Looking out of the HST125 cab as we arrive at Tinoats Driver: Another angled shot from the HST as we go over a bridge Driver: One of the US F7 locos sitting on the US route Driver: Cab view from the US F7 loco

Surveyor
This is where Trainz truly shines, Surveyor is the 'Route Editor' for Trainz allowing you to make your own routes and layouts. Where Microsoft chose to supply an unsupported and largely untested Route Editor, spending their efforts more on the driving experience, Auran took a different approach and have spent a lot more time on the Route Editor to create a tool that is extremely usable, bug free (largely) and very very powerful.

The key to Surveyors power comes from something called a Spline. If you draw two points on a piece of paper, you can draw a straight line between them without any problem. If you now draw a third point that is not in a straight line, there is a rather nasty angled corner in the middle. Splines fix this by taking all of those points and drawing a smooth curve between them all. That's how you lay track in Surveyor - you drop in spline points and Surveyor puts the track in to go between them smoothly.

If you want to move your track later on you just move the spline point, if you want to add extra spline points so you can move other areas of the track or introduce more curves to existing trackwork then you can easily do that as well. Points are simply created by merging two tracks together at a spline point.

There is no limit to the length of a single piece of track, although smoother curves can be achieved by using shorter lengths of track.

The spline mechanism is something you will find used throughout Surveyor, for example putting roads on to your layout is exactly the same as putting track down. Likewise, fences, hedges and so forth are all splines so you can very rapidly put fencing down the sides of all of your track for example. Power pylons, telegraph poles and overhead electric wires (all with wires joining them together) are done using splines as well so you can have the large pylons going along your layout looking very nice indeed, with very little effort.

Driver: View from the station at the US loco Driver: Santa Fe SD-40 sitting elsewhere on the US route in the evening Driver: Cab view from the SD-40 Driver: Turning the cab view camera to focus on the control board

Unfortunately the downside to the Spline-Track is that it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to create exact replicas of real track work. Points are done using splines - not by using well defined set pieces as you would in MSTS so it can actually be harder than necessary to make good points in tight areas. I would have thought this should have been easy for them to fix, just provide a set of specific pieces, but as yet nothing has turned up from them. 3DTrains did release a product called ProTrainz at one point but I am not aware of whether this was ever updated to work with the latest Service Pack 3 version of Trainz.

Another downside to the splines is that it is quite easy to make curves that your stock can't go over, without any fixed radii curves that you can slot in you are relying on the splines to achieve smooth and driveable curves in your track. It would have been nice if a simple utility was provided in Surveyor to run a quick analysis of your track and produce a list of the stock items that will not run over all parts of your layout. As it is, before you can release a layout you must (ideally!) check each and every stock item that is intended to be usable on your layout across each and every curve just to make sure that you haven't got anything too tight in there.

Terrain is another area that Surveyor makes very easy. You can import a graphics greyscale file and use that to set up the hills and valleys in your terrain or you can just use the supplied tools to raise and lower terrain very easily, creating some wonderful undulating landscapes for your trains to wander around. It is possible to be fairly precise in your alterations to the landscape as well as very broad and subtle. You can also very easily move the terrain up or down to be level with the track by just clicking a button so you can go wild and do the landscape of your dreams and then a click later your track is all nice and straight with raised sections and valleys where necessary in the landscape.

Driver: Shot of the SD40 going over a bridge with some quite lovely scenery around it Driver: German Renfe Class 340 Driver: Cab view from the German Renfe Class 340, notice how this time the controls are borrowed from the F7 Surveyor: This is how we start, with a blank tile.

The next major element to building your layout is the texturing and colouring. Putting grass where it should be, concrete and gravel where they should be and so forth. This is extremely easy in Surveyor - you just select the texture you want from a fairly large list and then start painting away on your layout! It's very easy to come up with some quite fantastic rock formations or coal bits without too much effort once you get the hang of it.

Creating water features such as ponds, rivers, lakes and so forth is very easy as well. Simply lower the terrain where you want the feature to be and then switch to 'add-water' mode to 'paint' the water in. You can then raise and lower the water level in another mode by just dragging it up and down - couldn't be easier.

The final big item that you'll need to add to your layouts is scenery. There is a large supply of scenic items provided out of the box for you to use, each are categorised by their country of origin and their specific use (for example, trackside objects, residential, commercial and so forth). Each object is shown in full 3D, rotating so that you can see clearly what it is you are about to add to your layout. Once added you can then move and rotate the object as you wish. Unfortunately it is not possible to raise and lower that object except by moving the terrain that it is on. This means that objects which must be placed on platforms must be released in a 'levitated' form so that they are correctly placeable. It would have been very nice to be able to adjust the height of an object as well as it can sometimes be quite challenging to correctly place some items (for example water based ones such as jettys).

A number of scenic items have been provided in spline form including bridges and some platforms. No longer will you need to have specific platforms designed for the specific curve of your track, just drop a spline platform in and it will automatically sort the curvature out for you. Likewise with bridges, you don't need custom ones for each and every bridge on your layout. You can simply drop two or more splines down for the bridge and it will bend and stretch it adjusting appropriately for the height of the supports, widths of them and the curve that you put on the track. Single and double track versions of all bridge structures are provided, though they are only in the default track style so if you are using a non-default track style then your bridges may look a little odd over these.

Surveyor: Three spline points and Trainz bends the track to smoothly go through them Surveyor: We have added more splines, moved some of them to get them to form a wider arc and then added a load of fencing splines to either side of the track. Surveyor: One click of the button can apply a texture to the whole of a tile Surveyor: Using the terrain tools I have raised some areas of the land and lowered others.  I have then changed the time of day so that I can more clearly see the terrain formations.

Level crossings are extremely easy to add to your layout, simply break the track and slot the level crossing in, then put the road sections either side and that's all there is to it!

Surveyor is capable of helping you in scale recreation, the fixed track pieces would have helped even more but in their absence you have a ruler tool at your disposal. You can drop as many rulers down on the layout as you wish and their lengths are determined by the scale that you told Surveyor to use when you created the layout. You can use most model railway scales as well as 'real world' scale.

There are no limits to the kind of layout that you can build using Surveyor, you won't get sporadic faults because you have too much scenery in one area of the route or because you have build a circle. Remember that Trainz was originally designed for the Model Railway builder, for whom a loop is a fundamental concept that must work, and indeed it does quite nicely in Trainz.

One of the new features in the latest release of Trainz is a completely new and reworked signalling system with detailed support for Australia, the UK and the US. Looking at the UK system (as I am not familiar with the others) you can expect two, three and four aspect colour light signals along with route indicators, ground signals and so forth, remember that Steam isn't supported and thus scenery from this era is not available - so no semaphores are presently available.

The final point i'll make on Surveyor is about the disk capacity used by your Trainz layouts.

Surveyor: By inserting splines in to track you can easily extract bits exactly as you need to, here I have extracted some track and fence where we are going to build a bridge. Surveyor: Using the Dark Arches bridge we are able to put this bridge in very quickly, Trainz stretches and multiplies it (ie. adds more legs) as necessary. Surveyor: One click of another button and we have flattened the track back down making a nice cutting in that terrain. Surveyor: We want this side of the map to be water, so we add a pile - but notice how the water is too high?

Trainz layouts are small in filesize, very small. A simple layout only a few tiles in size can literally be under a megabyte's worth of download and still provide plenty of entertainment. A route that I am working on at the moment has over 100 tiles and a fair bit of scenery / terrain modelling and is still only 1.38 megabytes to distribute. To give you an idea of size, the layout i'm working on can take around 30 minutes to go from one end to the other - and that doesn't take in to account loads of branch lines and alternative routes so your 1.38 megabytes is getting you a fair bit of route. This is a remarkable difference to the 50-100 meg (or more) downloads for MSTS routes - however all is not quite as rosey as it seems. I'll go in to this in more detail in a later section but there is one thing missing from a Trainz route distribution that is present in the MSTS routes - all the scenery items themselves. Scenarios
One of the biggest criticisms laid against Trainz when it was first released was the lack of 'Activities' as MSTS calls them. Activities provide a structured environment to drive in, they have a set list of tasks that should be completed and goals to achieve along the way (such as being on time, within comfort levels and so forth). With no support for these in Trainz it was Driver and nothing else - so once you've run your layout a few times you'd tend to get a little bored of it, you can have other trains going in Driver but it's like balancing the spinning plates - going from train to train constantly making sure it stops at the right station and/or has its points set correctly and making sure there are no accidents etc. It all gets very hairy and really what you want is just to drive your train and focus on your job and have the computer deal with the rest of it.

For Service Pack 3, Auran decided to bring forward the introduction of their 'Scenario' system that was originally intended to arrive with the 'Yardmaster' module - so now that we have an equivalent to Activities, what can you do with them and have they achieved what everyone wanted?

First off I feel it necessary to make it clear that there are effectively two parts to the scenario system that was going to arrive with the Yardmaster module. The first is the underlying architecture, the capability to support scripted scenarios. The second is the graphical user interface, supposedly with the same kind of power and flexibility that Surveyor offers, to allow anyone to easily make a scenario. All you get with Service Pack 3 is the first of these - there is no graphical user interface to make scenarios, so let's find out exactly what a scenario is and see how you make one in the absence of this GUI.

Surveyor: A click click and drag of the mouse lowers the water level to somewhere suitable Surveyor: Here I have textured all the ground underwater with a rock style texture, this highlights the water as being more transparent and also shows up above the water line occasionally with good effect Surveyor: A little bit more texture painting later and we've made our cutting in to a rock face Surveyor: A few more clicks with some static scenery later and we have a load of forestation everywhere.

A scenario is a script, it looks much like a C++ or Java program in many ways although it is a far simpler programming language. Inside this script you have the ability to control pretty much any aspect of the Trainz environment - if you enjoyed writing little programs to drive robots in school, you're going to get a real kick out of writing programs that drive trains :)

The Scenario Scripts are just plain text files that you can edit using something like Notepad. Once you have a script you can then compile it using the 'Gamescript Compiler' and try your scenario out in the new Scenarios module.

This is not intended for the new and innocent, writing a script can be quite complicated and an understanding of programming in general will help a lot - if you have a basic understanding of Java then you shouldn't have any problem picking up Gamescript.

So what can you actually achieve with a Trainz Scenario?

This is where it gets fun :) Trainz Scenarios are incredibly flexible - because it is a programming language rather than the system that MSTS uses, you are able to write scripts that actually respond to the users behaviour and ability and adjust the scenario dynamically. For example, imagine if you arrive late at one of the stations on your route and another train has gone in to your originally intended platform. In reality you would likely be just routed in to another platform but this is not possible with MSTS due to the fixed paths that are created as part of the activity. In Trainz you can easily cope with this possibility and put the user in to another platform, and then out back on to the right track again once they depart.

You have full control over all the signals if you wish it for times when you want to go against the normal behaviour (perhaps to enforce a red light temporarily) - however Trainz will take care of the signalling by default for you anyway so this is not necessary for you to do unless you need to.

Surveyor: Finally, a couple more clicks gives us signals, the signals all automatically work so there's no need to 'wire' them to anywhere.  That is this tile completed - probably about 30 minutes work at the most. Scenarios: Here we start the Highland Valley scenario in DCC mode.  Note the box on the top left giving us instructions. Scenarios: The box in the top left has now changed instructing us to proceed to our first station. Scenarios: When a box shows no new message for a while, it collapses to give you more screen room.  You can click the arrow to bring it back and it will automatically come back when there's anything new to say.

Within a scenario you can have the player doing a vast variety of actions, here are some examples that would be quite possible within a Scenario:

You're sitting in a siding and a long heavy freight train pulls in. You come out and couple up to the back of the train to help push it up a steep hill. It doesn't matter how long it takes you to couple up, it won't start until you're ready. Then when you get to the top the train will continue on its way as soon as you have uncoupled. You can then move back to the bottom of the hill ready for the next one.

An eight car passenger train pulls in to the station you are waiting at in your light loco. Once it has stopped you pull around the back of the train and couple up to the back of it, as soon as you do, four of the coaches are automatically uncoupled so that they are connected only to you. Once this is complete the original train proceeds with its four coaches while you proceed in the other direction with your four.

If you are shunting in a yard, a loco can be sitting waiting for you until it detects that you have completed setting its train out and then it will collect the train and take it on its journey - you're not under any time constraint enforced by limitations in the engine, it just waits for you to finish.

You are driving your train happily when suddenly the power fails and your train comes to a halt, you sit there for a while and a car pulls up beside your loco. Your view switches and now you're a passenger in the car, the car drives to the nearest depot and pulls up alongside another loco - now your view switches to that new loco. You drive the loco back to where your train died and haul it all to the next station where it can be repaired after passengers have disembarked.

Scenarios: We've been instructed to stop at the next station Scenarios: And here we are, sitting waiting for clearance to proceed. Scenarios: On leaving the station our score is updated (the red number) and the information panel tells us about the scoring (the content of this panel is entirely up to the Script writer) Scenarios: The Highland Valley railway really is quite picturesque

As you can see, the possibilities for very interactive scenarios with a much more immersive feel to them is very much possible in the new Trainz Scenario system, making it vastly more powerful than the extremely basic Activities supported by MSTS.

On the downside, it is not possible to timetable a service. While there is a running clock on the scenario there is no timetable as such that will penalise you if you arrive late at a destination - at least not one that I have seen and no passenger scenarios that I have seen to date have such a thing. It is possible to have passenger services of course.

Scenarios use a points scoring mechanism to say how well you did. It is up to the individual script to dictate what adds to the score and what subtracts from it. For example, it is possible to detect what speed the player was doing when they coupled up to something and base a score modification on that, as well as make a note for the final report shown to the user.

Scenarios are very much event driven, the script is told when the user couples or uncouples, when it goes over a trigger on the route and so forth. Unfortunately there is no event for when the user is near or passes another train which is a shame but hasn't proven to be a big issue as yet.

Scenarios also support alternative modes of transport in order to add something extra to your activities - it is possible to script the journeys of cars, planes and helicopters using invisible track or special roads. You can place the user in to any vehicle, take over control of the vehicle they are driving and much much more. You could even create a scenario where the user is looking at a set of points around a station rather than a loco, and their job is simply to get trains in to and out of that station safely and quickly. It wouldn't be an ideal signal box simulation but it wouldn't be a bad start! :)

It is possible to play sounds during a Scenario - so you can blow a whistle when it's time to leave a station, have radio chatter going on in the cab and so forth.

Unfortunately, for all of the impressive possibilities that Scenarios permit, the included scenarios are really quite weak. They demonstrate fairly basic functionality of the system without actually pushing it and really demonstrating the power of it. You can see from the example scenarios that it is a bit better than MSTS activities but not really a great deal, which is a shame, because in reality it is so much more powerful.

Scenarios: Sitting at the next station awaiting guard clearance

Proteus Yard

This is where the community comes to the rescue. I now mention a community freeware project in this review simply because in my opinion it's one of the first i've seen that really demonstrates the power of scenarios.

User 'TaFWeb' from the Auran forums has created a simple one tile yard called 'Proteus Yard', and written a very impressive scenario around it. Your job is simple, trains are going to come in and drop off their wagons, your job is to get those wagons off the in-line and in to their respective service sidings in the yard, so flat cars will go in one siding, tanks to another and so forth. Your priority is clearing the line so that the next train doesn't get held up so you have sorting sidings that you can use as intermediate storage - it can get quite hectic with trains arriving at times so you'll be glad of the sorting sidings.

Trains arrive, uncouple from the wagons and depart. You hear from the signal box frequently about when trains are going to be with you along with an ETA - so if you are deep in the yard you can high-tail it back out again and be ready to clear the line once the loco has gone.

If that wasn't enough fun to keep you busy, occasionally things go wrong. A loco breaks down on its way to you so you have to rapidly get out there on the in-line and haul the dead loco somewhere safe, then deal with its wagons. You might also experience a fire in a building next to one of the sidings - this puts the siding out of use temporarily - but what you might not expect is that while this is going on there is smoke pouring out of the building in question and a fire engine tearing its way down the road to go put the fire out! To add to the fun, it's always different. Every time you run this activity it will be slightly different, perhaps a fire occurs at the start, maybe at the end, maybe not at all. No dead loco's, three dead loco's, a busy freight day or a quiet freight day.

All in all, Proteus Yard is very impressive indeed. The download from TaFWebs site is quite small and contains everything you need - it comes highly recommended if you want to an idea of what Scenario's can do.

The Rest
As of the latest release, Trainz now also comes with a tool called the Content Dispatcher. One of my personal grips with MSTS, as a file library owner, is that there is no single and coherent way to distribute custom content for it. As a result, different people use different methods ranging from just a selection of files in a directory with a README file to a full blown self installer. I get loads of emails every day from people who can't figure out how to install one file or another, it resulted in my writing the 'Beginners Guide' tutorial for MSTS, which walks users through the procedure - but put simply, this is not a 'consumer level activity'. Consumer procedures should be point-and-click - full credit goes to those MSTS content creators who have gone to the extra time and trouble of creating full self installers, that's not to be down on those that don't, because there is no specific tool to do this it often requires knowledge or skills some people don't have or know about.

Content Dispatcher makes this procedure easy for both authors and users alike. Authors can use the dispatcher tool to create a 'CPD' self installable file very quickly and easily. When the CPD file is downloaded, the end-user need only double-click on it to install it. Because the actual Content Dispatcher got installed with the end-users copy of Trainz, it even knows exactly where to put everything so the user doesn't even have to know what the installation path should be.

Another new feature with the latest Trainz is integration with the Auran Download Station. If you install a route that requires custom content that you don't have installed, it is possible to get Trainz to automatically create a set of links to the Download Station to go and get the missing files for you. This does assume that the files are of course available from the Download Station, but as Auran only permit files packaged using their Content Dispatcher to be uploaded the installation of these items should be very straight forward indeed.

Another bonus for end-users is that repaints can now use much less disk space. Every item that is present in Trainz has a 'KUID', or a unique identifier. This KUID is used to identify rolling stock, scenery items, maps, scenarios, everything that is within Trainz, uniquely. If someone releases a repaint of a loco then their new repaint directory need only specify the KUID of the loco it is repainting and then supply new textures for it so if you have 30 class 37's in different liveries, you will still only have one copy of the 37 model and then just 30 different paint schemes for it.

The Trainz Engine does not support the concept of seasons, unlike in MSTS. So you won't find golden brown tree's in Autumn or snow on the buildings in winter. It is intended that a layout be for a specific season - there are snow textures provided that you can apply instead of, for example, grass, and likewise the intention would be that you create snow-covered buildings for your winter route. It would have been better however if a single layout could potentially support multiple seasons just by supplying extra textures/models unfortunately.

The engine does however support day and night textures, so as you pull in to a station at night in Trainz it will be all lit up quite nicely.

Final Comments
Unless you purchase Trainz direct from Auran, the version you get will be quite old and as such you are going to be facing trying to obtain around a 250 megabyte file to upgrade your Trainz to the latest version. Trainz as supplied direct from Auran has been updated and is Trainz SP3 out of the box. You can download the Service Pack from Auran, or indeed numerous other place on the Internet including UKTrainSim, or alternatively try and find someone who is prepared to put it on to a CD for you - as a 250 meg download is quite considerable even for a broadband user.

It is extremely disappointing that the UK release of Trainz, which only happened on September 20th 2002 - a fair while after the huge SP3 patch became available - did not at a minimum include a second CD with the patch on it to save people having to download it.

Something that might affect your purchasing decision is the recent announcement of 'Ultimate Trainz Collection' (UTC hereafter). This new product will not be a free service pack - it is a completely new product that you must buy again. Granted there is a lot of new stuff in UTC but for those just purchasing Trainz now, facing a re-purchase again in two months seems a bit pointless. On the up-side, Auran are offering an upgrade path for those that have purchased Trainz so the UTC will indeed be cheaper and becomes more like the price of a simple add-on if you already own Trainz. At this time I do not know what the upgrade procedure will be for purchasing Trainz from places other than Auran themselves, it is possible that they will release an upgrade-only version that requires your Trainz disc before it will install and that this will be available at the discounted price.

Trainz has been available for purchase since November 2001 - it has taken an astonishing 10 months to finally become available on UK shelves and even when it did, it arrived without even a mild fizzle, let alone a bang. The publishers in the UK are very hard to get hold of unlike all the other UK publishers i've dealt with and the level of market research for the UK release appears to have been approaching nil - the front cover of the case features the ATSF F7 A and B units. Something that we are confronted with very frequently at the Model Railway Exhibitions we take part in is the view that MSTS is "that one with mostly US stuff in it", and because of that image people have avoided purchasing it. We demonstrate exclusively British add-ons for it at the exhibitions and suddenly everyone becomes interested in going out and buying the product - and now we have Trainz, which features more - and better - UK stock than the default MSTS install, but chooses to completely hide that fact from the UK public.

Summary and Score
Trainz was originally aimed at the virtual model railway market but was pressured in to tackling the real-railway simulation market once users cottoned on to the power and flexibility of the product. As such there are some elements that still seem very 'model', though Service Pack 3 has done a great deal to improve its capabilities in the real-railway simulation area.

Surveyor is very powerful and extremely easy to use. The only extra I'd like to see are fixed pieces such as points, slips and fixed radii curves so that a more exact replica of a railway (model or real) could be achieved, with that in mind however, there is simply no comparison between Surveyor and the MSTS Route Editor

Driving in the cab is supremely rewarding with much more realistic physics and driving with DCC is now much more usable than it has been in the past.

The included rolling stock is very good indeed, including Class 37, Class 55 and Class 43 (HST) loco's plus Freightliner container wagon, loaded and unloaded mineral wagons, Mark 2 and Mark 3 coaches for your British stock plus a wide variety of European, American and Australian stock for both local, express, freight and passenger uses. Lack of transparent windows in passenger stock is disappointing but at least the loco's now fully support it. Trainz rolling stock has also always had full specular lighting.

The support for scenarios is mind boggling - but the lack of actual demonstrated use of this power in the box beyond some simplistic examples is quite disappointing.

The inclusion of Content Dispatcher means that users downloading new add-ons for Trainz don't have to fear a long install that might make their sim suddenly start giving out spurious errors.

Finally, one area that Auran have consistently been far superior on than Microsoft is customer service. Plenty of patches and then something like Service Pack 3 which made such vast and wide ranging changes to the original product - all for free (though some would say that a chunk of SP3 should have been in the original release anyway, such as the cabs - prove that Auran have kept their promise of supporting the product. They have listened to their users and changed their plans according to the feedback they receive on their forums, you can interact with the team on the Auran forums and even on their chat system if you are lucky.

It takes balls of steel to be able to interact with the general public when you provide products and services, you have to be able to just tune out those that want to do nothing but complain and moan or you will be dragged in to thinking that way yourself (it's amazing how 10 people with praise can be wiped out by one person insulting you) - Auran have managed to keep cool heads throughout and it's paying off for them. Auran's forums are also extremely busy, with support for multiple languages and a wide variety of topics. They are a small company who are obviously very keen to see the product succeed (it's just a shame that their publishers seem not to share this).

The final score for Trainz is taken based on the merits of Trainz SP3 and does not take in to account that UTC is due for release in a couple of months - i'll let you decide how that affects your decision.

Overall Score:

95%



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