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The Ups and Downs of Train Sim World 3
BILL WOOD | OCTOBER 13, 2022
A new railway sim means a new write-up, so let’s get right into it!
Dovetail Games’ September release of Train Sim World 3 came as something of an unexpected gift to long-time fans, many of whom were expecting another season or two of Train Sim World 2 post-release content before receiving a proper follow-up. But since TSW2 already has more than its share of DLC (most of which is compatible with TSW3), DTG apparently felt it was time for a fresh new upgrade for the series, hence the numeral three. We'll dive into these upgrades in just a moment, but first let's go back to the beginning and bring everything up to speed.
The Train Sim World series is exactly what it says it is; a highly-detailed train simulation. It isn’t a simple “drive from Point A to Point B” experience, if you don’t understand the inner workings of operating a locomotive (I didn’t when I started!), you’ll definitely have some studying to do. Train Sim World familiarizes players with managing multiple warning and braking systems, setting junctions, coupling and uncoupling cars, switching electric power systems midway through routes, and dealing with nasty weather and on-track issues all while maintaining a consistent timetable. If this sounds like a bit much, you can also hop on any line as a passenger and simply take in the sights and sounds. But like most successful sims, the core of the Train Sim World experience is all about giving players a taste of life working on the rails without actually having to... well, you know... work.
[If you want to catch up on the previous game, my write-up of Train Sim World 2 is here.]
Dovetail Games has always done a fantastic job of delivering highly-accurate passenger and freight lines from around the globe. Most of these are located in the US, UK and Germany, and the three routes included with TSW3 are no exception. In America we have Cajon Pass, which is located in my neck of woods here in So Cal. England gets a massive extension of the highly-popular Southeastern Highspeed Line, while Germany gets a brand-new high-speed route in Schnellfahrstrecke Kassel - Würzburg. A fourth line included in the Deluxe Edition of TSW3 is the Spirit of Steam: Liverpool - Crewe line, which harkens back to the good ol' days of steam engines. These four routes are among the best—and lengthiest—DTG has offered to date. I’m a huge fan of UK commuter services so I've been playing the Southeastern route the most, but they're all extremely well done.
The UI has been completely revamped for TSW3 to help players get where they want quicker, while Training Center is an all-new mode that newcomers should find useful. Other quality-of-life improvements include volumetric skies (e.g. clouds with actual density instead of a flat image map) and a new lighting system that is a massive improvement over TSW2 for the most part. My favorite new feature is variable weather, it adds so much to the overall experience. For example, I ran one service where the skies were clear for the first forty minutes, then a trickle of rain came falling down, and finally a downpour. Brilliant!
As mentioned earlier, 99% of TSW1/TSW2 DLC is compatible with TSW3, so you can bring your previously-purchased routes and locos along with you. This is a huge plus for me as I’ve amassed quite the collection over the years. My favorite routes are constantly changing, my current two are the Harlem and Long Island lines. I just love the feeling of pulling into Penn Station or Grand Central Terminal with a train full of Manhattanites. London's famous Bakerloo Line is another all-time fave, and with the addition of TSW 2 Rush Hour and TSW3 route upgrades, these lines feel more vibrant and alive than ever.
It's worth focusing on Train Sim World DLC for a moment as it is exhaustive, currently over 50 DLC items with more in development. This DLC can get pricey, with routes averaging around $30US and trains around $20US. If you're a completionist or just a die-hard train enthusiast, you may up spending more on this one game than the cost of a console or even a mid-level PC by the time it's all said and done. Of course, you can always do what I do and enjoy the included routes and trains until the DLC goes on sale, you'll end up saving quite a bit this way.
In addition to all of this, TSW3 features a Creation Center that allows users to create custom in-game content to share with the rest of the loco-simming world. For example, I've always wanted an NYC subway route in Train Sim World. None exists, but savvy creators have at least managed to re-skin existing TSW trains as MTA subway trains. Driving the N train through the London Tube isn't ideal, but it is amusing. Same goes with driving the Yamanote Line's iconic E235 Series train through parts of Scotland. When you combine all of the routes, trains, timetables, scenarios, and custom creation content available in TSW3, you end up with quite the hefty package, even if you choose not to purchase DLC.
Now the negatives, and there are several. From its beginning, the Train Sim World series has been plagued with a variety of technical glitches, from distracting visual artifacts to major snafus such as content licenses disappearing completely. Unfortunately, TSW3 carries over many legacy issues from its previous iteration, especially on PS5. If you’ve purchased a large amount of DLC, your content stops appearing in the game once you’ve hit a certain GB limit. One workaround is to only download the content you’re currently using, but I purchased a library of TSW content so that I can jump into the routes I want to play without managing file storage and downloads. I don't believe that's asking too much, thankfully DTG are working on a fix for this.
Another really unfortunate glitch pertains to saved games, as reloading your progress from a saved state has the potential to disrupt AI trains and break the game. With some of these services lasting well over an hour, it’s unreasonable to not provide gamers with a reliable way of saving their progress (pausing and putting the console into Rest Mode is one solution, but it's hardly optimal). Another bug pertains to AI trains ceasing to function and thereby stopping player progress, regardless of saving. Again, DTG are working on fixes, but it’s been slow going.
There are various other bugs as well, but the worst for me are the visual hiccups. The PlayStation 5 is the first console where I’ve barely noticed any graphical snags on any the games I’ve played... except for TSW3 that is. Simply put, the stellar quality of other PS5 titles makes TSW3 look inferior by comparison. Lackluster graphics don't make a game unplayable by any stretch, but most of us buy a new console to see the newer games shine, and this one falls flat. It's disappointing to see that draw distance is still an issue, with shadows and trees popping in all over the place. Consistent frame rates are also a problem, despite massive improvements over the previous console generation. As I said in my TSW2 write-up, I understand that rendering miles and miles of terrain while moving at 150mph+ has to be a chore. But that write-up was for a previous console generation, standards have since been elevated. The pop-in issue used to be distracting; now it's downright jarring. The whole TSW3/PS5 experience reminds me of playing Fallout 3 on the Xbox 360 back in the day; you’re having a blast but you know it could be so much better. I'll go ahead and say it; it needs to be better.
With all of these technical issues clouding the experience, my prevailing thought is that the TSW series feels like yet another PC sim that has been shoehorned onto consoles. I’m sure the devs don’t see it that way, but that’s what the product feels like to me at the moment. Compare this to Densha De GO! 4, a PS4 port of a (much simpler) Japanese train game that runs beautifully even on dated hardware. It's a difficult comparison as Densha is about as different from TSW3 as it can possibly be in terms of what it does and how it does it, but that doesn't stop Densha from being my Number One go-to train game. In any case, I'm hoping that TSW3’s issues can be sorted and console gamers can have a game that is at least on parity with its PC counterpart.
While I do have my share of frustrations with Train Sim World 3, I am able to set those issues aside and enjoy the immersive virtual railway experience the game has to offer. There's simply so much content and so many things to do (the list of available timetables and scenarios can run into the thousands) that it's easy to overlook the distractions. And let's face it, not many of us have the option of exploring the world's vast array of railways anytime we feel like it. TSW3 gives us a taste of this, if only in the virtual realm. With a bit of spit and polish, Train Sim World 3 has the potential to become the best rail game experience ever. We've been promised improvements for awhile, now it's time for DTG to step up and show us what they've got. - BW