The last Train Sim World I played was the original, and I thought it was a magnificent experience. Train Sim World 4 doesn’t feel much different from my memory of that game (admittedly four years ago now), but it didn’t need to play or look differently in the first place. Developer, Dovetail Games, has an odd knack for making a very unentertaining job enjoyable, and while I’d like to see more variety in the routes you can drive, the base engine should be sufficient for a long time to come.
I still don’t fully understand the appeal behind train sims, even though I am guilty of falling for them myself. This is a job that requires skill and training, and deserves plenty of respect on that basis, but it is a job. You’ve got KPIs with train driving, such as getting from one station to the next within a certain time (don’t tell Sydney Trains that) and sticking to specific speeds that allow you to get there safely. When the train system runs well then there’s clockwork precision to the application of that skillset (again, don’t tell Sydney Trains), allowing for very little with regards to creativity or joy in what you’re doing. I’ve been playing train sim games for years now, and I still don’t fully comprehend the part of my psyche they tap into that makes me think “This is a good time.”
And yet there I am quietly pumping my fist in victory when I get the train to come to a perfect standstill next to a platform, allowing for the smooth disembarking of passengers. I look out of the scenery of the real-world train routes (one in America, one in the UK and one in Austria in the base game this time around), as the virtual morning breaks on my early route start, and think to myself that in real life this wouldn’t be such a bad life… but then in being distracted I accidentally let the train reach a speed that is a couple of Km/h too fast and I remember just how much trouble I’d get into if I was driving a real train.
All trains are fairly complex machines, but the in-depth tutorial in Train Sim World 4 is excellent at getting you up to speed with the various machines you’ll be driving. More recent trains, such as electric vehicles, are very straightforward and you can imagine the comfort and ease with which you can drive these in real life. But then you also get to take to the tracks with a steam train and gain a whole new level of respect for the amount of skill piloting those things must have taken. By the end of that tutorial, you’ll be reasonably comfortable with the full process of controlling a train, from the first turn of the key to the moment you hop out of the cabin at the end of the trip.
There are several ways to play Train Sim World 4. There’s even a sandbox mode, that allows you to take almost any train on any of the tracks you own (assuming the train could run on it in the first place). That sandbox mode is there for the kind of people that simply like the trains, since there are no objectives to follow through with. With that one, you just get to indulge your love of whatever vehicle model and watch the scenery breeze on by.
I personally prefer the structure of the mission mode, which challenges you to keep on time and manage to get across an entire route. You can set the time of day (I like the early starts, because the virtual sunrise really is a thing), and trying to meet the timetable for every station can be an enormous challenge.
However you like playing, however, Train Sim World is also quite a zen-out experience, as you spend the bulk of your time with one eye monitoring the various speeds and spend the rest of your attention simply looking around. Train Sim World 4 is gorgeously detailed and looks particularly good in motion. There was a TV show in Australia back in 2018 that was something of a viral hit, and it was basically just a three-hour “documentary” of a camera located at the front of the Ghan train (and was later released as the full 17-hour journey), which travels between Adelaide and Darwin through the middle of Australia. There is clearly something fundamentally compelling about watching the scenery fly by from the cab of a train, and Train Sim World 4 captures this beautifully.
For all its appeal – as esoteric as it can be at times – the reality is that Train Sim World 4 comes just a year after its predecessor, and there are only three tracks in the base package, which makes it better suited to being a DLC package for its predecessor than a new release at full price. Yes, you do get access to previous tracks that you owned from previous releases, and that’s infinitely better than asking players to buy them again, but in the absence of significant updates from the first game in the series, let alone the last one, it’s hard not to see this “sequel” as a little bit cynical.
The only other issue I have is with the overall management of the series, in that all the routes you can take trains across, across all four games, are located in either Europe (and most in Germany or England), or North America (with most being in the US). Without a doubt, these are all fine train lines, but there are so many other iconic train lines around the world. The Japanese absolutely love train sims and their train network is full of incredible sights. For years and years a long-distance train trip through Central Asia was high on my “to do” lists. Even the Ghan itself would make for a fascinating experience. Taking players to different parts of the world would do far more to justify the annual sequels approach than constantly returning to the same countries to pile more tracks in.
Dovetail Games has carved itself out a neat niche with Train Sim World, and it’s very good at making train driving an experience. With a bit of training (which takes nowhere near as long as in the real world), the feeling of mastering a train and train route is indescribably appealing. However, four iterations in, it’s also time for the Dovetail team to try pushing themselves again. They should be taking that exceptional engine and letting us discover the joys of driving a train through deep Africa, across iconic routes in Asia, or giving us the spellbinding views of Bolivia’s salt flats, as a particularly noteworthy train ride in South America does.
Let us experience the whole world through the cab of a train, Dovetail. That’s where the real potential and future for this property lies.