I’ve only ever been handed one police caution, and it was for playing a train sim. Back when I was a lot younger and a whole lot sillier I imported a PSP as soon as it came out in Japan, alongside launch essentials Ridge Racer, Lumines and – just because – Densha de Go! 2, which soon became the default way to show off my new toy. Which is exactly what I was doing in Greenwich Park when I was showing it off to a friend who was so impressed that he rammed the thing up as loud as it would go while tooting the train’s horn, rolling around in laughter because I think he’d had a bit of a toot himself beforehand, until some passing policemen expressed their displeasure at our behaviour. And that’s the boring story of how I got done for disturbing the peace with a PSP, and for tooting in public.
Which is a long-winded way to say I don’t have much experience of train sims at all, but coming off the back of a month spent with Microsoft Flight Simulator my taste for operating exacting replicas of elaborate machinery has been fully awakened. The arrival of Train Sim World 2 is as perfectly timed as… Well, I was going to make some joke about train timetables but it’s been so long since I’ve seen a train station I’m not sure I can.
Maybe that explains why I found it so thrilling to find myself in Dovetail Games’ take on Oxford Circus station, running down the platform to the lead carriage and taking a seat for a few short stops on the Bakerloo line. It’s as exacting a replica of the London Underground 1972 stock as I’ve seen in a game, allowing you to walk from one end of the train to another, strolling from carriage to carriage. You can even step outside if you want, walking from one platform to another in replicas of Bakerloo line stations told with a fair amount of detail.
The real magic moment, though, comes when you’re invited to get up from your seat – perfectly furnished in the correct fabric pattern, of course – to go and open that door at the front end of the lead carriage. It’s sort of akin to opening the door to one of Fallout’s vaults at the outset of your adventure there, as you’re suddenly confronted with the scope and scale of what lies ahead of you – only in this case it’s a fully operational and delightfully dateed cockpit of the ageing workhorse, a thing that looks like it’s come from the age of beige and bakelite.
And after all that, you spend the next 20 minutes figuring out exactly how to get this thing in motion so it can move down through the city from Harrow and Wealdstone. It’s a daunting task, as I guess it should be for someone who’s never set foot in a driver’s cabin before, and who’s never touched a proper train sim. There’s all sorts of counter-intuitive lever pulling and button pressing, and thankfully a fairly thorough tutorial to guide you through all the idiosyncrasies of a train that’s approaching half a century old.
Train Sim World 2 seems slightly creaky in its own way too, though part of that is inevitable when coming direct from something with the relative polish of Microsoft Flight Simulator, and maybe it’s also just part of the territory. There’s some understandable concern going around more regular players than myself how quickly this has come in the wake of the last entry – or Train Sim 2020, as it’s now known – though it’s at least heartening to see Dovetail not shying away from such criticisms, delivering a detailed roadmap for what lies ahead.
As a less seasoned player, I’m a little bewildered to see the three base tracks on offer here – the Bakerloo Line, Köln to Aachen, and Pennsylvania’s Sand Patch Grade – served up as what feels like three distinct games, but at least it allows each to have its own distinct flavour and accent. Quite literally, in fact – if a man with a gentle German lilt telling you how to prime the battery and raise the pantograph on a BR42 as you crawl from the cathedral-like beauty of Köln Hauptbahnhof doesn’t get you going then I’m not sure what’s wrong with you.
I still don’t really know what I’m doing, though I’m enjoying learning the ropes, and enjoying the cute little touches beyond the simulation of public transport – there are incidental details beyond the cabins you can interact with, such as safety warnings to pin up or signal markers to restore, and a host of scenarios to play through alongside the core challenge of keeping to a timetable. Really, though, it’s been about reconnecting with those 1972 stock trains, and getting to know a big part of London’s character and history that little bit more intimately. To my surprise, it’s been a pleasure going back on the Underground.