Updated: May 14, 2021
Buoyed by my recent experience with Workers & Resources, a monumentally fun and addictive economy building game, I decided to explore a handful of fresh titles out there, and see if I can find some new gems buried deep under the Hills of Gaming. One title that kept up coming up in Steam suggestions was Transport Fever 2. This seems to be a transport tycoon type of game, whereby you need to link your industries and cities with a network of trains and trucks, plus an assorted collection of buses, planes or ships. Instantly, I thought of OpenTTD, the open-source version of the famous, legendary Transport Tycoon Deluxe. Sounds like a good start.
The game price is similar to most of the competition, in the range of roughly USD30. Not the cheapest, but hey, if I get to enjoy hundreds of hours of fun from it, that's a bargain. The question is always, will the gamble pay off? Looking at my collection of Steam games over the years, I'd say that only about half were good choices, while the rest were average or even less than that. There's a very thin line between fantastic and boring. Now, let's review Transport Fever 2.
Once a tycoon, always a tycoon
If you played Transport Tycoon Deluxe (TTD) or its open-source successor, then you will be instantly familiar with the game's mechanics. A map, dotted with cities and industries. Cities need goods. Factories need raw materials. Sometimes, there are two or three steps in the supply chain. Bring a resource to one factory, process it, ship it off to another, and only then you have the final product. Your goal is to actually interconnect all these different entities, and create a thriving, profitable business. Money is made by transporting stuff to and fro.
In standalone scenarios, you can tweak the game conditions quite some. You can play with unlimited money if all you're after is just fun and lots of pretty trains buzzing about. You can also change the number of cities and industries on the map. I decided to experiment with a European setting, medium size, small number of both cities and industries, easy difficulty, and Year 2000 as the start date. At this point, you get most of the latest, modern vehicle types. If you want to play the entire time sequence, you will start in 1850, with steam and carriage as your modus portabili. Over time, you will gain diesel, electricity, airplanes, and more.
Your fledging company starts with a small sum of cash. The numbers look impressive, but they aren't really. I had 50 million as my initial budget, but this was barely enough for two trains, and even then, I had to choose second-best engines. I connected a couple of farms to a food factory, had to ask for a loan (you can go up to 100 million), and then started shipping food to a city.
Commence to profit
Very TTD. The mechanics are almost identical. This is reassuring, but also takes away some of the "discovery" fun. Vehicles, stations, cash flow, that's it. For example, you see cost values pop up (in red) above your vehicles, stations and depots on a regular basis. Similarly, whenever your vehicles enter a station with some goods on board, there shall be a profit bubble (in green). The numbers are crazy, and you will see your profit line jump and down madly. One month, I was running a surplus of 34M, the next, I was in the red a few million, and then, the month after, things were green again.
The time flows super quickly. Vehicles have a limited life span (say 40 years), and it takes very little real time to burn through these years. I found myself playing at 2x or 3x time factor, and within an hour, most of my train fleet was aged, in bad condition, and needed replacements. This means, you need only something like 10 hours, even if you're patient, to go from horse to TGV blasting at 300 km/h across your map.
The challenge is in ... oh, where?
Instant familiarity with the game is a plus, but it's also a curse. Within maybe an hour, I felt unchallenged. And to be frank, the game is quite easy. The cash fluctuation is ridiculous - delivering in 150 units of fuel into a city (a single train with five tankers) would net me in something like ~20M in just one trip - almost the full value of the vehicle, and perhaps 10 minutes of gameplay.
You can also replace or change vehicles on the go - no need to send them to a depot. Just navigate the menu, add new boxes to your "shopping cart", or perhaps remove some, confirm the changes, and you're done. Your train or truck won't even need to slow down. It all happens instantly, taking away some of the masochistic pleasure of logistic management that is essential to any tycoon game.
I found everything just too simple - including the symbolic graphic used to mark cities and industries on the map. There's dichotomy between the general map graphics (which are quite pretty) and these symbols, which feel crayony. It's like some modern flat desktop design superimposed over a highly detailed landscape. Even if you zoom out fully, you'll see these app-like icons over industries, denoting their production dependencies. But that just doesn't make sense when you can zoom down to insanely tiny levels. And so you have these beautiful cities growing around you, you have these lovely train designs, you have nice scenery, even a first-person view for your vehicles, and on top of them, the icons that best work on toys for children under 3. Go figure.
Optimizing the fun
I did try to make things more ... interesting. One, you can significantly improve your cash flow by making the trains wait until they are loaded at the source station - you can specify how long you want the vehicles to wait, one minute, three, forever, and so on. For instance, you don't let a hopper train leave a farm until max. capacity. This means lower maintenance cost, lesser vehicle wear, and more profit per trip.
But then, there's no actual supply and demand. You can keep sending raw materials to factories, and never really produce or ship anything else, and the whole thing will keep on working just fine. And so, if you want to rake in profit, just build a single train, ship something from A to B, let the game run for a couple of hours, and you'll have a few extra millions in your company's budget.
You don't really need signals - the trains manage fine without. Buses and trucks are never profitable, and you can pretty much ignore them. I found no correlation between how you manage the bus traffic inside your cities and any change in demand for inter-city trains, even when you place station next to each other.
Another element that somewhat spoils the fun - the distance versus profit formula. Like the old TTD, the longer your route, the higher the profit. But in TTD, there was also the depreciation curve, whereby the longer (time) your route was, the lower profit/satisfaction per transported unit. This does not seem to exist in Transport Fever 2, so basically, you can leave people waiting at a station for several years in game time, and when you eventually do send them to their destination, you will enjoy the full profit of the completed action.
The redeeming part is the rather complex line management facility in the game. Simple, intuitive, and also you do have granular control on what you want to do at each station - load or unload goods, which goods, how long to wait for the full complement, and so forth. In fact, you need to do this, because if you use stations for multiple commodities, you may end up with trains picking up raw materials and carrying them around to impossible destinations.
Case in point: a fuel supply chain. You go from well to refinery to fuel refinery. Let's call these A, B and C. If you want to use a single train station for B (makes sense), then one train will unload crude oil, while another will load processed oil to take to the fuel refinery. But you must specify the first train only unloads goods at B while the second one only loads at B. Otherwise, you may end up with fuel being shipped to the oil well, and oil barrels delivered to the fuel refinery. This is a waste of transport capacity and cargo station storage. Some challenge, at least.
Furthermore, you can modify your stations - add or remove platforms and tracks, add side access, change the rail type. This means you don't need to destroy entire stations if and when the transport demand increases beyond the existing capacity. However, I did not find a way to make the stations longer - you can choose the length when you start, and this determines the maximum length of your trains. Not bad, but the placement can sometimes be a little frustrating, and rotating the building is a pain.
Well, I found the music pleasant - very synth-90s, just like TTD - but too loud. Even on the lowest setting, it's still blaring and quite distracting. The visuals are gorgeous. The first-person view for running vehicles is quite fun. The cities are intricate, beautiful, but it's mostly a decorative thing than anything else. You get a colorful overview of your business - and often, you can access the same thing from multiple menus and sub-menus. This is decent, but can be confusing to new players not well familiar with the TTD idea.
Well, apart from the over-simplified gameplay, you also cannot build or add new industries, something that you can do in OpenTTD. Part of the fun is dotting new factories onto your map, since this allows you to plan the transport infrastructure more carefully. In Transport Fever 2, this does not seem to be the case, and your transport network will soon resemble a cobweb, more so because you will opt to send the goods to stations as far away from the source as possible, due to the profit linearity thingie.
The transport volume also makes no sense. Comparing to OpenTTD, you ship hundreds of thousands of liters of fuel, thousands of tons of coal and crops. Big stuff. Here, your vehicles seem to carry a dimensionless quantity - simply 20, 40 or 50 units of whatever, and the numbers are just too low. Seems like one or two five-car trains are more than enough to satisfy the demand for any which industry or city. In TTD/OpenTTD, you could have a twelve-platform station just to handle coal demand to power stations, and even then, you had trains with 15-20 cars, and it felt big and dirty and proper industrial. Here, everything is clean, posh, happy.
And then, again, at the end of the day, there's no great challenge. I might be spoiled after playing Workers & Resources, which really cranks it up complexity-wise, or maybe I'm too familiar with TTD and OpenTTD. But I think it's more than that. These other two games simply feel more engaging. The subsidiaries, for one thing, which create a sense of an actual business value. The growth in demand that is correlative to your transport. The fact you need to balance distance and time carefully for best effect. The low-key graphics that enhance the sense of your emotional commitment to your growing transport empire. Transport Fever 2 does everything more beautifully, but this comes at the expense of depth and complexity.
Transport Fever 2 isn't a bad game. But it's a simpler, more modern version of TTD. The essentials are the same, but the divergence in the detail makes for such a big difference in the end. For people new to the genre, this could be a good starting point. There will be less frustration, less pain, fewer tears. One could even play the silly age card and say "in our time..." - but there's some truth in it. Older games tended to be, by and large, much harder to master, far less forgiving, far more brutal. You had to invest yourself fully and wholly. Transport Fever 2 coddles you, and you never feel there's any real danger, any serious implications to your actions. This has nothing to do with unlimited money or playing on easy, because other games, even at these "limitless fun" settings can still keep you on edge, no matter what. Because the easy conditions merely mean you won't go bankrupt, and you can play a bit faster, but achieving the end goal still remains hard.
Here, the gameplay and the objective are easy, and simple. You decide on whatever bar of excellence you want for yourself, and that's it. Almost too trivial, especially since all it takes it one or two long-distance trains to bring in millions and millions, without any other effort needed. You don't need to really plan capacity, optimize routes, or such. If all you want is innocent fun, great. If you want to work hard becoming a tycoon, then there are other transport simulators that do a better job. OpenTTD is still the golden standard for tycooning. I liked Transport Fever 2, kind of, but it didn't hook me, and I'm not likely to play it again soon or often.