Monday, January 4, 2010
A hands-on look at the Railfan game set in the non Chinese owned, independent republic of Taiwan, on PS3. Inside we discuss Chairman Mao, a woman giving birth and text adventures.
I bought this. I want to say I don’t know why, but in fact I know damn well why. Last year, after selling off swathes of my collection, I had a surplus of PayPal funds. And, hating PayPal, I wanted to offload them, so bought dozens and dozens of weird cheap games. I’ve got Ring of Red (PS2) on my shelf which I will probably never play.
One such weird game was Railfan: Taiwan High Speed Rail. It was £15 second-hand, mint condition, being sold privately on a forum. I’d played and loved Tokyo Bus Guide on Dreamcast, which had made me open-minded to pretty much any genre you could think of. While some might laugh at such a thing, I would give fair time to even a garbage man game, because hey, it might be interesting (it is excellent, by the way). As a result, I’ve always been curious about Densha De GO, the train driving game. Unfortunately, according to Wikipedia, the series ended with Densha de GO Final – but, replacing it were the Railfan games, some co-developed by original De GO creators Taito. These don’t use the special Densha de GO train controllers though, which tempted me to go down the PS2 importing route for an older version of De GO and that authentic “I sit on my ass driving trains for a living” experience.
In the end I decided on Taiwan Railfan because the Asian version of it was the only version in English (following the trend of Afrika and Aquanauts Holiday as previously import-only titles available in English). None of the De GO titles have been released in English, so I thought it worth sacrificing the controller to understand what’s going on. Plus it was FMV-based, as opposed to De GO’s dynamic polygon engine, and I sincerely love anything FMV-based. Furthermore it was on PS3, and I wanted to expand my collection.
I’d just finished Way of the Samurai 3 (a flawed but excellent sandbox game which itself deserves a long post) for the 5th time (each takes between 15 minutes and 5 hours), and wanted something a little soothing. I realised I’d not touched Railfan, and thought the installation and a quick 15 minutes would help me unwind.
Well, there is no installation, at least none that I saw. And no trophies either (thank god). It was also entirely in Chinese - unlike other multi-language games, which detect your PS3’s region, you need to manually select English here.
There’s 2 main modes: Tour Mode, which is basically a “free” mode without penalties, and also the option to let the computer play the game, and game mode. There’s also an explanation of the train. This is totally pointless, consisting of grainy photos and the worst 3D model of a train imaginable. Why anyone would want to rotate each of the carriages, each of which is IDENTICAL, is beyond me.
There’s also the interesting sounding sub-options of Sightseeing and Delicacies under Tour.
Both of these are major disappointments. Sightseeing is nothing more than a list of tourist destinations in Taiwan with an accompanying photograph and a map, which is useless since it’s entirely in Chinese.
This whole thing feels like cheaply made Chinese propaganda, designed to encourage tourism. Which would be fine except tourist leaflets tend to be free. Still, it’s kinda neat to browse the photos and some of the descriptions are vaguely interesting.
Delicacies conjured up images in my mind of really cool 3D models of food, or videos of people eating in restaurants. Turns out it’s exactly like the Sightseeing option, albeit with food. Still, the translation turns up some interesting moments, and some entries feature such asinine information it makes you wonder who wrote it. Still, the photos look delicious (I’m putting the beef brain one here because it’s funny - but if you like Asian cuisine like I do, the other entries are pretty cool).
IS IT A GAME?
Yes, of sorts. The Game mode features 3 options:
Race from Taipei to Zuoying as fast as you can, with time penalties for going over the speed limit.
Stop at the stations between Taichung and Taipei, with points for accuracy and being on time – penalties for being too early/late
Use as little acceleration and braking as possible to travel from Zuoying to Taipei. You have a limited supply of energy, which is penalised for going over the speed limit or emergency breaking. Bonus energy awarded for accuracy and good time keeping. This is the coolest mode, which requires careful judgement to make the journey on your limited amount of energy – it reminds me of those car racers who try to travel as far as possible on a single tank of gas. You need to gently work the engine, not burn through everything on maximum.
The game comes with a Chinese manual and an English leaflet, though it doesn’t really become clear until you play it. You’ve got 13 acceleration gears, and 7 braking gears, and various radars and dials. There’s also a speed limit, though going over this results in a German gentleman stating the “ATC BRAKING” system has been activated. You might get a score penalty, but sadly there’s no way to send every passenger to their burning deaths.
CAPTION: This control console is bigger than Steel Battalion's!
In fact, it’s not possible to do anything, really, which makes the game rather dull. The entire thing consists of FMV which is grainy (and reminds me of Sewer Shark), and a poorly rendered polygon dashboard, which when activated and zoomed out takes up so much screen space you’ll never use it again.
The big problem here is the fact Railfan uses FMV as opposed to De GO’s polygons. I’ve not played De GO, but in theory it would allow for dynamic weather, night and day cycles, plus the ability to look to your left and right. In Railfan you can only shift about the cockpit while facing forward, which is not only surreally stupid, but you’re not actually moving. What actually moves is the cockpit’s polygon model, while the FMV footage remains rooted where it is in the background. Furthermore, it’s always daytime, and it’s always overcast, which gives Taiwan a grim, slightly oppressive atmosphere. Almost as if it’s owned and controlled by communist China; as if the spirit of Chairman Mao has taken over everyone’s trousers.
Going with FMV severely limited the scope of Railfan. The footage only plays when the train is in gear – at zero speed the footage is freeze-framed. So when you stop the train at the station, people will freeze mid-step, as if paralyzed. Worse still, stop out in the open and previously speeding cars will halt in the middle of the freeway, and birds will hover in mid-flight. Overall it makes the game creepy. It makes me feel not like a train driver, but rather that I’m god (or perhaps Father Time), and I alone have the power to grant people the freedom of movement. Somewhere in a Taiwanese hospital a woman is perpetually frozen in the middle of giving birth because I felt like stopping the 2.15 out of Taipei.
CAPTION: Notice how the cars aren't moving...
It would be nice to think that if they’d gone with polygons, you could set the train on a good speed and then look out your window at passing sights, or that you’d randomly encounter rain, or snow, or leaves on the line, and need to adapt to it. Something to add tension when you’re on the verge of beating the hi-score. Sadly not. The game world is distinctly static and artificial.
The most game-like aspect is dealing with inclines and juggling the traction and brakes to stay as close to the desired speed as possible. Of course, go too fast and you’ll arrive at a station early, ending the game. In fairness the score-attack modes are enjoyable, but ultimately you end up focusing solely on the numbers, denying yourself whatever pleasure you could have from viewing the FMV. At least Sewer Shark et al required you to actually watch what was going on. With this you could recreate the gameplay on a Texas Instruments calculator; it’s little more than a numerical text adventure.
With Railfan, there’s a surreal detachment of from what’s occurring onscreen.
Despite the ridicule this game would get from the masses, I can actually see how it almost worked. The biggest problem is that the developers seemed more interested in making it accurate, and appeasing the anorak trainspotters, as opposed to crafting a worthwhile game. This is the equivalent of Penn and Teller’s Desert Bus game, whereas Tokyo Bus Guide was like a cool, arcade-style take on an otherwise boring occupation. In Tokyo Bus Guide there was a stylised, fictional world (which from what I can tell wasn’t an accurate recreation of Tokyo) crafted around the central premise, and it was designed to be entertaining. Not educational, but fun. Railfan takes an equally boring subject matter and is shackled by its obsession with realism and the FMV footage it uses. The FMV, by virtue of being the same each and every time, also kills any replay value. And I f**king love FMV games with a passion. But this is no Ground Zero Texas, that’s for sure. It’s also too long to be compelling. There are apparently 7 main stations across Taiwan, with LOOOONG stretches of track between, and I haven’t got over an hour to do a single race. Also, the need to wait for 45 seconds before pulling out of a station is infuriating, as is stopping for just as long when pulling in. We need a skip button here!
And yet... It almost worked. Afrika in my opinion worked because there were a lot of game-like modes tacked on - contrary to the views of Heather Ann Campbell’s excellent column in PLAY recently. While Heather was correct regarding its nature as a dynamic safari, I treated it as a rigid arcade game, racing to find each new assignment as quickly as possible. Not for one second treating it like a safari. As a safari/photography game it does indeed suck, but if you regard it simply as a set of rules to challenged, it’s got a certain charm.
If Railfan had score-attacks for specific sections of track between stations, instead of the whole island, it could have worked better. It needs the driving aspect to be broken down, compartmentalised and scored – there needs to be more rules, and in turn a stronger risk/reward situation. I’m not saying re-invent the profession, but work within its confines to make something interesting. Don’t just do the bare essentials to replicate it, actually take what’s there and craft something. How about a salary system based on successful driving, for hi-scores and in-game shopping. Or an in-game buddy/rival? Or give me control over things like the doors more often, because I want interaction. Jeez, I dunno. You know what would have been more interesting than what’s here? Absolutely ANYTHING at all.
If they’d included characters who used the trains, like the patrons in Tokyo Bus Guide, it could have been more compelling. Maybe weave in a love story, about a young man and woman trying to find each other, and only succeeding because you got them to their station on time. They could have included videos of these people, and footage of wandering around the nearby towns, and footage of eating at the restaurants. At the very least, Railfan should allow me to look out the goddamned side-view windows! Tokyo Bus Guide wasn’t about driving a bus, it was about unlocking this world through careful usage of a rigid rules system, and collecting the life stories of those people that inhabited it.
Of course all the above would upset the people who want it specifically for its aching realism. Obviously I’m not one of these people, and I sometimes doubt they exist. Railfan is a terrible "game" – not so much train driving as a warped marriage between FMV, god-sim and text adventure, except really boring and surreal, almost verging on insane. And yet I still don’t want to criticise it too much. Possibly because I paid money for it, and I don’t want to admit to making a mistake, but also because it’s different. And sometimes difference, as in games like Flower and Everblue (PS2), can be so incredibly magical.
This is not magical. But you know, I don’t want to put off developers who are thinking about doing something different, because hey, they might make something magical. I want a train game which is magical.
Should I instead have got Densha De Go?
Posted by Sketcz at 2:47 PM