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Microsoft Train Simulator: First of the Big Ones

By Alfred Barten



When Microsoft released its much anticipated Train Simulator in the spring of 2001, they opened the door to a new era of train simulation. MSTS, as it's called, set new standards as a can-do-everything simulator, including full 3D environment, train control from inside and outside the cab, the ability to throw track switches, shunt cars, and much more.

Microsoft patterned Train Simulator after its successful Flight Simulator, aiming to provide the most realistic train driving experience possible. That included train dynamics such as momentum and inluence of train weight  and track slope, operable cab controls, and optional involvement with boiler pressure, water and fuel consumption, coupler breakage, track sanding, and wheel slippage. As with Flight Simulator, you could begin to learn how to drive the prototype vehicle on your PC, experiencing direct feedback from your actions.

Microsoft appears also to have expected most third-party development to be commercially based, as it is with Flight Simulator. As it turns out, there are only a small number of developers producing payware items, while most of the many thousands of add-ons today are freely available on the Internet. That means we, as enthusiasts, have an unprecedented amount of free models and realistic routes to choose from. It also means that Microsoft did not make it easy for the non-professional to build add-on content.



In the winter of 2004, having failed to meet its prevously announced goal of releasing MSTS Version 2 in the fall of 2003, Microsoft announced its discontinuance of any further development of Train Simulator. Many saw this as a crushing blow to the hobby, while others saw it as a golden opportunity for Microsoft's major train sim competitor, Auran Trainz to dominate the genre. Instead, the hobby continues to grow, Auran continues to update Trainz, and there doesn't appear to be any appreciable migration between the two heavyweight sims. MSTS is still as popular ever, though its sales may have dropped off. Like the mature game title that it is, it can be gotten new for tag sale prices, now packaged in simple CD packaging and wearing the Atari label.

While it would be hard to argue anything close to perfection on Microsoft's part, they at least got enough right to make their product viable for the forseeable future, even without further updates. Microsoft claims to have sold 1.3 million copies of Train Simulator, which I suspect, puts it in the lead over the competition.

The prospect that other newer, more feature-laden simulators could eventually supplant MSTS as the favorite, if indeed it is the favorite, is ever-present. The new TrainMaster Train Simulator (TMTS), now in development by P.I. Engineering, has already demonstrated its ability to convert MSTS rolling stock to the TrainMaster format, but no mention has been made of converting routes. Another train sim in development by the team of gaming giant Electronic Arts and Kuju (the original developer of MSTS) is currently planning to limit its attention to European railroading and the European market, but little is known yet about this new sim other than Kuju's declaration that it is being designed new from the ground up.

Thus, only time will tell what the future has in store for MSTS. It's not unusual for a game to continue well past its initial publisher's involvement, as is the case with Transport Tycoon Deluxe (TTD), which is ten years old and going strong. Because of various acquisitions and mergers, no company at this point claims ownership to TTD, though we suspect Atari owns the rights. Certainly, no commercial developer is interested in it, despite its strong and dedicated following.

All this is simply a way of saying MSTS is here, it's solid, it's established, and it's not going away any time soon. If you have any hesitancy about getting involved because of Microsoft's withdrawal from further development, put it aside and jump in. At current prices you have nothing to lose, and there's always the bonus of having a sim with only modest system requirements. A 1.2 GHz Pentium III was about the fastest thing around at the MSTS was launched, and the listed minimum requirements call for a 266 MHz Pentium II CPU - a tad modest for practical purposes. I ran MSTS happily for years on a 733 MHz Pentium III CPU.



A Few Things You Should Know

It's inevitable that every new user has an idea of what to expect right off the bat, and that usually is something wide of the mark. Here are a few things to keep in mind, especially if you are coming to MSTS from another sim.

Driving. The first thing to realize, especially if you look at the user manual first, is that you don't have learn or bother with the details of driving a locomotive, even though the manual proudly gives instructions and you may find the challenge to your liking. You can operate a train using simple controls. However, you cannot begin driving a train by simply rotating a dial as you would a model railroad or with Trainz. You must first raise the pantograph (if your train has one), then set the reverser to Forward, release the brakes, and finally advance the throttle. I've created a summary of basic commands and knowledge for beginning and infrequent users of MSTS. You can find it here. Be sure you are familiar with at least the key commands corresponding to the steps mentioned above. Before long you will want to throw switches and uncouple cars, turn on the headlights and blow the horn. Eventually you may want to learn to drive a locomotive realistically, learning all the controls and reading the gauges.

Consists. A train does not exist in the game unless it is made up and saved in a consist file. MSTS has a built-in consist builder, but almost no one uses it. The overwhelming favorite is a free program by Carlos Gomes and Joe Smith called ConBulder, available free at train-sim.com and elsewhere. A consist can be a single locomotive or wagon or a combination in any length. You can place a consist that has a locomotive in a route for driving while you are in the ROUTE & ACTIVITY SELECTION screen. You cannot place ambient consists without going into the Activity Editor, a task that's well beyond the scope of this article.

Version 1.2 Update. No matter when you bought MSTS, you should get the free version 1.2 update. It fixes a few minor bugs, adds some content, and lets you run MSTS without the need for inserting Disk 1 into the CD drive. You can get the update from Microsoft here .

Installing Add-Ons

There are many thousands of add-ons available for MSTS. Most come with proper instructions for placing the item in its right place. Some add-ons, such as routes, are a little involved because they require running an included .bat file to copy existing files into new folders. Other add-ons come in the form of an installer, which automatically places the add-on in the right folder(s). The one cardinal rule is to follow the included instructions carefully.



Resources

I've listed a lot of resources in my "Train Sim Webfinder," which I update regularly. You can get it here.

Two sources are worth mentioning here because they are so helpful and can lead you elsewhere as well and include online forums, your number one source for help:


Al

Article and screen shots (C)2006 Alfred Barten. All rights reserved.
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