I’ll get something out there right now before I get too into this article: I’m not a huge fan of casual games. It’s not an elitist thing, as I am generally in favour of anything that gets people playing video games. Anything to take away the stigma that has haunted gamers from the first time I picked up a NES controller in the 80’s, really. And it’s not that I don’t see the appeal of them. I understand that sometimes you just want something to waste a little time when you’re on the train or to obsess over for a few minutes each day before you go to work.
I get it. There is a market for these things, which explains why there is a million and a half of them out there. I’ve just never played one of these casual games that really got its claws into me before. I find them interesting for a few minutes but pretty quickly get bored of them without any sort of plot or story to keep me invested.
So I tried one recently. Just to see if it could change my mind. Just to see if I was capable of being sucked into a game marketed quite directly at the “casual gamer” market. The game I chose was Rail Nation, a new player in this increasingly flooded market. It plays pretty similar to something like Molehill Empire or Evony, so much so that as soon as I opened it in a browser window, I was pretty confident I knew exactly how the next ten minutes of my life would look.
Step One: Cartoon characters would pop up to explain why I should care about building a great train empire in the American West.
Step Two: Tutorial explains to me how to make in game money, how I would spend that in game money, and what my goals are.
Step Three: Set up my burgeoning railway kingdom with a handful of little tasks.
Step Four: Wait for timers to end on tasks and collect moneys.
Its worth noting that, in nearly every instance of these kinds of games, step four can be sped up by spending real world money to skip the in game wait time, which has become the industry standard to make money off of free to play games.
The remainder of my time in Rail Nation, I could already guess, would be spent repeating steps three and four until I had spent enough money to buy the next upgrade or to get to the next area, at which point I would simply repeat steps three and four anyway only with something new and shiny on the screen. I would possibly have the option of “interacting” with other players, probably at great expense to my sanity and patience, but for the most part I would be on my own in the hard, hard world of the Old West.
For the most part, I was right in these assumptions. There are a few little changes to this formula, though, and they’re definitely worth noting. Getting to design my own avatar was a nice surprise and I quickly set out to create the strangest looking online persona possible. Because why not? Unfortunately, my options were pretty limited and I was left with someone merely eccentric looking rather than truly odd, which was disappointing. What’s the point of entering into those online interactions if I can’t raise a few eyebrows along the way?
I was legitimately impressed with the presence of a technology tree, however. It was something that reminded me of the Civilization series, though not nearly as expansive or varied. It offers at least the opportunity to adapt the game to meet your own individual play style, though the options are limited and I suspect that all of the tech will need to be purchased and unlocked before truly progressing further into the game. However, its presence gives the game a more unique field and a chance to begin to stand out from the crowd.
Perhaps the biggest change is the chance to not only advance in technology but also timeline, similar to Age of Empires or Civilization. Though I haven’t yet made it out of the Old West and the limited technology this setting offers, I can only hope that, at some point in the future, I will get to lead a legion of hover trains in my quest for global railway domination.
I’ve got a few hours logged in Rail Nation and I don’t think it’s going to manage to get me hooked on the genre. There are some good things going on in it and it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of casual games like this and want to get something with a bit more depth to the experience, but if you’re like me and you want something with more story to fill your time, it might be best to give this one a pass.
An American trying to infiltrate and understand English society, Trent is a writer of novels and player of games. He has a serious addiction to JRPGs, the weirder the better, and anything that keeps him distracted from work.