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A-Train Pulls Out the Stops for Simulation Game Lovers


Even in this age of interstate highways and supersonic flights, few ways of getting from place to place inspire as much romance or adventure as trains. So what could be better than a game that promises trains, power and money?

The popular computer game A-Train from Maxis delivers on this triple promise once again in a nicely done version for Sony PlayStation--a simulation game that points up how intelligent and challenging set-top console games can be.

In contrast to most other games, which hide flaws and hog memory with lush graphics and rich sound, A-Train's considerable beauty doesn't show much on the surface. But it runs deep. Despite simple graphics and below-average sound, A-Train succeeds in making players actually feel and act like powerful railroad titans.

Like power itself, A-Train is addictive--once you get going. From the beginning, the game assumes a level of sophistication and persistence that is at once refreshing and, frankly, a little hard to get used to.

Reading all 48 pages of A-Train's detailed instruction manual is essential just to get things running, but it's no guarantee of success. Neither are quick reflexes. What matters is common sense and patience. A passing familiarity with railroad design, long-term budgets and facilities planning helps too.

A-Train requires players to establish and run a rail and bus system. And in the finest tradition of the old robber barons who also dabbled in real estate and other ventures, a successful strategy depends on exploiting all of the railroad's resources.

It's not enough simply to have the trains run on time. They have to go where passengers want and must be engineered to hold up over the long haul. If the lines drive up the value of adjacent property or open up lucrative leases, so much the better.

Like Maxis' wildly popular Sim series, A-Train is as realistic as computer simulations come. In fact, it's so realistic that some players might get frustrated with less-than-riveting issues like long-term financing.

Players can actually ride their trains and buses along the routes they design. It's the most visually stunning component of the game--buildings and fields roll smoothly by to the clicketyclack of the wheels on the tracks. For slackers who don't want to spend the time and energy to build their own empires, the game allows hopping aboard trains in any of the preloaded scenarios.

For all its attention to detail, though, A-Train suffers from a few seemingly minor glitches that make game play stutter. Biggest gripe: The menu interface relies on pictograms that aren't quite as clear as they should be. Since so much of the game requires regular use of the menu, it gets confusing.

And as with Sim City 2000 on Saturn, the PlayStation's joy pad doesn't allow enough refined movement to lay tracks effectively or to navigate the menus without errors. Sony's mouse peripheral--which costs extra--clears up the problem nicely, though.

Despite those flaws, A-Train stands above the 32-bit fray and delivers play that adults will actually enjoy. In other words, it gives Dad a pretty good reason to buy the kids a PlayStation.

Staff writer Aaron Curtiss can be reached via e-mail at

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