• American Classics Train Sim Pack

    American Classics

    By Robert Murphy (9 July 2002)

    In May, Just Trains released American Classics, an MSTS add-on developed by the members of Train Artisan. Since MSTS has been around for a year now, and many have joined the world of train-simming only recently, a bit of review is in order. When Microsoft Train Simulator became available, TrainSim.Com was created in the image of FlightSim.Com and immediately became the premier download and forum site on the Web. One of the first subjects in the forum related to the fact that Microsoft had advertised that, like their flightsims, Train-Sim would be expandable by the user base, and that we would be able to create routes, cabs, activities and even new trains! Microsoft provided two tools to create routes, a tool to create cabs, a couple of other tools to compress and uncompress files, but no mention was made of how trains were to be created. Of course, most of us assumed that, like flightsim, we would have to use third-party software. It quickly became apparent that the only software that would create models was 3dStudioMax, a $3000 program that hardly anyone owned. Then you had to use command line tools to create the files. Then other options became available, such as 3dCanvas, Abacus’ Train Sim Modeler, and of course, Microsoft finally released a game pack for GMax, a freeware version of 3dStudioMax.

    But in the meantime, a small group, calling themselves “Train Artisans” opened a website and promised new models for Train-Sim, better than anything else available. Soon they produced, first the Empire State Express, the first American based steam locomotive, with a matching passenger train that far exceeded the models that came in the game. Unfortunately, the freeware concept runs into the realities of the free enterprise system, and it became apparent it would be expensive to provide download space due to the demand. Other sites provided space, and then Train Artisan released other models, adding to the problem. Then the tragedy of 9/11 struck and Train Artisan decided to provide an exclusive site, called the bat-cave, for people who contributed to the victims of the World Trade Center attacks in New York City. Earlier this year, Train Artisan announced a new product, called American Classics, which would be a boxed CD, sold worldwide by Just Trains, a part of Just Flight, which brings us to this review.

    Train Artisan announced that American Classics would contain the final version of the Empire State Express, plus a lot more that would only be available on the CD, for about $30 US. It includes nine locomotives, three train sets and 14 activities. The question in the minds of most train-simmers is: Is it worth the money? After all, those of us who had to be first, bought Train-Sim for $50 in the US and with the price having dropped to $30, should someone spend more money on the American Classics pack? This is the question I will try to answer in this review.

    I waited until American Classics was available in the states to order it for myself; yes, I paid for it. Not full price, since Train Artisan gave a 25% discount to those that had been original contributors to the 9/11 Fund. This is where a small difficulty ensued: I copied the e-discount coupon number off the site, and pasted it into the shopping cart at Loco1.com website, and it showed – No discount! I made several attempts, and then sent a quick e-mail directly to Loco1 to see if the offer had expired. Two hours later, I received an e-mail offering some helpful suggestions, none of which worked. Finally, I tried typing the coupon number in the box, instead of pasting it and it worked. I pulled out the credit card and received a confirmation that my order had been received, and would be shipped UPS Ground, and would arrive in five days. Five days later, there was a package on my doorstep form Loco1. Inside came one of the small software boxes containing my new toy. The box in itself is worth noting, it is high quality thick cardboard, with a lid that slides off the top, like a jigsaw puzzle box, instead of the flimsy cardboard type that come open on top. Opening the box revealed a very well packed product including a real, printed, Driver’s Manual, six collectible train postcards, a registration card, some advertising, and of course, the CD in a plastic case in a formfitting cardboard packaging. I might mention here, that Microsoft didn’t give us a plastic case.

    The professional looking Driver’s Manual contains descriptions of the locomotives: four variations of the J3A Hudson of the New York Central and EMD E7, FP3, FP3A and F7 diesel locomotives. B Units, without cabs, are also included. For the locomotives to haul there are The Empire State Express passenger car set and two variations of the 20th Century Limited, prewar and postwar. It also includes tips on optimizing your computer for Train-Sim, instructions on installation and how to switch back and forth between the two cabs ("full view" and "engineer's view") for the J3A’s and Operating notes on both the steam and diesel locomotives, with illustrations showing the controls and how they are used. Half of the manual is in English, and then it is repeated in German. Again, more than Microsoft provided.

    The installation went smoothly; I dropped the CD into my Pentium III 1 Gig machine, with 512 megs of RAM, ATI 64 meg Radeon video card and a SoundBlaster Live! 5.1 sound card. The CD auto ran, and installed itself flawlessly after asking if I had Train-Sim in the default location on my hard-drive.

    Starting the sim showed no signs of any difficulties, so I went to my favorite route, Marias Pass. Here, I must admit, that I am a Westerner, and not really a fan of anything on the East coast, one of the reasons that I had hesitated on purchasing the set, but more on that later. Since I had every version of the ESE since it came out, driving the locomotive wasn’t difficult, but if you haven’t done it before, the manual explains the procedure very clearly and includes both a quick start and advanced explanation of the procedure. I didn’t notice any major differences between the version of ESE on the CD and the last one that had been available on their website. Let me pause for a moment and mention that I connect to the Web with a 56K modem, and rarely get over 32 kbps. Most of my attempts at downloading large files occur at night and sometimes it takes several days before I get the files. This in itself may make this a good purchase, if you didn’t get a chance to download the original version. The other three steamers are simply variations on the original, with different road numbers, paint schemes, and fairing styles. All are streamlined passenger locomotives and use the same cab view.

    If you haven’t tried a steam loco before, the massive quantity of levers, valves and gauges can be confusing at first, but the printed manual contains a diagram with a key showing the name of each item. There are two cabs included for the steam locos, one from the right side engineer’s perspective, and one including the entire cab as viewed from the center of the cab. A small .exe file is included in the Train set folder in Train-Sim to allow switching back and forth. You must shut down the sim to do this.

    One of the first things I noticed on Marias is that sand and a steady hand on the throttle are requirements to get the heavy passenger trains started. My first attempts, ala the Dash 9, to pull the throttle wide open, engage the reverser and away we go, left me sitting still with the drivers spinning. Remember to engage the reverser and throttle before releasing the brakes on an upgrade.

    Testing on my system showed a drop of about 2 frames per second over a default consist with two Dash9’s and 25 mixed freight cars, which means that this add-on should be usable by anyone whose machine can run Train-Sim at a reasonable rate.

    Next, I tested the various diesels, and noticed something immediately in the mountains of Montana. None of the dynamic brakes work on any of the locomotives! The brake lever is “stuck” in the off position. Then I remembered, the nickname of the New York Central was “The Water-level Route”, and none of their diesels had dynamics. This is a very nice touch and historically accurate. Never having been in the cab of an NYC locomotive, I don’t know for sure if the lever was locked in the off position, or simply missing. The diesels pulled about as well as should be expected for first-generation diesel-electrics, and took a little bit of effort to start the trains. The visuals are excellent, with head out views and working windshield wipers.

    Each of the passenger trains have a “Passenger View” from the observation car, accessible by pressing the ‘5’ key while in the game. The views are basically the same, with different people included. The Empire State Express and the Pre-war 20th Century Limited have a newspaper laying on the seat with the headline: “Japan attacks Pearl Harbor” while the Post-war train’s newspaper says: “Japanese Surrender”. There are also some other interesting surprises, one of which shows up during the great train race. I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen it yet. There is also an update on the Train Artisan website ( www.trainartisan.com) to add to the passenger views. The interior of the observation is well done, and with a little bit of imagination, it’s easy to forget you’re staring at a computer screen.

    I don’t use a one-out-of-five stars or a 1-10 rating system quite simply because there’s not a lot of meaning there since the numbers are subjective. I have a personal system: If I were to break my CD, would I go out and purchase that particular piece of software, app, game, add-on, etc. again? This makes sense if you think about it. How often have we purchased something, taken it home, and instantly regretted it. Or after a period of time, simply became bored with it, and set on the shelf with the rest of the stuff we’re bored with. If it is exciting enough to cause disappointment if I don’t have it anymore, it’s exciting enough to recommend to others.

    As I mentioned before, I’m not a fan of Eastern Railroads, which brings me to the reasons I purchased American Classics: First, I wanted to support Train Artisan, there’s still a lot of free downloads on their site with promises of more. They really do excellent work. Second, I wanted access to the Club TA area of their website because of the additional downloads available there. They include the Rio Grande Zephyr, and matching F7’s, the Super Chief Trainset, and others. One year access to Club TA is included with registration of American Classics, and enhances the value greatly. Imagine, a CD which keeps growing!

    So, would I purchase the set again if the CD broke? Yes, no doubt, I have enjoyed it greatly. Would I recommend you buy it? Yes, if you like Train-Sim, Train Artisan American Classics enhances the game tremendously and without a fatal hit of frame rates. It’s easy to install and the quality of the product is highly professional and well done. You won’t be disappointed.

    Robert Murphy
    [email protected]

    Visit author Train Artisan's web site

    Visit publisher Just Trains' web site

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