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Freeware Friday: Simutrans

Welcome to Freeware Friday, a weekly column showcasing excellent games that you can play free of charge!

It takes a certain kind of person to play business simulations well. They must be devoted to detail, able to spot trends in markets, and instinctively know what works and what doesn't. For those that can't play business simulations well, the act of playing helps them excel in all these skills later on in life. It's both fun and useful, even though the skills are applied to a fantasy environment. For the freeware enthusiast that falls under these categories as a devotee of business simulations, look no further than Simutrans, a freeware remake of Chris Sawyer's seminal Transport Tycoon.

Transport Tycoon is best described as Railroad Tycoon with more options. Instead of just railroad, you had roads, airports, and seaports to transport your goods. It was mildly successful and spawned another version called Transport Tycoon Deluxe with added features such as new industries and environments that affected the industries and towns. Later on it spawned two open-source remakes, OpenTTD and Simutrans, both of which are phenomenal. However, they are different enough that only Simutrans will be talked about in this article. The two major differences between the two are Simutrans' support of custom tilesets and OpenTTD's netplay support.

The base concept of Simutrans is the same as Transport Tycoon: develop a transport system to make money by transporting goods along industrial routes. It mixes it up a bit, though, with more complex interaction between the industries as well as a better simulation of mail and people. For example, industries will follow a logical progression from the base components to the finished product. This means something like transporting trees to a wood mill, transporting the wood to a paper mill, transporting the paper to a printer, and transporting the books to a bookstore.

For people and mail, this concept is applied from city to city. For example, some people in the city of Forton may want to go to the city of Eagleville. By using buses or passenger cars on trains, you can transport people from city to city, charging fare for their use of your services. The same applies to mail as well, except mail can be carried in cargo vehicles and cars instead of only in passenger transports. It's a fairly intuitive system no matter whether it is applied to the more mundane freight or the needs of town inhabitants, and transporting passengers and mail is a great way to start out.

The AI is Simutrans is fairly decent. It has to be, as there is no way to play other human players. They will generally pick the most efficient path for a particular route and choose the correct ways to exploit the path. They don't always choose the most lucrative routes, however, and often miss the mark on being competitively quick. The AI is dead slow. On large maps, though, this isn't much of an issue, as you will take a long time to expand yourself.

The game supports multiple climates as well as seasons and a day/night cycles. The climate is determined on map generation just like size, density, and a few other attributes. The map is then randomly generated for the player to play on. Each climate and season has certain attributes that can change how to play the game. For example, you must help towns to expand in a freezing climate, as they won't expand on their own. You can force a town to expand in any other climate using the same method or paying the town council to expand.

The big draw for Simutrans is the support for custom PAKs. a PAK is exactly as it sounds: it is a pack for the game. Specifically, a PAK is a collection of graphics and rules used with Simutrans whenever a new game is started. They can be simple aesthetic changes, such as upping the resolution on the buildings or making all of the environment have a hand-drawn feel to it. They can also change the rules of the game by adding new industries to an otherwise stale experience. If you've already played the main PAK to death, that is. If you haven't, Simutrans is anything but stale.

There's a few issues with the game, but they are mostly minor. The first is pathfinding. While it works most of the time, sometimes cars will just get completely stuck and jam your entire transportation network to a halt for no other reason than the pathfinding not working for a moment. This is especially prevalent in trains, especially since switches, alternate tracks, and the like are somewhat baffling unless you pay extremely close attention. Another is the sound. The sound is rather tedious and boring. It may just be a byproduct of being about transportation, but Simutrans has a dire lack of engaging sounds. The final problem is with the game's intuitiveness. The amount of possibilities for transports is baffling to a new player. This includes things such as deciding whether or not to use railroads or cars as well as the differences between certain vehicles. It's all rather confusing, and can lead to a few ruined games. Don't let it get you down, though. Just keep trying!

Simutrans is a great freeware remake of a great tycoon game that any strategy fan should play. The only thing that is missing from the package is some netplay. With a phenomenal selection of mods to customize your experience, a random map each time you play, decent AI that provides an average challenge, and an engaging simulation of transportation and business, it's one of the best freeware games around. You can download the PC, PowerMac, and Linux versions right here on Big Download, or you can get them from the official site. PAKs for modifying your game can also be found on the official site, and range from ones doubling the size of the graphics to ones based on Japanese culture.

For another look at freeware games, take a peek at Joystiq's Free Game Club weekly feature!

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