The authors of this game are in fact air traffic controllers rather than train drivers you may remember that Mike wrote Hewson's Heathrow Air Traffic Control. Bob, his colleague, is the chuff-chuff nut, so the writing of what must be the first steam train simulation isn't such an unnatural progression from Mike's earlier work. The simulation is based on the workings of a King Arthur class locomotive, typically used on the London to Brighton route. In those great and glorious days of railway travel, the carriages on that route were so luxurious that the train came to be known as the Southern Belle.
During your second stage of life you may have dreamt of being an engine driver, but it really isn't as easy as you might like to think. The Hewson simulation goes a long way to introducing the practical difficulties that might be met by an engine driver, particularly one on the Southern Belle route. But, should you simply want to 'have a ride' on a steam train, then the authors have provided a demo mode which presents you with a high speed, expertly driven journey from London to Brighton, something along the lines of that well known black and white film. The instructions that come with the game are divided into two sections. The first section could be usefully read while the game is loading, as it introduces the concepts and helps you come to terms with the complicated controls.
The instructions detail how a steam engine works, and that knowledge is important if you are to appreciate the effects of the various controls, or indeed even why some of them are necessary. Also, there are a number of regulations that must be observed, like those relating to the use of the whistle. When you 'drive' the train at the highest level you will be marked down for a number of faults, including not observing any pertinent rules, failing to keep good time, poor fuel economy and general reckless driving.
The instruments that can be seen on screen by the driver, and therefore the player, include the water and pressure gauges and the position of the various control levers: the regulator. controls the flow of steam to the cylinders; cut off, determines at which part of the cylinder cycle steam will be admitted; vacuum brake, five degrees of braking power; the blower, used to prevent gas and sparks coming into the cab when the train is in a tunnel; the injectors, regulate the water flow from the tank to the boiler and finally, the dampers which regulate the volume of air flowing into the firebox.
The firebox must be kept stoked and fuelled to provide the maximum safe temperature: a simple operation in itself, but while a key press is enough to shovel in some more coal, don't forget to open the firedoor first! Keeping a fire in is one thing, but as any good driver will tell you, you must look at the smoke coming from the engine to determine just how efficient it is. For example, very light smoke means that too much air is getting into the fire while dark smoke means you should let more air in.
Outside the cab itself another section keeps you informed about your water and coal stocks, speed, and the condition of any signals on the line. The all-important railway clock hasn't been left out either. If you make any mistakes on a run then a message will appear at the bottom of the screen telling you where you have gone wrong: 'BLOWBACK, CREW INCAPACITATED', for instance, means that you failed to open the blower when entering a tunnel.
Given the complexity of the task in hand it's as well that the authors have provided a number of different difficulty levels. The easiest, 'the training run' follows the same schedule as the demonstration, but the player can choose which of the train's controls he is responsible for, just the regulator, cut off and brake right up to the fifth level giving you total control. The tasks that you don't want are controlled by the computer. When you feel a little more reckless (or competent) you can have a go at some of the more difficult schedules. Option three on the main menu gives you an easy run with speed limits but no stops. Option five gives you a chance to break the London to Brighton record set in 1903. The final option is called 'Problem run' on this journey you can expect to have to cope with a wide variety of dilemmas, and if you manage maximum points on that run you might qualify for a real train to play with!
Control keys: too many to list here
Joystick: not required
Keyboard play: well thought out
Use of colour: very limited
Graphics: effective but slightly jerky
Sound: pretty sparse, rhythm of the train does come across
Skill levels: 6, plus 5 training levels
'I'm not really what you could call a train buff, and to be honest I can't see what people enjoy in looking at noisy and dirty machines on wet Sunday afternoons. I think that's a good qualification for writing an unbiased review. The first surprise I had was the pile of instructions that came with the game. I thought it was just a case of add coal and water and hold on tight. Afterwards I am convinced that it's a great deal easier to fly the simulated planes to drive this train. Hewson, in their wisdom have allowed for all levels of abilities from just being a passenger to full scale panic. Southern Belle contains some well drawn graphics. Although they tend to scroll a little jerkily, the overall effect works quite well. If you like simulations then this one must be a technonuts delight watching all the dials and gauges and levers. I certainly recommend this game to those of you who enjoy simulations and those who tend towards the mechanical side of life'
'My first impression of Southern Belle was quite different to my final verdict. This is a very complicated simulation providing a great deal of variation. The game is hard to come to terms with because there is so much to do and you are kept very busy, but once mastered, it's brilliant. The job becomes very exciting and involved when attempting speed runs but at high speed you must always be very careful not to de-rail the train. There's a great deal of skill involved and hardly any luck, a must for the simulation lovers'
'If you can cope with the mass of learning needed to master this train you should have quite a lot of fun. It offers lots of variations but really comes into its own when the player has a good idea what he is doing. It not very pleasant to find yourself, as I did, hairing into Brighton Station at 67 mph. On that score I am a little saddened that the really dramatic stuff, like crashing into the station, is such a let down. The threat of a huge and noisy explosion would have added something. On the whole though, this game is worth mastering mainly because it is such a challenge'