Transport Empire, a new free-to-play offering for iOS and coming soon for Android is an enigma. It’s a re-imagining of the classic Tycoon-style games, where you take responsibility for providing all transportation and logistic services for an area, building up an infrastructure to serve the people and companies nearby and in turn allowing them to grow further. This genre was spawned by two legends of the games industry, Sid Meier and Scotland’s own Chris Sawyer, with the Railroad Tycoon and Transport Tycoon franchises respectively.
With such nostalgia to trade on, enter Transport Empire. From the get go, the comparisons are inevitable and in some ways encouraged. Towns occupy about the same space on the map as mines, which is something the classic games started. Trains service the towns and mines and bring materials for processing into more structured goods.
However, the basic premise and hook are all that really joins Transport Empire to the older games. The gameplay is completely different and owes much more to its free-to-play monetisation strategy than it does its forebears. Instead of trains being used as part of routes, to-ing and fro-ing with material, you must start contracts with the mines. A contract costs a certain amount of resources, takes a certain amount of time and provides stuff at the end. This is where things start to get a bit strange, because despite the stunning visuals and the great steampunk touches around the side, we have a game that owes a lot more mechanically to Farmville than it does to anything else.
Want to get some coal? Start a contract with the coal mine and come back in a while. Want it now? You can complete it now, but it will cost you extra resources. Want to upgrade something? Set it going and come back in an hour. Or two. Or a day. And when things are done, the results you get pop out of the place as very stylistic little icons for you to collect. The big three to track are experience, silver coins and gold bars with the latter two being purchasable through IAP, but there are also a range of resources to juggle as you work, such as steel and wood which for example might be needed in order to lay down additional railway tracks. However, by far the most important resource in this game world is coal — your trains need it, your ships need it and if you want to rush train contracts you are going to need a lot of it.
There’s always a primary quest for you to complete and it generally drip-feeds you what to do next, which makes for a pretty linear experience, but its also the only way to get ahead in the game. Quests provide hundreds of experience points, whilst contracts provide a handful at best. Clearly the only way to level up and progress is to stick fairly rigidly to the on-rails quest approach, which again feels pretty wrong given the source material. There’s also a slight balance issue where money can be very tight and you need an extra bit to enable you to keep going. I found here that a little purchase of IAP made a big difference and I don’t begrudge the developers the £1.49 price, but without paying a little bit, times are going to be a bit hard and progress a bit slower. Additionally, tying your Facebook and Twitter accounts to the game provides gold bars, which are generally only available through IAP — a good deal until it turns out that the game is spamming your Facebook account without your knowledge.
With all that though, there are a lot worse games about that want more for less. There are games that have a less thought out premise, spend less time on exposition, have less polished visual. Transport Empire is getting an awful lot of things right if you start from the assumption that you want to make a Transport Tycoon themed version of a Farmville style game.
So on balance, how do I feel about Transport Empire? I’m torn. If you’re a fan of the old games and play this expecting those experiences you’re in for a major disappointment. On the other hand, if you assess the game purely on its own merits, it’s pretty engaging and fun. Yes it might be a pretty shallow click-a-thon, but at the same time it’s also free and the IAP isn’t drastically aggressive. It’s a fun distraction and it feels wrong to penalise the game because it’s not a mobile version of Transport Tycoon — especially since that exact game already exists.
On the proviso that you manage your expectations and that you aren’t morally opposed to freemium Facebook-style games, I’d be willing to go as high as 4 gleaming locomotives out of 5.
Transport Empire Review (iOS), 5.0 out of 5 based on 2 rating