It's several years now since Hewson released its minor classic Southern Belle, a steam train simulation which took you as driver/fireman on a London-Brighton steam run. Evening Star is the rather belated follow-up, reproducing the previous format and graphical approach but in a more extensive and sophisticated style.
The game relives a trip from steams halcyon days when the mighty BR9F engines pulled trains across the beautiful countryside on a 70-mile haul from Bath to Bournemouth. Trainspotters (real ones!) will immediately know we're in a different league from the Belle. Instead of a straight 60-mile dash, programmer Mike Male and designer Bob Hillyer have recreated every tortuous twist and turn, incline and decline, tunnel and embankment. And if you don't think The Star's a runaway demon, just try to control her temper as she hurtles down the long decline to poor little Shoscombe at 75mph!
But while the Hewson boys have packed in more content, they've not zapped up the presentation. The main 'over the fireman's shoulder' view of the track and surrounding countryside is still black and white, while the 'detached moving graphics' still lurch at you as though the brakes are intermittently being slammed on.
But these are minor quibbles in a program so packed, it'll have sophisticated gamers and railway enthusiasts alike curling their toes in delight. Gameplay options are too numerous to mention, based on how many of the engine's seven controls you wish to use and in what combination. The computer automatically takes over those you omit. All the variations give you different smoke levels from which you must interpret how efficiently you're burning coal. Toggle frequently between the main screen and timetable, and you'll know how close to schedule you are.
Getting going is fairly tricky, but there's a menu of seven different journeys you can make, all with various hazards and problems, from exploding fusible plugs to smashing through the Bournemouth buffers (a trifle embarrassing). But whether you choose to toddle along the local non-stop line or to smash the Bath to Bournemouth speed record, you'll always get an inspector's report assessing your safety, timekeeping and economy as a driver. Anything over 70% is pretty good, but below that beware!
I can't see that Evening Star will be a runaway commercial success, steam trains being something of a minority interest. But it's certainly in a different class from Southern Belle and, well, you never know - it may just gather fans from gamers as well as those funny little chaps in anoraks. All aboard!
A red hot and steamy trainsim that's on the right track. Challenging and tricky, though less than startling graphically.