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Review: Hornby Virtual Railway 2
Developer: Hornby, Publisher: Hornby
Reviewed By Matthew Peddlesden
Date: 9 July 2004


Hornby Virtual Railway, for many of us the memory of this original product leaves us shivering. It wasn't 3D Hardware Accelerated, the track was just a 2D texture, you couldn't uncouple, you were restricted to one level and while you could put plenty of trains on the track they would all move at once and you couldn't control each one individually. It was also fixed at a specific low resolution.

It's original design focus was simply as a track designer however, not for actual operation of the layout and as a way to design a layout using standard Hornby track pieces it did quite a good job for its time. The stock included with it was quite strange and official Hornby screenshots included the Mallard pulling Eurostar coaches, a very odd sight indeed.

Skip forward to July 2003 and since then we've had two or three versions of Trainz and one version of Microsoft Train Simulator - nobody thought we'd ever hear from Hornby again - but we did.

Hornby Virtual Railway 2 represents the latest version of their Track Design tool only now they have listened to the feedback they received and the result is a quantum leap forward from the original.

Once the product is installed you run it and you are greeted with an opening screen, and then a few moments later you get a black screen for a few seconds. If you're paranoid like me, you're now thinking that the machine has crashed... No, it hasn't, wait a moment and the opening movie starts. On further inspection it seems that there is a long black stretch at the front of the movie, it's not a pause and it's not trying to load something at that point. You can press the ENTER key to just skip it and go straight in as soon as the black starts.

You will also find that you have about 60 megabytes of movies installed with the product, the 17 meg introduction and then a 47 meg demonstration/tutorial movie. I'd recommend watching each of them once and then deleting them from the Program Files directory they sit in, this will speed up your load times of HVR2 as well as free up tons of disk space. If you want them back, they are on the CD - indeed if you have the HVR2 CD in then it will look on there for the start up movies if it can't find them on the hard drive.

This is how you start, default baseboard and nothing else First we select a room backdrop to place our layout in such as the garage Now we can either pick a default baseboard or as I have done here, make your own board up including curves

There are three main topics I want to cover; The rolling stock that you get, the editing and track design facilities and finally operation of the layout.

Rolling Stock

Diesel
EWS 08 (R2163)
EWS 37 (R2255)
EWS 56 (R2288)
Virgin 47 (R2289)
Virgin 86 (R2290)
Railfreight 90 (R2291)

A reasonable selection there except for the two AC electrics - there is no support for overheads in the product but I guess the intention is that you can design an AC layout and add your own AC in when you build the real thing. Good to see the little shunter making an appearance too!

Steam
Mallard (R2059)
J94 (R2094)
LNER B12 (R2156)
0P Terrier (R2165)
Clan Line (R2169)
J13 (R2186)
27xx Pannier (R2198)
7MT Britannia (R2207)
Blackmoor Vale West Country Class (R2219)
Princess Class (R2236)
Duchess of Rutland (R2231)
Castle Class (R2232)
Black 5 (R2258)
Flying Scotsman (R2264)
N2 (R2269)
0F Smokey Joe (R782)

A phenomenal selection of steam there ranging from some little 0-6-0 tank engines up to the big A4 and so forth. There's bound to be more than one loco in this selection that will appeal to the steam fan, though the lack of a smaller tender engine like a 4F seems apparent.

In the opening movie you will see a Class 9F and a screenshot on the back shows a GWR 2-6-2, these are not included in the product however the apparent intention is to release a couple of loco packs as was done with the original HVR and the first one, due around September will apparently have the black 9F in it.

In 2D Track designer mode we have added a bit of track The same area of track in 3D Track Designer mode Using 3D mode we add a raised section of track to finish the circuit

Freight / Passenger
GWR Autocoach (R4025)
LNER Composite Brake (R4063)
Virgin Mk 2 Open Standard (R4086)
LMS Diner (R4095)
Virgin Mk 2 Trailer First (R4096)
BR Suburban B (R4099)
BR Bogie Luggage Van (R4122)
BR Composite Coach (R4125)
LMS Composite Coach (R4130)
BR 68ft Diner Car (R4131)
GWR Centenary Coach (R4139)
Virgin Driving Brake Van (R4147)
LMS Royal Mail (R4155)
LMS 4 Wheel (R468)
BR 20 Ton Brake Van (R6119)
Macaw Bogie Bolster (R6123)
GWR Conflat and Container (R6131)
Car Transporter (R6143)
Coke Wagons [3] (R6151)
Vee Tank (R6160)
100 Ton Tanker (R6166)
BR 75 Ton Breakdown Crane (R6183)

I was quite bemused by the selection of stock, such as having the Autocoach but no other GWR coaches for all the GWR steam to pull - indeed the introduction movie shows a train consisting of a GWR 0-6-0 pulling 3 or 4 Autocoaches. There's an LNER Composite Brake but nothing to go with it!

The stock itself has been modeled quite well, while it isn't up to the poly count we might expect from MSTS or Trainz, they are never the less very pleasing to look at and definitely resemble the Hornby model quite closely.

Replacing a couple straights with a bridge (which would actually look better if I'd raised it..) we switch to the terraforing tool and prepare to make water Water appears by lowering the terrain! Hills appear by raising it!

There are a couple of animation issues with the stock however, the conrods on the Steam loco's do not appear to be in sync with the wheels, or indeed with themselves at times. As an example if you take one of the bigger steam engines you might at best see the rod almost going in to the piston correctly, or on a bad day, you might see it sticking up through the top of the engine periodically...

The coaches appear to be constructed incorrectly, they pivot around the track by the very ends of the coaches rather than the centers of the bogies. The result is that the bogie appears to slip and slide around underneath the coach - it looks very bizarre and personally was not the kind of mistake I would expect to see coming from a respected model railway company like Hornby, after all, you'd expect these folks to know what coaches looked like going around corners.

Overall it's not a bad selection and if you can turn a blind eye to consist accuracy you can get some trains together and have some fun. In future updates i'd like to see more variety in coaching stock, perhaps more freight and a DMU would be good to see as well.

Editing / Track Designing

There are a series of basic steps that you undertake in HVR2, much the same as it worked in the original. First you select a room such as a basement, loft or garage. Next is a new step, you can choose from a supplied baseboard or you can clear it and make your own. Your baseboard can be any shape, just click for the points to make a complete board and then you can drag them around as you please and even curve some of the sides, very nice.

Going mad with the painting tool Throwing the 255 scenery item limit to the wind and planting a veritable forest, plus a couple of signal boxes Now we're in consist builder, we've selected a loco and some coaches and they have appeared down the bottom

Once you have a baseboard you are then ready for the next steps, which you may do a bit at a time all at once.

Laying Track

You can now lay track in 3D as well as 2D, which I find a lot easier. Additionally you can put a slope on the track and get a second level. Unfortunately it only permits a single gradient and you can only go to one extra level. The software chooses automatically if you can do "Level" or "Up", or "level" or "down" and the means by which it chooses this can sometimes leave you unable to reach the ground again and have to rip the gradient up and start it from the top again. The easiest way to avoid this problem is to simply make sure that once you start on the way down or up you continue laying track until you are up and levelled out before you look elsewhere on the layout.

The track itself is now 3D, which adds a lot to the look of the layout as you build it.

You have a selection of a few different lengths of straight, a number of different radii of single and double curves, short and long points, crossovers and so forth, so there's a good selection of track to play with.

New to HVR2 is Flexitrack support. This means that you are no longer bound by the limits of the standard Hornby track pieces and your imagination can now run wild! The implementation of the Flexitrack takes a little getting used to, essentially you drop the flexitrack piece in and you have 4 arrows. The first arrow is joined to the existing track, you need to join the arrow on the other end to another existing piece of track and then you can use the two in the middle to smooth out or shape the line. It works quite well, although there is a caveat which, in my opinion, renders Flexitrack of limited use.

When you lay Flexitrack on a 'virgin' baseboard it works wonderfully and fixes a lot of problems, where before you would have to carefully try to line things up so that you could make a working layout, now you can just leave a decent gap and stick flexitrack in to solve all those problems for you. Where things come unstuck however is when you use flexitrack anywhere near terrain that has been terraformed (described later). As an example, I put some example track down that rose to a second level and wandered around a little. I then ripped a little in the middle of the top level out and used flexitrack to replace it - no problem. Next I deleted the Flexitrack and terraformed around the top level track so it looked like it was on raised ground. Now try to repeat the flexitrack exercise - you'll find it virtually impossible to get it to latch on to the distance piece of track as it flails around wildly while you move your mouse, even when you appear to have it in just the right place it doesn't latch.

Additionally to this, on the layout that I built in order to get experience with HVR2 for the review, I had done some flexitrack at the upper level prior to any terraforming and it had worked great, later I terraformed it and a bit later on I looked back and that bit of flexitrack had decided to suddenly slope down instead of being level. I have no idea what caused it but as a result I decided to rip most of the flexitrack out of my layout - it's no use if I can't rely on things not staying where they are.

We place the loco on the bridge and here she is, even reflected in the water EWS 37 sitting in the siding, note two controllers, each loco can be controlled independently Point directions are now visible, spot the blue arrow on the point - this arrow moves to the other exit if you click but this is all that changes, the track itself doesn't indicate the switched point

Flexitrack on the ground level seems a lot happier so perhaps the moral is to keep your layouts simple on the upper level.

There are two bridges supplied that look very nice indeed and are put down exactly the same way as any other piece of track. They look quite the part over a nice river!

It can take a little getting used to the way things work but stick with it as it's not a bad mechanism at all. The only big one to watch out for (especially with the next point about UNDO in mind) is that when you highlight an object and click it selects it, if you then move away, move back and re-click on it (so this is most definitely NOT a double click) you will select all the track that is connected to it... so be careful how you click, especially when you are deleting a bunch of track items (I speak from experience, trust me)...

Finally, the UNDO facility has a nasty surprise in store for you. Let's set up a little scenario in our minds... Drop three straights down, A, B and then C. If you now press UNDO you would expect C to disappear, which it does. Ok, let's replace C so we have the same situation again. Now if you delete C manually and press UNDO, most people I know would expect C to pop back in to life - which it does NOT, in actual fact, B disappears! Why? It appears that when you delete an item, it is completely removed from memory, so as far as HVR2 knows, the last thing you did was add B to your layout so it dutifully bins it for you.

Terraforming

The next major improvement over the original is the ability to shape the landscape. Anyone that has used Auran Trainz will be instantly at home with the way this tool works as it is identical with the exception of a couple of very nice touches. As you increase the angle of the terrain it will decide to automatically put a rock texture on the steep bits and a snowy texture at the caps rather than you having to do it yourself, very nice. Another innovation I was very impressed with was how you build tunnels - you simply raise the terrain above the track and a tunnel suddenly appears, it really couldn't be any easier! Unfortunately, there's always a flipside, tunnels can only be single track as far as I can tell and can't contain any points.

There are three tools, Raise, Lower and Flatten. The responsiveness is a bit too high and sometimes it can get a bit hard to get terrain just right however the flatten tool fixes most problems you might get yourself in to and generally you'll end up with it looking just right anyway thanks to that tool.

One thing I did notice was that once you raise some terrain over track and create a tunnel the performance seems to drop - my AMD XP 2100 with a Geforce 4 Ti4600 and 512mb of DDR Ram is no slouch but altering terrain on my layout is quite a slow process now. Note this only applies to altering terrain, as soon as you release the button and get on with something else things are all good again.

There are some rendering errors that allow you to see through the hills in a distance as is apparent on my test layout, although it is very minor and I didn't feel it affected the visuals particularly.

Much the same as Trainz you can lower the terrain below ground level to create water effects, although there is no option to control the height of the water this did not really present a problem.

Painting

Again much like Trainz and indeed the original HVR, you can paint the landscape by choosing from a palette of textures and spraying away.

Sitting at a station steaming away merrily Virgin 47 storms over our lake

Scenery

There is quite a decent selection of scenery supplied including houses, shops, lots of station bits and a reasonable selection of trees. Another innovation in HVR2 that I was quite impressed with was the magnetic platforms - there is a similar concept that has been developed in the MSTS community for Microsoft Train Simulator but I found this worked extremely well as an idea and hope that more developers take this on board. Essentially you drop down all the different bits you want as components and then you move them next to each other and they start snapping together, you can then rotate it as one item. With the supplied range of Platform pieces which include curves, you can make platforms that wind around with your track quite easily (unless you've used flexitrack of course!).

One factor that I ran in to a little earlier today however is a 255 item limit on the number of scenic items you can have in your layout. While this sounds like a lot, you'll be surprised just how quickly you run out of that by the time you've populated a small village and then put in a small forest. The baseboard for my test layout is by no means the biggest that HVR2 can do and I have run out of items long before I would have finished the scenery on my layout, so this 255 limit is perhaps a tad on the low side...

One new thing they've put in to HVR2 that again I'd like to see others taking on board is the water reflections. You have to enable them in the configuration (a separate application in your start menu) and there's an obvious framerate hit but if you have the hardware to cope and your layout has water in it, then these are well worth having on. Sitting on the side of a river looking up at a bridge as a steam engine storms across it and you can see it all beautifully in the surface of the river below, steam as well.

There are no cars, roads or other related bits and pieces but again I didn't feel this detracted too much from the product.

Operation of the Layout

You can now control up to 8 different trains independently on the same layout, this is a marked improvement and means you can set up one train perhaps running around a loop while you run a local service back and forth for example. I found the consist editor a little awkward in that you cannot delete anything from a consist - you must bin the whole thing and start again, more of an inconvenience than a serious problem I'll grant you. It is also now possible to uncouple stock which means you can actually perform operations beyond a train looping round and round in circles all the time, shunting and so forth all becomes a possibility.

Even though it's a model railway simulator, Hornby have opted to give the steam engines some smoke out of their chimney, it works quite well and is implemented using the same kind of particle engine that Trainz uses to good effect. Unfortunately the smoke rises through things, but we'll let that one pass :)

Closer shot of the Virgin 47 A view of the whole layout

Flexitrack unfortunately makes a comeback to the hall of shame when you come to operate your layout. If you use normal set pieces of track to make your slopes you will see the train correctly angle up or down when it gets to the sloped piece of track, no problem. Unfortunately this is not the case with sloped Flexitrack as each individual item in the train will remain horizontal and the whole thing appear staggered as it goes up, much like a set of steps. One bogie of a coach will get buried in the body of the coach, and the other will get stretched out to remain on the track. It looks very bizarre and once again, I can't help but wonder if this product was really properly tested by someone that is familiar with model railways and has an imagination to do more than just build the default six layouts.

When you save your layout it is saved with all the stock on it, so you can put it away for the night and load it all up exactly where you left off the next day, a nice touch.

There appears to be another bug in the product when it comes to the new ability to uncouple. In my test route I have a couple of small stations, one at each end, with runaround loops and a single track between the two. The idea is that your little 0-6-0 with a couple of four wheel coaches will trundle in, uncouple, pull forward and then reverse back around the coaches ultimately pulling back up and front-coupling ready to haul coal-first back to the other platform where it can do the same procedure to bring the coaches back. It seems that the uncoupling only really works when you restrict yourself to one side of the loco, so if you rear couple with some stock you can uncouple fine, re-couple on the rear and so forth ad-infinitum with no problems. The scenario above however requires that you will uncouple from the rear and then couple to the front - when you get to the other station and try to uncouple things start to go wrong.

You click on the couplings to uncouple the item (another negative point, there's absolutely no feedback that the uncoupling took place) and then try to pull away, you will find your loco is completely unresponsive. For some reason I wondered if closing the controller window and opening a fresh one for the loco would help - and it did, I was able to pull away. This gets you the uncoupling that you need in most cases but unfortunately Smokey Joe is the exception as when you open the new controller and start to move the loco it will flip 180 degrees on the track suddenly so that it becomes coupled according to its previous coupling (i.e. if you were rear coupled first on the loco and front coupled now, the loco flips and becomes rear coupled). If you avoid Smokey Joe and use the other stock, of which there is a lot, and you know about re-opening the controller window this is easily worked around although it is a bit of a pain, and adds further credence that the testing was not done by somebody who really pushed the product to try things beyond the conventional loop.

Click detection in the product isn't particularly hot - especially when it comes to changing points (which do not change the rails on the track by the way, they stay exactly where they are and a big blue arrow changes to say where the train will go), some times you may find yourself having to go right up to a point almost to where it is filling your screen before you find the right spot on the point to make it change - and it might be a different spot for each point depending on where you are and where it is. This can make operating a larger layout with lots of trains... challenging... to say the least.

Included in the product are six layouts for your immediate enjoyment. They are in fact six track plans from the Hornby Track Plans book, I had one or two problems with them and frankly I have never really had much of a liking for those plans any way so I quickly moved on to start working on my own layout.

Overall Conclusion

HVR1 was a big disappointment for a lot of people and with Trainz and MSTS out I don't think anybody expected to see HVR2 at all. It is very obvious that Hornby have listened to their customers feedback, the overall feel and functionality of the product is light years ahead of the original. I have to say that I think the supplied stock is excellent, putting aside the issues with animation and slippy slidey coach bodies, it is a real pleasure to watch some of these engines wandering around the layout you have created and it brings a lot of the small layout OO Guage Model Railway feeling to your computer. HVR2 does not pretend to be a railway simulator there are no cab views and the sound effects are minimal, it's about simulating model trains and nothing more - and within that remit it actually does very well.

I have had an absolute blast playing with it to create my test layout and operating the layout is a lot of fun as well.

There are a number of bugs with the product and I have outlined most of the ones i've found in this review, some of them are very disappointing minor issues such as the coaches not behaving anything like the Hornby models (or indeed real ones) do and some of them are simply bugs such as uncoupling and the many flexitrack issues. If you can work around the bugs and tolerate the silliness of the animations then there really isn't much wrong with this product as long as you understand what it is trying to be and don't expect more out of it.

HVR2 contains some excellent innovations such as the instant tunnel building and the first appearance of water reflection that add up to a very attractive simulation.

HVR2 is a product that does what it says on the case, it doesn't try to be any more than a simple model railway simulator and the track design functions are adequate for this purpose. For those wanting to build the railway they have just designed, HVR2 will print out a complete shopping list for you to take to your Hornby dealer and make very happy :)

If you are expecting a competitor to Trainz or MSTS then steer well clear, this product is not even in the same ball park - and it isn't trying to be. If you expect software to be bug free then again, steer clear until Hornby can get a patch out (if indeed they do) as I have personally found that the bugs with Flexitrack render it practically useless, which is a great shame as it's one of the more powerful new features.

I would say that if you can get hold of it at a low price (apparently Game are selling it for 19.99, which I would say is the absolute maximum I'd be prepared to pay for it) and you know what you're getting (which you should by now!) it's worth it for the unassuming and easy fun you can have with it. Plenty of stock, large custom baseboards, terraforming, lots of track and several trains running at once... it's like being a kid again :)

Overall score:

75%



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