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The Flare Path: Happy Valley

Derail Valley is a delinquent's delight

According to the Rail Accident Investigation Branch the majority of the derailments that occurred in Britain during 2018 were caused by faulty track or rolling stock. No train left the rails because its driver was too busy wagon surfing or wild flower sniffing to notice an approaching sharp bend. Altfuture's Early Access train sim Derail Valley encourages some deeply irresponsible habits and currently has more rough edges than a ballast stone, but I love its atmosphere and unorthodoxy, and reckon you might too, assuming you're willing to accept a generous helping of fiction with your fact.

At present this £15 genre enlivener features neither real geography or real locos. Its 256 km² world and two wagon haulers - a diesel shunter and a coal-powered Mikado - suggest rather than slavishly replicate. Spared onerous research and reproduction duties, the five-strong team behind the project have focused instead on breathing life into their physics and sounds, and providing their customers with startling freedom.

In DV you can climb every mountain, ford every stream. In DV you don't pick a scenario or choose a service from a timetable, you wander into your local freight office, and pluck a tempting job booklet from the selection scattered on the desk.

Randomly-generated and each with appropriate remuneration, the jobs range from ten-minute shunting chores to long-distance freight runs that can occupy for an hour or more. There's not a great deal to spend your earnings on right now - licences for a steam loco and longer trains, the keys to a mysterious garage... - but this isn't a huge concern. The unique, organic approach to employment quietly encourages exploration of the 200km, 15-station network and, together with demanding gradients and devilish derailments (more on which in a moment) keeps boredom at bay extremely effectively.

I can't, I'm afraid, tell you anything about how the sim feels or plays when viewed through cybergoggles. What I will say is that Altfuture's belief in VR means DR is an uncommonly physical experience for those of us without headsets. With throttle, brakes etc. only controllable through mouse-manipulated cab controls, and cab instruments and 3D objects the only source of important info like speed and job details, your relationship with your conveyance and its environment is inevitably a close one.

By forcing us to do without handy GUI displays and keyboard shortcuts, the devs discourage dilution and limit* distractions. There's nothing arm's length about DV. You're there on that pitching, swaying footplate, feathering shiny handles, monitoring flickering needles, and peering through that dusty fly-spattered windscreen.

*But don't wholly eliminate. Annoyingly, the ugly inventory list across the bottom of the screen seems untoggleable.

If the sim's wonderfully warm-blooded steam loco is to be properly utilised by the majority of VR-less customers then some concessions to convenience may have to be made. Equipped with an array of mouseable levers and wheels (regulator, brake, reverser, injector, blower, sander, firebox door...) and with an insatiable appetite for coal that only a bentbacked player toiling like a navvy with their trusty shovel can satisfy, the 'SH282' is an extremely demanding creature at the moment. By working hard and mousing furiously I've completed simple shunting jobs with it, but until AI firemen or oil conversion arrives, I can't see myself using it for long-distance transalpine jaunts.

Part of me wants Altfuture to backstory DV's imaginary industry-dotted trundle-space. I want to know more about this dinky Balkan (?) state with its pleasing vistas, invisible population, and deep suspicion of the motorcar (there's not a road to be seen).

Then again, part of me is happy with the current vagueness. The way things are now, the scenery is suggestible. Emerging from a tunnel near 'Food Factory & Town' I get a glimpse of sun-kissed lake that's pure Scottish Highlands. Scuttling through a ravine close to 'Oil Well North' I'm in Spain or Greece. A little later, corkscrewing downwards enroute to 'Harbour & Town' I might be in the foothills of the Himalayas, a driver for an Indian hill railway.

Wherever you choose to imagine yourself, expect to spend a portion of most runs nodding approvingly at flower-spangled meadows, conifer-crowded slopes, and elegant curving viaducts. For me DV conveys the spectacle of rural rail travel better than any of its peers. Rounding a bend to find a new peaky panorama spread out in front of me, I find it hard to stop myself nipping outside onto the running board for a better look*. If Altfuture ever get round to adding day/night transitions, roads, villages, and fauna, the temptation to ogle rather than attend to duties will be even stronger.

* There's no dead man's pedal in DV. If you're feeling reckless you can even leave a moving train, roam the landscape for a bit, then teleport back into the cab.

Hopefully any landmark enrichment will go hand in hand with remedial work. Before Wednesday's prompt patch, the “four foot” was positively littered with alarming, but, thankfully, incorporeal, trunks and boulders. Now rogue rocks and trees are much rarer, but unsightly texture holes and malformed tunnel mouths still catch the eye here and there.

As the unnamed rail company that runs trains over the network currently only seems to employ one driver (your good self) there's no pressing need for signalling. What would be extremely useful, however, are trackside signs showing speed limits and gradients. The game's title is no idle threat. To take a corner or negotiate points too quickly is to invite loaded bogeys to harrow ballast. That $13K you were a few minutes away from pocketing? Forfeit! Clumsy drivers have no option but to teleport, hike or drive (it's possible to delete and spawn rolling stock at will) to the nearest station and select a new job - a depressing anti-climax compared to the satisfying process of feeding a booklet into the 'validator' machine and seeing a fat wad of cash appear in the collection slot.

Without signage, safe speeds are pure guesswork. After a series of prangs - a couple after code changes meant to improve the line-holding characteristics of laden trains - outside of marshalling yards I now haul full tanks, containers, and boxcars everywhere at 25-30 kph just to be on the safe side. As much as I enjoy DV's redolent physics*, I suspect snailing around at milk float pace could begin to grate after a while, hence speed limit signs are at the top of my wish list.

* Encompassing wheel-slip, wagon sway, and coupler slack (couplings aren't visible) those physics mesh nicely with the evocative throbs, clanks, and whines of a capable dynamic sound engine.

One way to avoid cornering calamities is to concentrate on shunting. Passably enjoyable in Dovetailian offerings like Train Sim World and Train Simulator, patiently assembling and disassembling freight trains in flat, wagon-strewn yards is seriously satisfying in DV thanks to randomly generated tasks, cash rewards, and novel touches like individually numbered wagons, a loading/unloading machine, and an infrared points-changing remote.

That remote together with a fictional in-cab coupling gizmo allows you do almost everything from inside the loco if you wish to, but personally I prefer to act as both shunter and shunter's assistant, hopping down from my ambling train to go inspect closing distances in person. A handy 'teleport to loco' key lets you jump back onto the footplate instantaneously in order to apply that final smidgen of brakes.

Yes, I could shunt until the seacows come home in DV.

Picturing what this mould breaker might look like in a year's time, it's hard not to be excited. Slobodan Stevic, the founder of Altfuture, tells me he and his four colleagues are presently working on fixing “critical bugs” (apart from a crash that occurs when closing the sim, I've not encountered any terminal gltches) improving savegame functionality (right now you can't save in the middle of a task) and boosting performance (already decent). Once that's done and another loco type is added to the mix, they'll commence work on 'hazmat' jobs, a railbus (hopefully something like this), and a few other items mentioned on this roadmap.

During our email exchange, he also explained the superficial similarity between the sim's cute orange workhorse and Serbian Railways' Czech-made '621' shunters.

“Due to being a small team without a lot of resources, and for gameplay/ergonomics reasons (VR), we decided to make our locomotives fictional. The shunter in-game was roughly inspired by the ŽS 621, but does not have the same proportions, interior or general stats. When we began brainstorming ideas for the game, this image (can't find high-res picture now, unfortunately) was one of the first ones that I saw and said "this is what the game should look like". It kind of stuck around after that.”

Slobodan's own rail enthusiasm is rooted in deprivation...

“Personally I've had interest in all kinds of vehicles since I was a kid, not just railways in particular. I haven't had a chance to ride trains regularly for most of my life, which probably made them more fascinating than it should have. ”

...his desire to build Derail Valley, in dissatisfaction with the genre...

“I'm a big fan of Transport Tycoon and similar games, and loved playing train sims in the past... and once we started feeling how dull and stagnant they've become, a couple of friends and I decided we could attempt to make a next-gen train sim ourselves.”

No-one could accuse DV of being dull and stagnant. A creation capable of pleasing both thrill-seeking virtual vandals and serious rail enthusiasts, it proves, like Diesel Railcar Simulator did before it, that train simulators don't need recognisable routes and vast DLC selections in order to compel and convince.

Watch on YouTube

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Like the sound of what you've just read? Send me (timfstone at gmail dot com) the correct answer to the following question within the next 48 hours, and by Sunday night you could be scuttling about in an adorable orange shunter. I've only got one Derail Valley Steam activation code to give away, but as the last 'Where am I' competition only generated a couple of dozen correct answers, there's every reason to enter. The usual rules apply (No sly duplicate entries). Vague answers may be rejected. You'll need to consult Google Street View to test your deductions. Not heard anything by Monday morning? Hard luck old bean, must have endowed another.

Where am I?

  • I'm standing a few metres away from a single track railway line
  • Travelling SE along this line is a short passenger train hauled by a red electric locomotive with four portholes on its flank
  • Behind the loco is a single grey carriage graffitied with the words "THE NITE IS LONG, THE DAY IS SHORT"
  • I'm 100 metres from a large quarter-circular building
  • A scruffy dog is watching me from a nearby doorstep
  • I'm in a country that has won the Davis Cup but not the FIFA World Cup
  • I can see dozens of gravestones
  • If I was to circle the globe at this latitude I'd cross three of the Great Lakes
  • I'm 600 metres from a statue commemorating the victims of a WW2 war crime
  • I'm due north of an island that shares its name with a movie, a gun company and two cities in the US
  • I'm close to a ruined building that may owe its parlous condition to an "act of God"

(Competition now closed. I was here)

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This way to the communal foxer

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