ZDSimulator is one of the latest entries in the train simulation world. Straight off, it’s not a simple “jump in and drive” simulator. ZDSimulator is an offshoot from a project to develop professional locomotive simulators for training by railroads and college vocational programs in Ukraine. As such, its focus is on developing familiarity and operational skill with a variety of locomotives and railway lines.
Technical simulation has been a target for some time in train simulators; MSTS itself can’t be faulted for lacking some operational complexity as it was one of the first modern large-scale and extensible train sims. The TrainMaster4 simulator has a loyal following of the (now nearly as old as MSTS) retail 4.3 version. Eventually it was expanded into a professional-only software platform for North American railroad training simulators. Along the way, BVE/OpenBVE and the German Zusi simulator have evolved into the technical aspects of trainsimming. Zusi 3 has been highly anticipated for some time, but still is only available as a demo. Railworks, as a simulator platform, has the tantalizing capability to offer fairly technical operation. Some third-party developers have created locomotives and trainsets with highly realistic controls and physics for Railworks, and the sim’s detailed graphics along with cab movement can offer an immersive experience. Run 8 Train Simulator from 3DTrainStuff is also a recent arrival, offering highly realistic operation of North American locomotives and rolling stock in a multiplayer-focused simulator.
Into all of this comes ZDSimulator. With its roots in professional simulation, it’s certainly stepping out in the right direction for technical and realistic simulation. I’ll try to go through this review by summarizing how ZDSimulator performs in terms of operations, graphics and PC performance, and how it does overall as a computer application.
ZDSimulator is a serious simulation of operating a locomotive and train – you’ll realize that from the moment you launch a session. Your locomotive begins completely shut down. You can’t begin to move a train until you go through the proper start-up procedure. Even with prompts in the corner of the screen turned on, you have to pay attention to what you’re doing. Once under way, you’ll need to refer to a HUD across the top of the screen which displays a track profile with notations for speed limits and locations of curves and some operational notes, plus visual indicators for locomotive and braking performance. The HUD somewhat combines the track maps and references you would carry as a real engineer, plus it provides visual clues to some of the “seat of the pants” effects that can’t easily be produced on a computer screen. There is also a “score” display in the HUD which tracks merit and demerit points for your train handling, starting at zero. Operational mistakes such as exceeding the speed limit, dropping behind schedule, mishandling the train, etc. will dock points. Meeting certain safe operation standards, arriving and departing on schedule, and other safe operation characteristics will add points to the score. This is part of the sim’s heritage as a training aid; if you get to the end of a run with a score of zero to net positive, then you’ve met the minimum standards overall or exceeded them in some ways. If you come out with a negative score, then you’ll need to practice more!
ZDSimulator adds an entire dimension rarely touched in train simulators with a range of hazards and faults which can occur, and must be dealt with by the engineer just as you would on a day at the job. Electrical and pneumatic controls in their cabinets on the locomotive are simulated, and failures can occur, with repairs to be carried out. Circuit breakers can open and require a trip back to the affected equipment cabinet to reset them. Contactors can fail and require bypass jumpers to be inserted. Air systems can fail and require valves to be set to re-route systems. Pantographs on electric locomotives can be damaged. Traction motors and rectifiers can be overloaded, causing automatic protection to cut in. Line conditions can affect electric locomotive performance and cause faults. Even fires can be simulated, requiring you to put them out and make temporary repairs.
The simulator offers point-to-point basic running with no traffic and no faults unless you mis-handle the train, simple runs with traffic and minor environmental hazards at slow, fast, and express priority on the signals, and finally fully-developed scenarios with more complicated traffic, schedules to adhere to, and the potential for including significant breakdowns and hazards. Difficulty is selectable between “Beginner” with prompts for operating the controls and a more forgiving approach to faults and train handling, and “Professional” without operational prompts and rigid adherence to rules and fault tolerance.
Cab signals are simulated and provide the principal signaling system; as soon as the cab signal indicates a restricting condition, you will need to react appropriately with the acknowledgement button –even before the lineside signal comes into view. I suspect this is motivated by the harsh weather conditions which railways in Ukraine and Russia must operate in; lineside signals may be unreadable in poor weather while cab signals should always be effective. This has an operational positive effect; once a cab signal changes to a more favorable aspect, you may immediately resume speed without waiting to pass the signal that the cab indicator reflects. For a restrictive signal, you can adjust your speed well in advance.
Speed limits are indicated only on the track profile HUD; there are no lineside signs. This is actually a reflection of Ukraine and Russian railway practice. Speed limits are based on train classification and may vary; the engineer (“driver” in most of the rest of the world) is expected to know speeds based on distance markers and refer to paper documentation when necessary. The HUD provides a convenient representation of this.
Locomotive controls are operated with keystrokes, usually Shift + <key> turns a function on, and <key> by itself turns the same function off. Some key mappings are similar to other simulators; A & D provide throttle control (A to accelerate, D to decelerate as in Railworks and others – backwards to MSTS), locomotive brakes are ] and [ bracket keys, and train air brakes are ‘ and ; keys. There are myriad others, however, and some are specific to individual locomotives instead of being completely standardized. You’ll need to take time to get comfortable with your virtual control desk in each locomotive. Note that some controls need to be operated by holding a key down briefly, not just tapping it, replicating electromechanical or electro-pneumatic action. Some systems have to cycle fully before the next control can be activated.
Throttle response varies based on the locomotive type and its systems. Note that many of these are European-style electric locomotives, which do not always use direct-acting throttle controllers in the way North American locomotives do. Instead, moving the throttle controller activates a sequenced electrical or pneumatic actuator, with an appropriate delay.
Airbrakes are realistic, with appropriate timing for application and trainline recovery. Combined rheostatic braking that applies graduated airbrakes plus dynamic/regenerative braking is simulated on locomotives that have it.
There are no tooltips that pop up in the cab as you move the mouse pointer, so you need to familiarize yourself with controls and instruments. Controls and most instruments are labeled in Cyrillic characters. In time, translated guides are being developed, but for now you’ll need to observe carefully what everything does in practice. Generally speaking, voltmeters and ammeters are obvious, some are for traction motors while others may indicate line voltage present, or total load being drawn through the locomotive’s rectifiers or electrical control system. Electric locomotives have highly functional instrumentation. The diesels included are a little sparse on functioning instruments; that will probably be added to in time with updates. Documentation already includes an English translation of all the key commands common to all locomotives plus specifics for each one included in the simulator.
Arrow keys and the mouse allow you to look and move freely around in the cab and get a head-out view. The mouse wheel provides a zoom-in and zoom-out function, and the ability to set the viewpoint height in the cab. There is a limited head-end and tail-end view from outside of the train which allows mouse control for 360-degree panning plus zoom and some (slow) forward and backward movement – enough to observe your train for spotting it at platforms and other locations. There are no “railfan camera” views for runbys and close-angle views, though, as that’s not the focus of this sim.
ZDSimulator adds a unique dimension with simulated failures and faults in the locomotive. If a fault occurs, up to and including a fire, right clicking the mouse in the cab will bring up a cutaway graphic of the locomotive. Equipment cabinets and their names will highlight if you mouse over them; onscreen messages will guide you to which areas to go to, open, and then what actions to perform. This can include adding electrical jumpers to bypass bad relays, replacing fuses, resetting circuit breakers and tripped protectors, even putting out fires. Tooltips are active here, indicating controls and circuit numbers to guide you. These displays and interactive items correspond to actual mock-ups used in the professional version of the sim. Function keys can be used to display schematics of the locomotive’s systems, another on-screen representation of external aids used in professional installations. There’s an added dimension to the cutaway view and the equipment cabinet views during nighttime runs; if it’s dark outside, most of the cutaway and cabinet views are obscured in the dark. A glow zone around the mouse cursor simulates a flashlight beam quite well. So, if you break down in the dark, you’ll find yourself fumbling around in the dark with a flashlight!
A recording speedometer strip can be simulated during a run; it can be reviewed in a supplementary application accessed from the main simulator launcher. At this time, the strip reader application and the strip itself have yet to be translated into English, but it’s still a nice touch.
Electric catenary is modeled realistically. The wire zigzags between pole supports as it should, and can be disturbed by weather and traffic – enough that severe oscillation of the wire can happen which may damage the pantograph of your locomotive! If that happens, lower the pantograph and coast. If a pantograph is damaged, you may be able to raise the other pantograph and proceed with caution.
Currently, operation is limited to running a consist that’s coupled to the locomotive at the start. Uncoupling is possible, but coupling onto a train isn’t supported yet, so switching scenarios aren’t possible at this time. Switching may be in the works for future updates; it will require some enhancements to the simulator to make it possible. In addition to coupling limitations, currently turnouts can’t easily be thrown manually during a session, although there may be a method in the (still un-translated) multiplayer dispatcher screen. (Throwing a turnout against the traffic pattern CAN be done as a function of simulating an emergency condition, though.) Turnout functions and paths are normally set up and automated in a scenario.
Multiplayer capability is being worked into the sim. Like other functions, this isn’t documented in English yet, although it promises dispatching capability and control over signals and routing, and the ability for players to see each other’s trains in the sim – much like Run 8 Train Simulator does. The option is available in the launcher interface when “professional” mode is active. I haven’t tried it yet, as multiplayer isn’t my particular interest, and we don’t have a large enough multiplayer interest in the English-speaking world yet. Once more documentation is translated, It may be worth a try.
At this time, the sim comes with two routes, and several others are available for download. Much like MSTS in its early days, this might seem limiting, along with a fairly limited range of rolling stock. There are more locomotives to operate, though, and they all have significant differences in operational characteristics. Coupled with scenarios of different conditions and difficulty, it makes for a wide range of operational challenges.
Graphics-wise, ZDSimulator is attractive but not focused on “eye candy.” An OpenGL graphics engine is used, so graphics rendering is appropriately offloaded to a GPU whenever possible. Still, ZDSimulator doesn’t need a high-end system. A 2GHz CPU, 512MB of RAM, and a video stage with 256MB of memory is all that’s required. I get 60+ FPS on a 2.5GHz Core2 Duo system, with 4GB of RAM and 256MB of VRAM plus shared system memory. I also attempted to run it on my laptop, but its slower sub-2GHz processor wasn’t enough to allow it to run. It would seem that the system requirements are accurately given, and, really, are easy enough to meet with modern computers. I just happen to use a fairly basic older laptop.
The graphics are best described as similar to MSTS; you won’t find the kind of high-definition shadows and shaders seen in high-budget PC games. Object density doesn’t seem to affect the sim, and cab views are high-resolution with 3D movement allowed. Tweaking mild antialiasing and other video card settings can optimize the graphics easily.
Fog and rain are simulated. If the locomotive is modeled with operating windshield wipers, water drops will accumulate and they will clear the rain away. There is a “winter” season setting in the simulator. Some, but not all routes can take advantage of winter textures, and if winter is available, activating rain will show up as snow falling in the environment. (Snow striking the windshield of the locomotive still shows as water drops.) Running a Russian train in winter has a certain attraction…
Cab motion is represented well, with sway, lateral and vertical motion based on speed and track conditions, superelevation, and buff/draft forces. Cab motions appear to be dynamic, not just a preset forward/back motion with throttle/brake application plus rhythmic sway. Instead, cab motion varies according to forces acting on the locomotive and different locomotives respond according to the dynamics of their suspension systems.
Frogs and guard rails in turnouts are absent; the track may be dynamically generated so there might not be any routine to do this. I know some are adamant about proper turnout construction as in MSTS, but some of the leading train sims and routes can make do well enough without it. Railworks and Run 8 come to mind; Run 8 in particular is also designed to focus on realistic operation, not graphics. It’s something I’ll trade happily in favor of excellent operational accuracy.
Night is realistically dark, and skies make a convincing transition from daylight through evening, twilight, darkness, dawn and back again. Locomotives have various settings for cab lights – full lighting, night lighting and instrument lights are all possible, depending on the locomotive.
There is an interesting effect on the trees – they sway in the breeze realistically. This isn’t noticeable at speed in the cab, but it’s a nice effect at stations that makes the environment just a bit more “alive.” Other PC games have used this before, but it’s the first time I recall seeing it in a train sim.
Road traffic nearby and at crossings is mostly absent save for the occasional statically-placed vehicle. Compared to MSTS, with its typically busy car spawners, it makes the lineside scenery seem more sparse and de-populated, but that’s not the focus of the sim, really, so it can’t be faulted. Still, a few more cars and trucks might be nice, and they’re beginning to appear more in recent updates and newer route development. (And a few classic Soviet-era Zhiguli sedans and some KAMAZ and ZiL trucks would look great… But that’s just me…)
There are some graphical bugs. Wagons seem to be made up of limited textures; the texture for the left-hand side is re-used and not necessarily flipped for the right-hand side. You’ll see the “back side” of the left-hand texture – with lettering reversed – on the right side of some wagons. There are tenth-kilometer markers at lineside; each .9Km marker displays a zero hanging in space just behind and to the left of the marker. The most serious graphic issue seems to be uneven motion of wagons around curves. In some versions, they jerk noticeably and sometimes “hunt” back and forth. This is noticeable if you look back out the cab window or in the rear-view mirror of the locomotive. From the outside view, it’s possible to see that the wheels of the train are not following the rails precisely; they tend to run off the rails toward the inside of curves. This appears to be a path calculation issue which will likely be fixed in future updates. The most recent updates have largely tamed this, although the first unit behind the leading locomotive (whether it’s another locomotive unit or other rolling stock) tends to shudder rapidly forward and back now. Since the simulation focuses on in-cab activity, it’s not unexpected that some graphic features like this are still rough.
As a computer application, ZDSimulator has a lot going for it. OpenGL for graphics is modern and extensible, with a wide range of options for performance that can be leveraged by the programming team. The main application is accessed from a compact launcher rather than a full-screen module of the application. It’s simple and useful, though it gives the impression that more refinement is probably on the horizon. The most lag the simulator ever displays is during the initial launch of a simulation session; there can be a long wait at a white screen while the simulation gets set up. Mouse movement and control may be erratic for a moment once the simulator display comes up; it’s usually best to let it get settled for a few seconds before starting the locomotive start-up sequence. After that, the simulation is smooth and free of slowdowns.
The recording speedometer strip reading applet is placed in the same folder as where the strip files themselves are saved. Strips can be deleted when you’re done with them, but putting them in the same folder as the applet that reads them leaves the applet at risk of being deleted by accident. I made a backup, just in case, and moved the backup to another folder. It might be good in the future to either keep the reader applet separate somewhere else, or integrate it more closely with the sim’s launcher application.
It’s important to understand that translation into English is a work in progress. Most of the simulator environment and interface is translated, but not quite all. Basic instructions are in English now. There is a route editor and a scenario editor, but both of these utilities are awaiting English translation at this time. I’ll be eager to try them out once the translation is done!
Support has garnered excellent ratings from members at TrainSim.com – Besides a forum space on the larger TrainSim site that a representative of the developers stays in touch on, users who have contacted support via email have gotten prompt and helpful responses. I encountered some issues in one update, and I got prompt, helpful responses from the support email that solved the issues right away. I can say from experience that the team supporting the software are professional and first-class.
The zdsimulator.eu English-language website and Russian-language zdsimulator.com.ua website are well-designed and easy to find information on. The Russian version is interesting to view with online translation, as there is a little more information available on the ongoing routes under development; for instance, one of the competed routes included – Vyazma to Smolensk – is potentially part of a larger project to cover the entire route from Moscow to Minsk. Interestingly, ongoing route development is being supported by the community using a crowd-sourcing model in Russia and Ukraine, with the developers accepting small payment for ongoing work on routes; this helps the developers devote their resources to where the most interest is which will further the evolution of the sim and its routes.
A note on activation and licensing — Like many other computer programs, ZDSimulator uses an authorization code/activation system. In general, I’m not fond of such systems if they become cumbersome — that is, if the support isn’t there. The system used in ZDSimulator locks the installation to the particular computer hardware it’s installed on. I did not encounter any problems with it, and when I upgraded my hard drive and had to re-activate it, the support team from ZDSimulator sent me my new code right away. Installing updates also requires a new code, and each time the response was prompt. This is critical for making software activation with a component that requires the developer/support team to supply codes workable. The ZDSimulator team is handling it very well.
Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of any simulator is its overall value. For instance, MSTS has been a favorite for so long because the cost of the basic software is usually reasonable, payware additions likewise tend to be reasonably priced, and there is a wealth of freeware additions to the point that one could build up a satisfying MSTS installation without buying anything other than the MSTS application itself. ZDSimulator is setting up to be easily as good of a value. The initial purchase for the English-language version is $14.99 – for everything. That includes updates, and ongoing downloadable content from the ZDSimulator website. Routes and alternate/updated versions of locomotives and stock are available at no additional charge – Currently there are six more routes available at zdsimulator.eu, all free. Compare this to Railworks/Train Simulator 2013 on Steam, where the initial cost of the simulator is higher, and downloadable content can quickly add cost. Run 8 doesn’t appear to be as costly as Railworks, but at $40.00 for the base application and one route and with future routes planned to be released for additional purchase, it will quickly eclipse ZDSimulator in cost. ZDSimulator is an excellent value all the way around.
So, overall, how does ZDSimulator rate? In my opinion, excellent, and it can only get better. Consider that when this review began, the software was still described as a “release candidate” version in some of the changelog published on the website. The purchase price is described as less of a purchase of a single version, and more of a contribution to an ongoing project – again, the development model follows more of a “crowd-source” aspect by gathering user’s feedback to improve the software, and by putting customers’ purchase funding back into ongoing development. It’s less commercialized and more focused on responding to customers’/users’ feedback. Several updates have proven out a dedication to fine-tuning and continuing improvements.
I hesitate to compare ZDSimulator too much with other train simulators, simply because all the major simulators all have notably different characteristics and operational focus. Perhaps the closest comparison might be to Run 8, which is also a highly technical sim, but I don’t think it’s entirely fair to do so. Run 8 simulates North American operations and focuses on multiplayer with dispatching switching and mainline freight running, while ZDSimulator simulates Russian and Ukranian mainline passenger and freight operations, and focuses on single-player operation, although multiplayer is possible. The differences in equipment and operations being simulated are immense, with Run 8 simulating North American diesel freight locomotives and ZDSimulator simulating Russian AC and DC electric locomotives as well as diesel operation. In addition, I don’t own Run 8, so beyond conceptual similarities, I can’t say I’m qualified to compare the two.
ZDSimulator is wholly focused on Russian-derived locomotive and railroad operations. While it’s possible that routes could be created for other parts of the world, it remains to be seen if the simulator would adapt itself well to other locomotive and operating characteristics. Still, the far-off Russian / Ukrainian lines and their unique equipment is an interesting and refreshing alternative to the common western European-style railways commonly available in train simulators.
All in all, ZDSimulator has a lot going for it. Its level of technical simulation is impressive. That there is ongoing and responsive development also speaks well for it. At this time, routes and rolling stock are still somewhat limited but the selection of locomotives is good, and the scenarios available offer a variety of operating conditions. The focus is on locomotive operations and train handling, and the sim delivers an excellent experience in this respect. It’s interesting, challenging and enjoyable now. Given ongoing development, it should continue to evolve as an excellent technical train simulator.