pop culture | no politics
When I was a kid I was obsessed with trucks. Whether it was Optimus Prime or the awesome US-1 Trucking playsets that Tyco made I couldn't get enough of anything to do with the big 18-wheelers. There was just something so cool about the way they looked, the way they sounded as they idled, even their smell as they burned diesel fuel. Growing up on a farm in rural Minnesota there were trucks everywhere, and I couldn't wait until I was old enough to get behind the wheel of one of them. I dreamed of one day owning my own trucking company and having adventures in exotic locations I as I hauled loads of valuable cargo across the United States.
Eventually I got my driver's license and my dad put me to work driving a truck. I quickly learned that trucking wasn't all it was cracked up to be, the grain trucks I drove were slow and handled like garbage. The brakes were awful and the only place I ever got to go was a town of 250 people. The truck driving experience alternated between me being bored out of my mind as I waited in endless lines at the local grain elevator and the stress of wondering if I would be able to stop if a deer jumped on the road in front of me. Reality was nothing like the romantic trucking lifestyle I had created in my head, and I quickly realized that it wasn't for me. I went off to college and haven't thought about truck driving since.
Enter SCS Studios' American Truck Simulator, the follow-up to the company's popular European Truck Simulator, a PC game that has enjoyed a strong cult following since its release in 2008. I bought European a couple years ago and didn't play it much, but when I saw that the sequel had finally arrived I decided to give the franchise another shot. And I couldn't be more thrilled, American Truck Simulator is like a time machine that takes me back to a day before reality ruined real life trucking for me. The game allows me to experience all of the good without any of the bad, without feeling too much like an arcade game.
As an operator you're responsible from getting cargo from point A to point B as efficiently as possible, requiring you to not only be a safe driver but also to manage your truck's fuel and your own rest. A fully-loaded semi-truck gulps expensive diesel fuel like a frat boy going through a keg of cheap beer, and it's your responsibility to make sure that the 18-wheeler's tanks don't run dry. Running out of fuel will require an expensive call to the tow truck and will almost certainly result in a late-delivery penalty, so it's imperative that you make good use of the gas stations that are sprinkled along the game's beautifully-rendered roadways. There's several areas of the game where it's almost impossible to find a place to refuel, so just like in real life it's wise to fill up whenever you can.
Driving a truck is hard work and often involves long hours, and American Truck Simulator has an excellent gameplay mechanic that really captures this. If you spend too many hours behind the wheel, which is awfully tempting when you're trying to complete as many jobs as possible in the name of profit, your character will begin to yawn. I can tell you from experience that you need to get some rest ASAP. There are designated places that you can sleep in the game: hotels, motels, and rest areas where you can shut your engine off and doze for a few hours. If you press your luck and keep driving when tired, the edges of the screen will begin to darken and eventually will go totally black except for the words "dozing". You've fallen asleep behind the wheel, and it's not just a matter of no longer being able to see. Suddenly turning the steering wheel does nothing. The pedals don't react to your input. It's simultaneously the coolest and most frustrating thing in the game, and more often than not you'll be hung up on a guard rail or have rear-ended a convertible when your eyes reopen.
When playing driving games like Grand Theft Auto or Burnout, there's no reason to obey traffic laws. Who stops at stoplights in GTA V? When you've got crimes to commit and money to make you just swerve around the cars that are foolish enough to pause at a red light and keep moving towards the blip on your radar. But you're not going to get away with that in ATS, not only are you putting your precious cargo at risk, which will result in decreased profits and an upset employer, but the police are always on the lookout for anyone violating speed limits or running red lights. This can make for some really frantic moments if you're on a tight deadline and have to decide if taking your truck over the speed limit is worth the risk in order to get your cargo delivered on time. You can see in the video below that the financial penalty for late delivery is substantial, as this is one of the more punitive simulators that I have ever played.
That doesn't mean that American Truck Simulator isn't fun though, quite the opposite in fact. It's a blast to get behind the wheel of the trucks, to barrel down the California freeway towering over the puny little station wagons and sedans that dare to share the road with you. The interiors are beautifully-rendered and everything looks and feels authentic: gauges moves, blinker lights come on, etc. All the major cities of California are realized in the game, and while they're obviously scaled-down here each one looks unique and different, making each delivery feel fresh. The game sounds wonderful, your big diesel engine purrs like the real thing and a brilliant satellite radio system that updates live over the internet is available if you should ever tire of hearing your truck's motor. I've heard everything from Ziggy Stardust to In the Navy in my 6 hours of playing the game, so if you're looking for musical variety ATS won't disappoint. Performance-wise, ATS runs smooth and I've only noticed an occasional drop in framerate on my 7 year old Dell, and I'm running with the graphics cranked up to maximum. Most PCs made in the last 10 years should have no problem running this game.
American Truck Simulator has well thought out leveling-up and financial systems that reward the player for being safe and timely. You start out with no money so you're forced to work as a hired gun, driving other people's rigs. But as you earn cash and experience points you can eventually get your own garage and your own truck, thereby ensuring that you are the one taking home all the profit. But that also means you're totally on the hook for maintenance costs, which can add up in a hurry. Experience points go towards adding new types of cargo you can haul, how fuel efficient you are, and the maximum amount of distance you are capable of traveling. If you want to earn the big bucks, you're going to have to make long runs carrying scary stuff like a tanker full of nitrogen or fill your trailer up with dynamite.
The game isn't without flaws though. One thing that I find to be particularly annoying is the AI traffic. As I write this I've discovered only 26 percent of the game's map, and I've already ran across two intersections where the traffic is so bad that you can't make a left hand turn for 15-20 minutes. Making matters worse, one of these spots happens to be the driveway of the first garage you get when you start your own company, so it's a location you will be seeing a lot of. Maneuvering your truck through the environments can also be a pain, which is actually a positive when it's used to increase the challenge of a delivery. Where it becomes unbearable is when you're trying to refuel or get some rest and the game demands you fit your truck into a shoe box just to get some sleep.
American Truck Simulator might get old at some point, but right now I can't get enough of it. There's just so much to see and do, so many unique cargoes that still need to be moved from Bakersfield to Reno. I can't wait to trick out my truck and to expand my garage enough so that I can get a second one and hire a driver to operate it. There's still so much of the map I haven't seen yet, and hopefully the game sells enough copies that the developer expands the map into other states. I'd love to someday deliver a bulldozer from Los Angeles to Boston or a container of car parts from here in Texas back to my home state of Minnesota. ATS is available on Steam for $19.99 right now, and I definitely feel the game delivers, especially at such a reasonable price.