We were somewhere north of Barstow on the edge of the desert – no, really, we actually were, I was so pleased – when awareness began to take hold. I rent squalid office space with two people from different companies, and they were baffled when the dull rock soundtrack of American Truck Simulator [official site]’s title screen began leaking from my speakers. Of all the games in the world, why would I choose to play this? Worst case scenario: every stereotype about PC gaming confirmed. Best case scenario: I was playing this profoundly boring driving simulator ironically. Mad Skill, No Plow, 360 Crop Rotation and all that.
By the end of the day, after hours of watching me drive through California’s forests and Nevada’s deserts, the three of us had grown appreciably closer. As night fell on San Francisco, we swapped rueful tales of love, sex and booze from our youth. As day broke over Reno, we sang in broken harmony to Gimme Shelter. As I rolled carefully into a depot in pitch-black Oakland after a long, long night’s drive, someone volunteered “shall I get some beers in?” We sat back in our seats and sighed contentedly. Our American road trip.
Speaking purely practically, there is little to differentiate American Truck Simulator from its much-loved predecessor, Euro Truck Simulator 2. Speaking purely emotively, there is all the difference in the world. For better or worse, America – and particularly the sweeping flatness of California and Nevada, the only states included here so far – is the iconic road trip setting.
Mainland Europe might have more variety, more unpredictable roads, more green, but it doesn’t have that motorised legacy laid down by Kerouac and Thompson, Easy Rider and Thelma & Louise, Drive and Duel. Europe might have more life, it might have more history, but it just doesn’t have the same pop-cultural meaning.
The long drive across America is a dream of freedom. On the road again, dum de-dum dum. Euro Truck Simulator 2, as much as I love it, often feels like a commute, a battle with lanes and roundabouts, whereas ATS feels like escape. The same pleasure in the inherently mundane, but writ larger, as though it means something, because of all those filmic roadside touchstones.
This is true not just of the touristic sights, but the everyday ones too: the donut stands and diners, the gas stations and the Walmarts. Americana both romantic and oppressive. All part of the great journey. Perhaps American Journey Simulator would have been the better title. Though perhaps that wouldn’t sufficiently encompass delivering a trailer full of toys to an industrial estate or spending ten minutes waiting at a junction because no bugger wants to end up stuck behind a truck carrying two dozen steel pipes. Born to be wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiild, born to be terrified by reverse-parking manoeuvres.
It has an unfair advantage, one the developers did not really have to create themselves, and that is music. A carefully curated selection of genuine, real-time internet radio stations is included (you even get to hear real-world news on the hour, and they will switch to another station on the same frequency when you move out of what would the real-world FM range), and these provide an idealised soundtrack.
American Truck Simulator’s success is so much to do with music: a singular evocation and celebration of life on the road. Again, it’s the heritage of the movies: every song seems as though it was specifically written to soundtrack a trip across the desert or through the forest.
I love to sing while I drive; my partner hates it when I sing while I drive. So I don’t. But I can and do here. I bought a USB wheel specifically for ATS, and as I sang I drummed my fingers on it, lost in contentment. The hideously (and inaccurately) titled Flower Power FM is my jam, a steady stream of 50s, 60s, 70s and sometimes 80s nostalgia that I would never otherwise consciously play but know all the words to from long years of exposure.
Rod Stewart’s turgid Sailing makes passing over the Golden Gate bridge an event, a gateway to bliss. Harper Valley PTA, Jeannie C. Riley’s joyfully silly stand against the man, gives me my Thelma and Louise moment as I escape Primm. Roy Orbison is everything Roy Orbison has ever meant to anyone and everyone. Every song tells my story.
Early in the day, one of those aforementioned co-workers scoffed in disbelief at my claim that none of this was a deliberate soundtrack. “They must have chosen these. They must.” Then the broadcast cut to news that someone had contracted Zika from shagging. Real radio, real world. A world this game helps me flee from.
“Simulator” is a troublesome word to have in your game’s name. On the one hand, it speaks of authenticity made precise to the point of impenetrability, or tedium. On the other, it speaks of silliness, of applying exaggerated physics effects or cartoon bufoonery to an ostensibly real-world setting. It’s a word that makes causal onlookers believe that I could only be playing American Truck Simulator ironically, or because I’m being forced to for work.
There can be silliness in American Truck Simulator if you want: blocking four lanes of traffic with a trailer full of hazardous materials, performing a 48-point turn in a burger stand parking lot, reversing all the way to Fresno, racking up fines by speeding, shooting red lights, not turning your headlights on after dark, detaching your trailer at 80 miles per hour, re-enacting Duel from the antagonist’s point of view.
It’s not the way the game’s made to be played, but it’s not not the way it’s meant to be played either. This is, after all, a simulation of driving a big truck. There are a great many very stupid and very dangerous things one can do while driving a big truck. This game simulates those as effectively as it does the sensible and careful things – only without the bloodshed and death. It’s not GTA, which is perhaps why playing it recklessly can be far more hilarious than Rockstar’s sanctioned rampages.
American Truck Simulator is also a simulation of business, albeit played out at fast forward. Performing odd-jobs in other people’s trucks slowly puts money into your account, which you can eventually spend on an underpowered truck of your own. A step down in terms of performance, but a truck of your own. It’s a powerful moment, to tweak its paint and add a mirror or two, then blow your life’s savings on taking it home.
Eventually, you can expand into a fleet, even an empire. This is a roleplaying game too, although either sadly or sensibly devoid of any conversation. The only human faces in the game act out looped maintenance animations, never reacting to your disasters and triumphs. ATS only really simulates landscape, not population – but perhaps that’s necessary in order to ensure the focus is always the road.
The road is, admittedly, not quite as long or with as many winding turns as one might hope from a game whose title suggests the whole of America is included. It’s not just that it only has two states for now (Arizona is due, for free, soon, but the others will likely be paid DLC), but also that its compressed geography sees an in-game hour pass in around five minutes. The same routes quickly reoccur, buildings start to repeat, freeway junctions blur into one another.
I think this, too, is appropriate to the experience ATS seeks to convey – long-distance haulage jobs – but I entirely sympathise with players who feel there is not yet enough here. Arizona may well make all the difference, the paid DLC may well be reasonable, and it may ultimately be fair to consider this an episodic sandbox, but we simply can’t say, one way or another, for some time to come.
Though I recognise that it is somewhat limited, I am not at all unhappy with what is here: it’s the moment-to-moment experience, not the breadth of map, which absorbs me. At first I was disappointed by the somewhat aged graphics, but soon enough the size of the skies, the moodiness of the lights, the absurd signage of the restaurants, the bins and the telegraph wires and the streetlights and the stretched shine of a car approaching in my wing mirror washed all that away. I look forward to what mods can do, but for now it has so much fidelity even if it’s some distance from the bleeding edge. The lights, particularly, are movie lights.
It is a fairly deep vehicle simulation on a technical level if you want it to be, though certainly not the deepest. The focus is on the driving model, the small complexities of gear shifts, reversing and indication, all the moving parts that make such an improbable bulk travel without disaster, and that driving feels wonderful. Heavy yet reactive. Lumbering but deadly. Slow but twitchy. The click of the indicator, the solemnity of the dashboard.
There are dozens of options and controls I shall never, ever touch, because ATS is beautifully scalable too. I am happy to dial it back to the essentials of driving rather than the specific complexities of articulated lorries, but even then the mass and bulk absolutely convinces, as do the minutiae.
To turn left onto a busy road is a gentle art. To turn the wipers on when it rains feels valedictory. To spot the onset of dusk and switch the headlights on is an important ritual – not just one that saves you a fine or an accident, but one which transforms the journey from wide-open day-lit freedom into that sense of homecoming that narrow-beam light along a pitch-black road somehow evokes.
American Truck Simulator is a simulation of driving a truck across America, and while it can claim many successes in terms of mechanical authenticity, its most effective simulation is state of mind. That zen-like focus and calm of driving, when every other worry evaporates from your mind. Only the road. Only the music. The music and the road as one.
I’ve been having a hard time lately; I’ll spare you the details other than to say that I felt significantly better for every moment that I spent in American Truck Simulator’s America. That’s my highest recommendation.
It’s not a joke. It’s not ironic. Don’t fear ‘simulator.’ It’s the America you want.
American Truck Simulator is out now.