American Truck Simulator New Mexico pursues a real America, not a Hollywood America

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American Truck SimulatorNew Mexico is the latest and first paid expansion for SCS Software’s remarkable fusion of dreamlike roadtrip game and business simulation, which is one of my favourite videogames of all time despite my having almost no interest in motor vehicles. New Mexico adds one of the largest but least-populated states into the mix, with cities including Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Roswell. I’ve been playing it ahead of its release tomorrow.

This New Mexico is not the America of the movies – at least not all those cowboy movies and 60s road movies that are evoked by American Truck Simulator’s initial California/Nevada/Arizona stomping grounds. New Mexico is more the America of modern television. There’s the Breaking Bad connection, of course, given that Albuquerque is one of the major cities in this latest, state-sized expansion, but it’s more than that. This is anyplace America, not a cinematographer’s America.

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There’s a shortage of widescreen romance in this New Mexico, and instead a quiet sense of not quite desolation, but certainly something lost, something less straight-backed and self-confident. The sort of America we see in contemporary television dramas that flirt with existential angst in modern America – starker places, nowhere places filled with nowhere faces and oppressive, lifeless architecture.

For instance, though Washington State is doubtless several expansion packs away from release, New Mexico most evoked the recent, incomparable season 3 of Twin Peaks for me. (Or perhaps I have been programmed by that show to respond to on-the-road experiences very differently than before). Which is to say, haunted and lonely rather warm and celebratory.

I did not pursue sights as I did in the other states, but instead followed the trail of a sad murmur that haunts everything from the tacky inflatable roadside aliens in Roswell to the sporadic tumbledown farms amidst the endless, scrubby desert to the almost deadening blankness of places like Las Cruces, Raton, even the weirdly one-note, semi-industrial sprawl of Albuquerque itself.

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The famous Rio Grande river, for instance, was not a dramatic flourish of crystal water, but a brown scar across a concrete land. The New Mexico DLC is not out to impress in that way: it is there to be modern America.

These are not places that make you sigh and long to be, but places you drive through with a slight shudder, relieved when you have left them and have returned to the dramatic telegraph poles and satellite dishes of the vast, abandoned-feeling land outside.

Does that sound like I enjoy my time in New Mexico less than I do my time in ATS’ other states? Not a bit of it. When I drive, I drive in search of a mood. In California-Arizona-Nevada, that mood is one of a yearning for freedom: the open road, no masters, no simple life. In New Mexico, that mood is one of almost savage introspection. I don’t want to stop in any of these places, I don’t have anywhere particular I want to reach: I just want to drive, and think, and mourn for lost things and lost people both real and imagined. It is purgatorial rather than a liberty song.

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This is not to say that New Mexico (or, at least, this rendition of it – I can’t speak to how accurately it has recreated the feel of the place) is ugly, or without beauty. Many of the towns and cities are deeply dour places – too stark, too uniform, and without a personality of their own – but the land around them is grandiose and changeable, if forever fairly arid. There is, I think, a little more detail and variety than in earlier states (this expansion brought with it many new art assets in addition the land and road itself), and it feels much more like somewhere I want to explore than the other zones did.

I turn off down side roads and unwisely stare out of the window out of curiosity, whereas before I tended to unswervingly A-to-B it. Again: I have seen little that awakens real-life wanderlust in me this time, but I am grateful for the chance to see it here, and doubly grateful that ATS now has an “ooh, I wonder what’s over there?” element that was previously lacking. And, if you do want levity, Roswell’s oddball mix of tackiness and civic blandness is a treat for the wry eye.

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The downside of this small step up in a sometimes slightly sterile game’s sense of life is that it reveals other limitations too keenly. All this world they’ve made, all these wonderful/bleak sights, but I can only really see it from within a cab and after extensive fiddling with camera modes. I don’t want ATS to evolve into some kind of city sim, because to undermine the purity of its road might just destroy it, but as it slowly looks better and better, it feels increasingly absurd that there isn’t some kind of first-person, on-foot mode.

I don’t ask for interaction: I just want to get a better look, and to evoke that other critical element of the road trip, which is getting out to stretch your legs and take the air in a strange new place. It’s not a small thing to ask for, I know, but by this point, with so much world and, if you travel the length of the game, trips this long, it feels by now necessary.

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I’ll also raise a call for a better lighting system. Under the hood, American Truck Simulator is still 2012’s Euro Truck Simulator 2, and sometimes it shows. Sunsets and night time look great, the wash of colour or dark hiding a multitude of sins, but in full daylight there is an abiding plainness to those shrubs and skinny trees and acres of beige dust. A little more shadow, a little more variety to the light: again, not a small request, but it could achieve great things.

As such, New Mexico is paradoxically both everything it needed to be and at the same time merely a roadside motel halfway to some better destination. Its combination of heightened detail and less iconic, therefore more authentic-feeling scenery makes it an essential puzzle piece for what this game will one day presumably/hopefully become.

I.e. not just the greatest hits of America, but all of it, the rough with the smooth, the desolate with the thrilling, the places you want to escape from with the places you want to move to. Already, New Mexico makes ATS significantly different – that much more varied, more of a place to explore, rather than just one to tick tourist traps off the list.

And that drive, the big drive, from opposite extremes of this new map? Now that drive is an afternoon-long odyssey. Just imagine what it will become. Next time around, American Truck Simulator could go to Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Colorado or Texas. I pray it will leave the sand and rock behind for a spell and go North next, to the mountains and the forests and lakes. Show me different things, yes, but also give ATS the spur it needs to really, truly do trees right.

Do Oregon and then Washington and I will do my Twin Peaks road trip, and I shall need no other game.

American Truck Simulator: New Mexico is released tomorrow.

18 Comments

  1. Ushao says:

    I’m anxious to check this out. My girlfriend lived for several years as a child in New Mexico and I’ve driven through several times. White Sands National Park is still one of my favorite places in the world.

    • Fade2Gray says:

      I wouldn’t get my hopes up too high. ATS is a nice tourism game. As someone who grew up in SoCal and does routine trips to visit family in Arizon I can tell you that nothing in ATS’s version of southern California or the I-10 going to Phoenix resembled reality…

  2. Klatu says:

    What a great article. Thanks Alec.

  3. brgillespie says:

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; I live in the American Southwest and the varied desert terrain beautiful. Others see desolation and yearn for the green of the East coast.

    The only part of New Mexico that is truly boring to behold would be the eastern plains. Same with Colorado, most of Wyoming, and Montana.

    • Blackcompany says:

      I understand.

      I lived in Sante Fe for six months. Hiked up Baldy and Lake Peak, and Wheeler in Taos. It’s a remarkable place.

      I think to this day that I left a piece of my soul there. Land of Enchantment indeed…

      Needless to say, I’ll be driving this weekend.

  4. Premium User Badge

    edna says:

    “I just want to get a better look”

    I agree. Simpler than the ability to get out of the cab would be to have a replay function. Like when you finish a race in Dirt. It is hard to do the cinematic camera thing without driving off the road, so if I could replay my journey and play around with the camera then that would be lovely.

    Nice article. Heartfelt.

  5. Arglebargle says:

    While driving simulators are not my thing, have you gone to Tucumcari yet? When I drove through there 20 years ago, it was like a bit of 1950s/Route 66 remembrances, trapped in amber. And the Neon!

  6. Chairman_Meow says:

    Current and 10 year resident of Nuevo Mexico (Albuquerque) and just wanted to say that this review sounds like they captured a lot of what New Mexico actually is. I would like to note that the terrain is vastly different as you move South to North (Desert and flatlands south, evergreen mountains North) as well as East-West. It’s an interesting place, an enormous state with a tiny population (~2 million). And the architecture here is very “samey” as it is mostly functional/industrial or old school Adobe. I haven’t tried ATS yet, but when I do I can guarantee I will buy this DLC to see how close they got to capturing my state.

  7. Lars Westergren says:

    I love the world of Fallout: New Vegas. I feel the urge to pick this up just because of that.

  8. wombat191 says:

    I was completely disappointed in the realism and accuracy of American truck simulator. I haven’t seen a single high speed chase, not a single shoot out, no driving through fruit stands although I was pleased to find the motel from psycho

    • Yellow Devil says:

      Well, it’s only accurate up to a certain point. The scale is obviously still way off, with a drive from Tucson to Phoenix in the game taking some 5 to ten minutes while in real life it’s over a hour drive. Although fan made mods do fix this, as well as adding detail lacking in the base game.

  9. jnik says:

    Anybody taken a spin around Los Alamos yet? Do you have to stop at the VAPs on West Jemez? Can you drive through on Pajarito? Just how many of the restricted access roads did they model?

  10. metalangel says:

    “I can’t speak to how accurately it has recreated the feel of the place”

    Yet you presume to write about how much it matches up to your expectations of what a place you’ve never been to *should be like* based on what you’ve seen on television?

    Their next DLC is almost certainly Oregon – their blog shows a truck passing an exit for Eugene.

  11. Marclev says:

    Does anybody actually play these games for the business simulation part? I’ve played Euro Truck Simulator 2 a lot, but never touched the non-driving parts, and by the sounds of it the author couldn’t care less about them either.

    Just wondering if I’m missing out on anything good.

    • tnzk says:

      I was when I played the game. I liked it, then again I just like playing with money in general.

      If you’re not interested in reading Rich Dad, Poor Dad, you could probably play this game instead and figure out what’s the fastest way to make money.

      Euro Truck 2/American Truck Simulator can teach you to spend time on the road earning money, to immediately spend more money buying trucks and hiring drivers, which in turn earns them an even greater sum of money with even less effort, which in turn gives more free time to muck around in the game without manual labour commitments.

      So are you missing out on anything good? I reckon so, and like I said I like playing with money. Considering how 99% live their lives (gamers have a habit of spending time working at middling jobs to earn money to spend money on games, which require even more time commitment apart from the job. Money goes in and out without any investment) I think many feel they’re not missing out.

    • fish99 says:

      It’s not a deep part of the game. To me it’s there just so you have somewhere to sink your money after buying the best truck. You buy more trucks/yards, you get to pick from a choice of drivers and delivery types for that truck/driver, but beyond that there’s nothing really to do except watch the money roll it.

  12. elvirais says:

    Great expansion (= DLC, i’m old) from what I’ve played so far. And I agree on the lighting. The skies are amazing, but the shrubbery is a bit flat during the day.

  13. Wildman85 says:

    I lived in New Mexico for seven and a half years, four in Clovis and the remainder in Alamogordo.

    There is an anxious bleakness to much of the state, a sense of the average living standard being impoverished but not quite 3rd-world and yet no way out, and an aching emptiness. It feels old-fashioned corrupt, morally-bankrupt in places like Clovis. “Hopeless,” is a word I often used there. Good people exist in New Mexico, but the sense of despair is overwhelming. You see this on the main roads, in the greater part of the towns and cities.

    What you don’t see from those roads and in those cities and towns is the vast beauty the state can have. White Sands under a full moon as seen from the western cliffs of the Sacramento Mountains, the vastness of the Universe laid out above you on a dark, cloudless night near the VLA, the challenging curves of certain mountain roads in the Sacramentos and in the northern part of the state, the wild beauty of the Gila National Forest, the way the entire Tularosa Basin looks under an inch or three of snow (an exceedingly rare event), the petroglyphs left on sun-baked rocks by an ancient people, the hidden streams and springs best found on foot or dual-sport. This is the real New Mexico, an ancient land never truly conquered and one best experienced in solitude.

    Clovis nearly took my life. Sunspot Highway saved it.

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