I've rhapsodised in the past about American Truck Simulator [official site]'s many moments of zen, but I confess that I may be guilty of glossing over its many moments of hard, thankless work too. The Arizona DLC, a substantial free add-on due whose open beta is due for launch today, brings the expected dramatic scenery, but also increases some of that hard work - in interesting ways. Also, there is a canyon which I suspect one could safely describe as 'grand.'
The American truck dream is wide, straight freeways bounded by canyons and redwood forests, and topped by vast blue skies. Arizona, home to the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, is the closest that the roads of real America comes to the roads of filmic America, and I can say from experience (a pair of family holidays doing the West Coast flydrive in my teens) that it really does have roads like that. But it also has a lot of narrow, winding roads with railings or rocky scrubland either side, and these are not routes that one would ideally want to drive an 18-wheeler through.
The work of it is moving something the size of a house through a tiny gate, inching it around the mini-maze of an industrial parking lot or trying not to drift over the line of a rake-thin road in a pisspot town. Of trying to shift the stranded thing off the sand and rocks to the side of the road, of desperately pulling on the wheel because even 20 miles an hour is too fast to turn away from a scrape with a roadside barrier. It is hard work.
Arizona has been unexpectedly costly for me - I rack up accidents and fines far more often, because the twisting paths cut across the peaking and troughing desert or through desperate little places like Tuscon and Phoenix which don't allow the same room for manoeuvre as do all those freeways and highways through Nevada and California. I clip railings or misjudge sharp corners that much more often, because my mind keeps defaulting to that zen state, which is not at all appropriate unless I'm on a road with a minimum of four lanes.
I'm not complaining, quite the opposite: Arizona has a palpably different feel to the first few states, on a level beyond the obviousness of its famous cowboy landscape. It makes this America feel larger and more changeable than a simple matter of extra landmass would have done.
It's not just the regularity of smaller roads that's causing me to rear-end fellow long-haulers or to agonisingly scrape a fender along a barrier for 100 yards. It's because I'm rubber-necking the scenery. I passed a sign saying Monument Valley was off to the right, but was in the middle of a well-paid haul to Page so couldn't take it. I craned my neck out the side window to see if I could see a hint of it anyway. Just for a moment, I'm not a fool. But a moment was all it took to cause 20% damage to my cab and take a huge chunk off my wage.
I gladly accepted a job fetching up in Grand Canyon Village soon after that, with the specific intention of beholding the big pit with my own eyes. I could only get so close to it, of course: this game continues to tragically lack a Stop For A Piss Break button which would allow my exhausted driver to step out for a minute to relieve his inflated bladder, and perhaps flood his tortured lungs with tar and nicotine. I yearn for that button, even if it only activated a sort of legless, floating first-person camera, purely because it would allow me to obtain a finer, closer, less obscured view of ATS' rendered Americana.
This is not quite a beautiful game, although sunsets across the desert do cause my breath to catch for a moment. It very obviously shares most of the older European Truck Simulator 2's technology, and particularly suffers when it comes to trees and anti-aliasing. What it does have is real atmosphere, a mindset as much as a sight, thanks to a fidelity that comes from attention to geographic detail rather than purely maxing out the pixel shaders.
Sure, it's hardly rendering every real-world burger stop or motel, let alone every house, but it has captured the spirit of the place in what it does have: ugly-pretty neon hoardings, oddly-shaped 50s signage that wouldn't be out of place in a Fallout game, pointlessly huge fibreglass donuts and waving men made out of stacked traffic cones, the domed hulk of grain silos, the flat sweep of a green-peppered yellow-brown desert, the sudden sight of a roadside graveyard or a yellow school bus, and generally speaking an old America which balances on the line between the trite and the monumental.
Admittedly it's not quite Ed Ruscha (e.g. Standard Station, 1966, above), but its pursuit of a sort of mid-tech photoreality means it avoids all stylisation and nor is it trying to automythologise the landscape in that way. It is, however, very much on the road to it, with its sweeping shots of vast, angular building glimpsed fleetingly through a side window. That means I want to get close to it, I want to pose the game's camera at it and around it just so, but a truck's limited manoeuvrability forbids even when the camera is switched to a UI-free one.
So it was that, if you'll forgive me the three-paragraph diversion, that, in a heartbeat, I clocked up a speeding fine, a collision fine and 48% damage to my cab when in my touristic hurry I tried to drive as close as I possibly could to a wall behind which the Grand Canyon sprawled.
I wanted to see, so I stopped being careful in my urgency. And, crucially, I wanted to see it in American Truck Simulator, the videogame: I felt the same swell of anticipation, the sense of importance and culmination, that I had when my father drove our bickering family along these real roads sometime at the arsehole end of the twentieth century.
I saw the jagged edges and the blurry textures and the fake plastic videogame trees, and that slight blandness which touches almost every sight in ATS, of course I did. Yet I also saw the size and depth of the thing, and the helicopter hanging above it, and I felt the sense that my little truck was a tiny thing in a huge world.
Then I parked up, detached my trailer, took what was left of my fee and was gone. Just another job. The next involved a torturous escape from the cramped, joyless roads of Tuscon, which going on this is a place I would not banish even my worst enemy to. That's American Truck Simulator for you: an escapists' fantasy and cold, busy, sometimes frustrating practicality at once. A strange, affecting hinterland between technical driving simulator and a waking dream of total freedom.
I don't want to say that the Arizona DLC completes American Truck Simulator, because when I look at the map or encounter a road blocked by translucent Xs I feel a powerful sadness that its world is nowhere near as vast and boundless as it seems, and needs to fill out at least half a dozen states before it can truly earn the first word of its name. What I am confident in saying is that it completes ATS as a launch package: an added third to its landmass transforms the offering from small to sizeable, so a long haul trip can now feel truly long haul, the scenery will change that much more, and the thought of a full trek from end to end is now something to baulk at rather than spend a lunchbreak on.
It's free, so no value quibbles can be made about either it or the parent game now, but it is a shame the game did not launch with it already included. It feels essential, and it has worked out well even if it is no more rich in locations and options than California or Nevada were. Make no mistake, this is compressed space not unedited space, so the same towns and pitstops recur frequently, and journeys soon lose the lustre of a visit to a new location.
Added, though, to the existent states it's a hell of a package, and I fidget with excitement when I think about the ways this game could and should expand, presuming it's making enough money to do so. Give me a Breaking Bad tour of dust-blasted Albuquerque, give me Fargo's frozen Minnesota, give me the driving tour of that hideously tarnished director's Manhattan, give me Boston and Boulder and Blanket, Texas (population 390). Give me liberty. Give me a full, unexpurgated American Truck Simulator - and this is an excellent, if belated, start.