American Truck Simulator [official site] has quietly been one of RPS' most-anticipated games of 2016. Its predecessor, Euro Truck Simulator 2, has been an office favourite for a while - what, at a passing glance, might seem to be incomprehensible HGV nerdery is instead a therapeutic indulgence. The open road. The refreshing lack of urgency. The sky. Choosing only the jobs that take you where you wanna go. The tranquil click-click-click of the indicators. Freedom.
Transpose that to California and Nevada - small towns, big cities, bigger deserts and even bigger skies - and the promise is irresistible. The quintessential truck driver fantasy. Can it be true? I spent a few hours on the freeway to find out.
Bear in mind I'm not much of a sim-player, so please don't expect much in the way of technical detail here. It's all about the escapism for me: the mundanity of driving lifted into lifestyle choice, the message of Lynyrd Skynyrd with none of the actual risk to health and home. And it's doing that well. Here are a few reasons why, as well as a couple of not-whys.
1) Never has the use of localised internet radio stations been so appropriate.
ATS doesn't have its own soundtrack as such, but does pull live feeds from various online stations. Just by choosing random stations, I've been treated to Elvis, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Johnny Tillotson's Poetry In Motion, and dozens of country hits I've never heard of but which each seemed perfect for my slow, picturesque journey across the South-West. It's glorious. There are rap stations and rock stations and blues stations and awful smooth 90s jazz stations too: I can have any America I want to, and I will.
N.b. Drunk driving a result of spending too much time trying to pose the camera and not enough keeping eyes on the road. Don't be like me.
2) It's not quite as pretty as I'd hoped
There's some spit and polish, some shinier paint and warmer light for sure, and the rocky desert areas with their big skies look particularly dramatic, but, on a technological level, it does look like ETS2 with just a little more gloss and an Americana skin. There's a fundamental starkness that it just hasn't managed to shake off, and this is sadly particularly evident when you're driving through green'n'pleasant lands: the trees are pretty lousy. The anti-aliasing still barely works too, which makes it look more geriatric than it is. I still dream the impossible dream of someone sticking a Fallout budget on this, I'm afraid. That said...
3) It feels more like Fallout than Fallout 4 does
Obviously there's no shooting and looting, but when you're in Nevada, that sense of travel of across an idealised, unpopulated America is far more potent than in Fallout 3 or 4. The empty-beautiful desert environments, the giant, cheesy roadside signs, the adorably unironic doughnut shops, the gradual shift from natural wasteland to hick towns to big cities, the space. The journey. Hey, there's even a little roleplaying: taking on jobs, earning experience points to spend on bonuses like more efficient fuel consumption or being allowed to carry hazardous goods, and the eventual creation of a trucking empire. I'll take that over doing odd-jobs for the Minutemen any day.
4) The cars are great
The American iconography approach extends to road traffic too. From bloated 60s cruisers to winnebagos, from UPS vans to black'n'white patrolcars, it's the America you want and expect. I have no idea if it's exaggerated, and I don't care. It's right, dammit.
5) You get Optimus Prime right away
In Truck Simulator tradition, you start off with no money and no truck of your own, just access to a rental truck with which to perform your first haulage job and start saving up for a big wheeler of your own. I'd gone in sadly presuming that it would be hours before I could get myself a big, cherry-red Optimus Prime truck to call my own, because that's how games work, but right off the bat it offered me a crimson Peterbilt for my inaugural journey. So happy. Admittedly, classic 80s Optimus was a flat-fronted Kenworth K100 cab over truck, and the Peterbilt incarnation is more associated with the
end of culture Michael Bay movies, but hey, close enough. And anyway Generation 2 Optimus did it decades before Bay did. YES I KNOW NO-ONE ELSE CARES ABOUT THIS.
6) Americana aside, it doesn't feel appreciably different from ETS2
Keep expectations in check: this doesn't feel like a full-blown sequel, but more a transplantation to a new locale. It's a bit shinier and it's gone to greater lengths to up the charisma, but there's no escaping that it's Euro Truck Simulator Does America. There are assorted additions and modifications both over and under the hood, and I suspect dedicated simheads are going to get more out of that than a filthy casual like me does. This is no bad thing in any case - I mean, I wanted ATS because I like ETS - but if the new scenery or the new vehicles don't particularly move you then you might not take quite so much from it.
7) It has never been more disappointing that you can't get out and walk around
Disappointing only in the sense that it has so successfully built a place that makes me want to do that. I see a roadside diner, I want to stop and swagger into it. I see a hill, I want to climb it. I see a lake, I want to swim in it. I see a canyon, I want to jump off the edge and see what happens. I guess, if I'm honest, I want Star Citizen with trucks, in Nevada. It's an impossible ask of a game this scale, so I don't ask it. I just dream of it. The reason I dream of it, though, is that, despite operating on a fraction of the budget, ATS has built far more world, and far more appealing world than any GTA or other sandbox action game ever could. Sure, it's much shorter on detail, but it has that beautiful sense of land, big country and big skies, endless opportunities to turn left and see what you find.
8) The landmass at launch is big, but not huge
California and Nevada are included out of the box, with Arizona to be added for free further down the line, and it's certainly enough to keep you going for a while. But, between the accelerated time (a two hour drive takes about ten minutes) and limitations on how much detail there can be, I have been down some of the same roads several times already. I'm fairly confident Arizona will make all the difference, and in any case I haven't particularly gone off-piste yet: too busy doing jobs to save up for my very own Optimus, y'see.
9) Cruising feels so good
The size of the roads and the land either side of it is up from ETS2, and once you're outside of towns there's far more scope to sit back and take it easy, taking it all in. This is really the major difference: there's an openness that ETS2 only manages occasionally. It's filmic where ETS is utilitarian. While I suppose some folk will worry that longer, straighter roads means less to do, I'm just finding it makes the trucker fantasy come that much more to life. And anyway, worry not: you'll get reliably dicked over by traffic lights and endless junctions in cities.
In conclusion, I'm going to buy a USB steering wheel ASAP.
American Truck Simulator 2 is due for release on 3 February. We'll have more up about it soon.