The Flare Path: 36 Wheels Of Steel
The youngest and oldest truck sims compared
When I was growing up in Spittoon, Texas in the mid Nineties, truck simming wasn't just encouraged, it was compulsory. Didatech's Crosscountry USA enlivened many a schoolroom and improved many a scholar. American Truck Simulator might offer handsomer highways and more realistic rigs but can it teach you which state produces 98% of the United States' low-bush blueberries and instil a life-long fear of hitchhikers? Not on your Nelly Furtado!
Before I start heaping praise on the government-approved, highly edutaining Crosscountry USA – before I begin detailing the various things it does better than the brilliant American Truck Simulator - it's only fair I mention some of its shortcomings.
Any ATS aficionado investigating Didatech's creation today, is likely to find the vehicle physics somewhat disappointing.
There aren't any.
CCUSA cabs feature brake and accelerator pedals but no gearshifts or steering wheels. You drive by selecting a direction on the dashboard compass then dabbing the gas pedal. As the roadside scenery shuffles past, a fun-hogging autopilot ensures corners are negotiated successfully and other road users are avoided.
Not that there are any corners or other road users.
I see doubt in your eyes. Time to switch lanes. Yes, this genre gem/germ might not replicate the most enjoyable aspect of HGV driving (HGV driving) but there are compensations. For starters, first generation truck simmers didn't have to wait for years for coast-to-coast map coverage. CCUSA launched with a road net that encompassed all 48 contiguous states. Many of the 20 scenarios (sadly, there's no random job generator) involve complex transcontinental jaunts, and, though the distance compression is fierce compared to ATS and the landscape visuals primitive, such journeys do have an epic quality.
And they do involve challenge too. It's just not the hand-eye challenge of contemporary trucking games.
There are no helpful red sat nav squiggles in CCUSA. You work for a bloody-minded boss who not only makes you guess the identity of your next cargo, he forces you to use general knowledge to figure out where you must go to collect it.
“You've successfully loaded CHEESE. What do you think your next commodity is? Hint: Formed by the metamorphosis of limestone.”
“You've successfully loaded MARBLE. What do you think your next commodity is? Hint: This cereal grain is a staple for half for the world's population.”
“You've successfully loaded RICE. What do you think your next commodity is? Hint: Symbol of the information age.”
An “I give up” cheat means hard-to-fathom commodities never end games. However, when it comes to working out likely sources of, say, maple syrup, copper, or lumber, you're completely on your own. Satisfaction in ATS comes from skilful driving and steady career progress. In CCUSA it's the result of dogged detective work. Figuring out - probably with a little help from Google - that Macon, Georgia is the place to go for peanuts or that Little Rock, Arkansas is awash with rice, turns out to be every bit as pleasing as completing a tricky parking manoeuvre or climbing another rung on a level ladder.
My patience for the kind of adventure games in which you solve problems by tying keys to trombone slides, and bribing monkeys with wax fruit, is very limited, but, playing Didatech's creation, I realise I've a lot of time for ones that force me to engage with real-world geography and history.
It's impossible to play CCUSA for any length of time without becoming better acquainted with the peculiar patchwork quilt that is the US state map. It's impossible to walk away from the game completely unedified. The game scatters trivia like digestive biscuits scatter crumbs (every page in the indispensable road atlas comes with its own fascinating fact) and encourages Wikipedia rambles with its elusive commodities (researching granite quarrying yesterday I ended up spending an engrossing half-hour reading about America's first railways). Know which is the smallest state in the Union? Why Arizona is called Arizona? Where the USA's only diamond mine is located? I do thanks to this elegant educator.
Returning to the mesmerising ATS after a spell with CCUSA I'm struck by the 21st century sim's lack of interest in the places it name-checks. I find myself yearning for a toggleable gizmo that, via location-triggered text messages, would tell me something about the towns and cities I'm passing through. Next time I turn up in Jackpot, it would be lovely to learn how the settlement got its odd name. Next time I'm stuck at that horrid junction in Tonopah, the minutes would pass far quicker if I was regaled with a few choice/random facts about the nearby nuclear test range. SCS Software, if you're reading this, yes, I am asking for a job.
Other CCUSA features I'd like to see in a SCS truck sim at some point, include hitchers, visible tow trucks, flat tires, a nap-for-an-hour button, and dancing petrol pump attendants.
In Didatech's diversion picking up roadside thumb brandishers is fairly pointless because none of them have tales to tell or jokes to share. For a while I blamed the travellers I taxied for the occasional theft of commodities from my trailer, but I now believe it was my habit of parking up in lay-bys to avoid motel charges that lay me open to cargo pilferers.
CCUSA punishes poor fuel planning and tiredness-related prangs in much the same way as ATS. I suspect I'd be a bit less willing to run on fumes or risk an accident in either title if I was forced to wait at the roadside for recovery vehicles to drive out from their garages.
I know I'd enjoy ATS petrol station visits more if a polygonal gas jockey danced with joy every time I turned up. Obviously, in this day and age I'd expect the dance moves to be fully synchronised with whatever tune was playing on my radio at the time.
I hope today's teachers have access to games as multi-talented and moreish as Crosscountry USA. Mix in a little extra history and some current affairs, and you'd have a wonderful tool for explaining nations to new citizens of all ages. In the Flare Path-administered Utopia that must one day come, all countries will produce their own educational trucking sims and freely share these sims with their neighbours in the interests of international peace and understanding. Hitchhikers will be revered not feared. Gas station employees will dance at every opportunity.
* * * * *