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Wot I Think: City Car Driving

Gone in 600 seconds, traffic lights permitting

City Car Driving, or 'No Need For Speed: Lada Unleashed' as it's known inside my skull, is a motoring sim from Russia that prides itself on the realism of its automobiles, traffic flows and pedestrians. Aspiring bus queue splashers, hedgehog squashers, and cyclist harassers are sure to find it a useful companion to real-world driving instruction. Qualified drivers with sim sympathies should warm to it too as it captures the feel of urban motoring in winter and night-time conditions uncommonly well.

The £19/$25 CCD is at its most structured and schoolmarmish in 'career' mode. This collection of nineteen driving challenges ranging from relatively simple parking exercises in deserted car parks, to taxing taxi-style tasks on crowded inner-city road systems (every missed indication, accidental lane trespass, and exceeded speed limit pushes your penalty points tally closer to the automatic failure threshold) must be completed in a set order. As certain missions are tractor-tyre tough and success in them is the only legitimate way to access the game's handful of locked driveables and map areas, the temptation to reach for a labour-saving lockpick and move straight on to 'free driving' is awfully hard to resist.

The heart of the sim, 'free driving' is where the real magic happens. Cruising around Ersatz Russian City #1 - a rather cramped environment compared with the roomy rambles-spaces in the Truck Simulator series - there are moments, usually when light levels are low or snowflakes are whirling against your windscreen, when, against the odds, Forward Development's creation slurps from simulation's holy grail. Reality and unreality begin to smudge. Suddenly you're no longer sitting in that lumbar-supporting office chair in the back bedroom at 27 Cavalier Approach pretending to guide an elderly Lada Niva through tangled traffic streams in a bustling foreign city. You're actually guiding an elderly Lada Niva through tangled traffic streams in a bustling foreign city.

The whereabouts of that city can be customised with the aid of selectable traffic rules. US, Australian and continental EU highway codes and driving directions are replicated, though not always as rigorously as the default Russian Federation regs. Keen to drive under vaguely familiar conditions, I've been masquerading as an Aussie road user for most of the past week. While traffic behaviour is plausible, occasional inappropriate reprimands from the (optional) driving instructor suggest the game isn't entirely comfortable with the continent shift. Signalling left on leaving a roundabout I've sometimes been told I've used the wrong indicator, and turning at T junctions occasionally generates a brief but alarming 'you are travelling in the forbidden direction' message.

Aware that the freedom of 'free driving' could begin to pall after a while, the devs provide an optional route generation mechanism that spews out random destinations from time to time. It wouldn't take much to turn this into a fully formed taxi mode, but I quite like the vagueness of the current implementation. Why am I making my way from point A to point B? During recent days I've delivered beer, driven a mobile library, and taken an elderly tourist around the places he knew and loved as a child. Last night, at the wheel of a RAF-2203 minibus, things took a darker, dystopian turn. I was a secret policeman dropping snatch squads at the sites of anti-government demonstrations.

Compared to the best flight and train sim conveyances, the dozen default vehicles are crude affairs. Cockpit functionality doesn't extend to working chokes, windows, or windscreen washers, damage models are almost non-existent and audio tends towards the sparse and synthetic. Sadly, very few of the character-communicating creaks, rumbles and whines that should accompany a jaunt in an early Lada saloon or UAZ 4x4 have been modelled.

What you do get is essentially credible handling and decent approximations of manual gearboxes. As I observed the first time I Flare Pathed CCD, this is one of those rare driving diversions in which you can embarrass yourself by A) lurching into bollards after forgetting you’d left your vehicle in gear, B) stalling at traffic lights after attempting to pull away in third, and C) gunning the engine gormlessly after failing to lift the throttle during gear changes.

Clutch operation, even without a pedal set under your feet, is perfectly practical, much thought and effort clearly having gone into ensuring, wheel-less mouse-reliant customers don't feel like second-class citizens.

Installing community-made conveyances – of which there are now an impressive number – is relatively simple once you've learnt the trick (each addition requires a small config file edit). The fact that modders don't seem to have figured out a way to add articulated vehicles and motorbikes implies fundamental engine limitations. Apparently, FD are working on overhauling physics at the moment, so hopefully we'll eventually get to roam ring roads in big rigs and on dinky jam-threading scooters.

What would really electrify the CCD fanbase is the release of a map editor. Thanks to dynamic traffic currents and an admirable array of unscripted hazards including reckless pedestrians, aggressive AI drivers, and faulty traffic lights, I've yet to weary of the default locale, but it would be splendid to combine the sim's strong realism and knack for inner-city ambience, with real geography. The thought of braving the roads of central London, Moscow, or NYC in real-life brings me out in a cold sweat but I'd jump at the chance of getting to know them in virtual form.

For those who'd rather drive on rural highways than urban ones, the need for map editor is especially pressing. The current map has countryside and mountainous districts but these are so short of detail and character, I generally U-turn on entering them. Far better to be beetling about with the kopeyki, tramcars, and jay-walkers of the big city than roaming the achingly green, field- and farm-free wilderness that passes for the back of beyond in CCD.

Yes, City Car Driving is at its mesmerising best when you're surrounded by rush-hour impatience. When your windscreen is full of wiper-smeared tail lights, giant pantographed glow worms are breathing down your neck, and the city is wearing a mantle of unsullied ermine, CCD enfolds like a blizzard. Mirror... Signal... Lane change... Gear change...  Accelerate... Brake...  Accelerate... Brake... Gear change... Mirror... Signal... Accelerate... Lane change... It could be soporific, but with the threat of erratic AI drivers and pedestrians ever-present, relaxation never slides into repose. If you enjoy low-key wind-down sims like Train Simulator and American Truck Simulator I'd be surprised if you didn't also end up enjoying City Car Driving.

City Car Driving is out now priced £19/$25.

Cover image for YouTube video

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Tim Stone