In the Lab: American Truck Simulator

Note: Some images in this article are gathered from The Something Awful Forums’ SCS Truck Simulators thread. A fun place for all things truck-related, and my fellow truck goons are generally a lot better at taking screenshots than I am.

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Some of you probably went “Great, now he has completely lost his feeble mind” upon seeing what I’m reviewing today. And you would not be entirely incorrect, but my mental health situation is completely unrelated to video games, even truck simulators.

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These days, goofy simulator games are all the rage and you can find a deluge of them on Steam. We’ve got all kinds of sims featuring bus driving, trains, farming, surgery and goats (in separate games, I should probably add, although I’d play a sim with all of that stuff included) and a lot of them are firmly in the novelty category, giving Youtube Let’s Players something to make fun of but not having much value beyond that.

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Czech studio SCS Software (whose name I keep mentally pronouncing as “skuzz”) specializes in simulation games, mainly those involving heavy vehicles. They have made several truck sims over the years, but it wasn’t until 2012’s Euro Truck Simulator 2 that anyone outside hardcore truck sim weirdos (which probably existed before that) heard of them. Euro Truck Simulator 2 is one of those strange games that, in all honesty, should not be good at all and seems like a bit of a joke when you hear about it, but somehow SCS managed to create an experience that completely transcends the limitations of the “silly mundane sim” novelty genre and is an excellent game in its own right.

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Yes, the aim of Euro Truck Simulator 2 is to drive a truck from point A to point B while following the rules of the road and generally driving sensibly, without front-mounted rocket launchers or spikes or anything fun like that. Sometimes you have to refuel or repair your truck, and longer trips include mandatory rest stops (although fatigue can be turned off in options). Naturally, when you reach your destination, you need to carefully park the truck so it can be unloaded. Then you take another job and drive your truck to some other place in Europe. Yes, all of this sounds really boring when you describe it like that. However, Euro Truck Simulator 2 is much more than a sum of its parts. It has occasionally been described as “Elite with trucks”. Granted, ETS2 does not have combat with insectoid aliens (not even with mods, at least the last time I checked) and shamefully I have never actually played Elite or any of its sequels so I can’t personally confirm how apt that description is, but from what I’ve seen it does have a bit of a similar thing going on.

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For example, both games involve space travel as seen here.

In ETS2, you start out as a random loser doing delivery jobs for various companies, and as you gain more experience and finances you get to build up your very own trucking company and eventually become the master and ruler of Europe by buying all the garages and hiring a fleet of AI truckers. As you level up, you earn skill points you can put in a variety of things such as ADR (dangerous cargo such as explosives), long-distance driving and fragile cargo deliveries. All of this gives the game a nice sense of progression, making it more of, well, a game as opposed to a dry simulation.

The driving itself is also very good and feels like you’re in a real truck (I have a European C license, so I’ve got some real-life experience — albeit without the huge semi-trailer, as that requires a CE-class license. I’m also not allowed to drive trucks professionally in real life, since my license is civilian class instead of commercial. BUT STILL), and the world is so well realized that you feel like you are driving somewhere, occasionally getting lost in your thoughts as you would while driving for longer stretches in real life.

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Silent Hill Truck Simulator

One of the most important parts of ETS2 for me (and many others) is the integration of online radio. Yes, you can deliver peas from Reims to Frankfurt while listening to real European radio stations. How cool is that? Answer: Quite. I was doing some jobs earlier, driving around Germany and hearing an actual German radio host reading the morning news in-between classic rock and pop songs, as the sun was rising both in the game and real life, and at that moment I felt as if I had reached some sort of a higher plane of existence that prominently features big rigs and German radio DJs playing David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”.

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All roads lead to Ausfahrt.

Okay, so that is Euro Truck Simulator 2. Why have I spent nearly 750 words talking about Euro Truck Simulator 2 when the title of this review reads AMERICAN Truck Simulator? Well, because ATS (released on Steam about a week before I write this) is, by all intents and purposes, Euro Truck Simulator 2 but in America. Everything about the gameplay and structure still applies, the presentation is almost identical (the menus are 99% the same between the two games), even the online radio feature is intact albeit with US radio stations instead of European ones (oh yes, they’ve got all the country). More importantly, you are hauling cargo through California and Nevada instead of mainland Europe, which naturally gives the game a very different feel. The trucks are American big rigs instead of Scanias and Volvos, and of course the road rules are slightly different in the US as well. The world is a lot more detailed than SCS’ depiction of Europe in ETS2, with far livelier cities and more little things to discover along the way.

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I think Ray’s Hamburgers is supposed to be this game’s version of McDonald’s.

In addition, there are some new wrinkles to the gameplay — weigh stations have been added as they are a common sight in the US, and you’re occasionally called in for an inspection (although you can’t fail the weigh-in, so it’s just a bit of a delay for you), and parking now has more options. When you arrive at your destination, you get three choices: autopark like a wuss (0 XP), park in an easy spot (15 XP), or do it properly and park where they need you to (40-90 XP). The more challenging parking jobs can actually be very, very hard with extremely little space to maneuver, so much so that people from the US have chimed in to say that the loading zones are actually far bigger than these and generally quite easy to get to.

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All of that is good, and driving from Reno to Las Vegas through the desert roads with tumbleweeds rolling by is every bit as enjoyable as ETS2’s German Autobahns, but the fact is that American Truck Simulator is a bit light on content compared to its predecessor right now. California and Nevada are beautifully realized, and Arizona is soon to follow (as free DLC), but ATS simply feels smaller than ETS2. There are only two truck manufacturers (Peterbilt and Kenworth) as well, and the trucks you’re driving early on are rather low on power compared to the beastly Volvo FH16s you’re used to (although buying bigger and better engines helps).

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The real problem is the time compression and the resulting compressed distances. Yes, Euro Truck Simulator 2 did take a shrink ray to Europe’s road network and adjusted the timescale accordingly, because only the hardest of the hardcore would actually enjoy driving across full-scale Europe in real time, but in that game the compression was far less extreme. American Truck Simulator uses the “1 min = 1 sec” timescale that is common in open-world games like Grand Theft Auto, and the distances are compressed to match that. This makes the world feel far smaller than it should, and road trips across the entire state of California last about as long as a drive to the grocery store. I understand SCS probably did this to accommodate their plan of including “the entire North American continent”, but right now it all feels a bit cramped to say the least. In ETS2, a minute of in-game time was four seconds in real time, and as such the game world had more room to breathe and you felt more accomplished when you completed a long delivery. The more compressed timescale also means you have to rest more often, and I ended up just turning fatigue simulation off after a while.

UPDATE AUG 11th: SCS announced a while ago that they’re changing the map back to ETS2 scale, which should get rid of pretty much every problem mentioned in the previous paragraph. It’s very nice to see a developer pay attention to feedback and fix commonly cited problems with their game.

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The scenery is very nice indeed.

Another unfortunate issue is with the new implementation of police. Euro Truck Simulator 2 did not have police per se, only speed cameras that would hit you with a fine if you were going by them too fast. American Truck Simulator, on the other hand, has police cars among regular traffic (known affectionately as “enemy cars”), and if they see you not following the traffic rules they’ll hit you with rather hefty fines. Insert popular Finnish comedy sketch song here. The problem here is that the cops are seemingly omniscient. Even if they’re not actively monitoring you with speed guns (you occasionally see cop cars parked on the sides of a highway, doing exactly that) they can instantly tell you’re going one or two MPH over the limit. Or they’ll be able to see you through walls and fine you for not using the headlights. I just started the engine two seconds ago, officer! Fortunately, there are mods to make the police a bit less irritating or disable them completely if you want to truck in a lawless wasteland. UPDATE FEB 15th: And now you don’t even need mods for that, as the 1.1.1. patch toned down the cops and fines and included an option to disable fines altogether.

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The police of American Truck Simulator in their natural habitat

Some intersections have real problems with traffic. There is this one intersection outside Tonopah where the highway you’re getting on has this neverending stream of enemy cars and you are completely unable to get on without some *ahem* creative maneuvering or doing a save/load trick. A mod seems to have fixed this to a degree as well, by adding traffic lights to the intersection.

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Jesus H. Christ will you stop coming already I have to get to Vegas here

I have talked a lot about mods in this review, and for good reason. Euro Truck Simulator 2 has an incredibly active community that creates new maps, new trucks, new textures to replace the fictional in-game companies with real ones, new sound effects, new weather effects, pretty much whatever you can think of, and American Truck Simulator is already getting its share of new things. In my mind, ETS2 as developed by SCS is a good base with an excellent game engine and progression, but the game really comes alive when you install one of the more ambitious map mods. The default SCS-made map is a bit sparse, even with the Eastern Europe and Scandinavia expansions, and something like TruckSimMap or ProMods will make everything a lot more detailed and add a huge number of new places to explore. ProMods even adds Finland, including both my current home town and the one I grew up in, although they only vaguely resemble their real life counterparts (At least in the latter I managed to stall the engine on one of the many steep hills that make up the downtown area. It’s like I was in the year 2005 and the driving school all over again). I’m eager to see what the modding wizards are able to do with American Truck Simulator. The base map already has more life and detail to it and is fairly similar to modded ETS2 in that respect, so what everyone really wants is more content. I have no doubt that is coming.

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If you have not played Euro Truck Simulator 2, I suggest you give it a go. A free demo is available on SCS’ website and Steam, and gives you a good idea what to expect for both ETS2 and ATS. (UPDATE: A demo for American Truck Simulator is now on Steam as well) For those of you scoffing at the mere idea or a truck simulator and declaring that you’ll never touch that kind of stupid thing, I have this to say: I was just like you at one point. Then I tried ETS2 to see what the fuss was about and maybe laugh at myself for playing such a stupid game. Now here I am, with an embarrassing number of hours on Steam’s gameplay counter, writing 2,000 words about truck games and loving every minute of it (insert relevant 1984 paraphrase here).

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