ATS Screens (22).jpgCountry roads, take me home, to the place, where I was born… mountain highway… doo de doo doo… take me home...
Gosh, this game is good. Sure, some may say that it’s just a lot of meandering fetch quests without any real plot and a complete lack of compelling NPCs, a game that tries to get by on lashings of Americana, but in all honesty American Truck Simulator is one of the greatest games on…
American Truck Simulator. I’m sorry, did you think I was talking about something else?
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Whilst Bethesda have been prancing about on giant stages in a straw-boater promising monorails to braying audiences, the humble Czech team SCS Software have been diligently noodling away at what I believe to be one of the best games on PC. This game is called American Truck simulator. It simulates an American truck, several of them in fact. It does not simulate the entirety of America, which some Thumbs Down reviewers bizarrely seem to get upset about, but it does do a remarkable job of selling you the idealistic dream of the Eagle-screeching freedom of American truck driving. ATS (for that is what we shall call it from here on in) places you as a humble trucker for hire slowly climbing up the ladder of the trucking industry, from day-cab dilettante to an eighteen wheels of steel transport magnate with garages and hired drivers scattered like apple-seeds across six states.
Simply put you fire up the freight market and pick a delivery job. There are over a hundred cities and hundreds of different cargoes – everything from the thrilling world of Office Stationary delivered to Eureka CA to picking up the more humdrum Boeing 747 Fuselage from Tacoma, Washington State. It might not be a simple case of driving A to B however, as random events can occur on the roads, be they a light aircraft having made a forced landing on a stretch of freeway to a speeding Hollywood executive pulled over by a grumpy traffic cop. Major incidents can even force you to detour many miles, putting into jeopardy tight delivery schedules as you try to puzzle out a speedy alternative to punch in to the GPS. Then there’s the refuelling pit-stops, the weigh-stations checking the fitness of your vehicle and load and the regular overnight stops at lonely motels and coyote infested desert pull-overs.
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The game looks beautiful. It’s not cutting edge triple-A graphics, the game having only just moved to DirectX 11, but there’s a lot of love, care and attention laboured on the maps. Unlike Fallout 76, the map is kept admirably free from bugs and is well-optimised, leading to a smooth drive through even bustling cities. There are currently six states in the game, covering a large chunk of the Western United States. California, Nevada and Arizona launched as part of the base game. They’re fun to drive around, but looking a little longer in the tooth as compared to subsequent map-packs. Fortunately SCS are currently slowly revamping the maps, with the aim of bringing them up to par with the more recent New Mexico, Oregon and Washington. The map is scaled to 1:20, which means that for every twenty miles in real-life there’s one mile in-game. Although this means the maps are not quite true to life, there are many intersections, road-side curiosities and stretches of city that are remarkably true to real life – and I even had the eerie sensation of recognising a few of places I’d been to in on previous jaunts to Oregon and Nevada. There’s a strong dedication to realism in the game, with the sights really echoing the beauty in the banal that topographic photographers such as Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld touted in the seventies. There’s nothing quite like pulling off a highway into a truck rest-stop, switching the engine off and just listening to the rumble of traffic go by, or threading your way through a wooded mountain pass to emerge into a small town in a hollow with beautiful murals adorning the sides of old-red brick buildings, the air-conditioning units poking out of windows, Indian jewellery stalls on the sidewalk. Switch off the game, go into Google Earth and by-God – it’s really there. The number of times I’ve nearly crashed rubber-necking impressive vistas or odd little sights (keep an eye out for the Bates Motel and the Overlook in their real-fiction locations) is many.
Accompanying the immersive graphics is the superb in-game radio feature. You can tune in to any internet radio channel in game, which means that as you roll through the remote East Oregon you can actually listen to the local radio stations that play there. There’s a good selection that comes in the game, you can add your own finds or opt to play a mix of music from your own library on your hard drive. Finding the right radio channel really enhances the game, as sometimes it just seems to know what should be playing at any given moment. Hotel California by the Eagles in the evening as you roll down the I5 into Bakersfield. Riders on the Storm as heavy rain pelts you on the run from Medford to Eugene in the green rain-soaked valleys of coastal Oregon. Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa by Gene Pitney when you’re… um… far more than twenty-four hours from Tulsa.
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Combined with the great sound-work utilising real-life recordings of the trucks in question, even down to the rain on the windshield and the squeak of windscreen wipers, it’s easy sometimes to zone out and suddenly feel you’re there.
True you can end up unintentionally grinding and it becomes far too easy to make money when you’ve set up a few garages, but overall the gameplay is just perfect for relaxing pick-up-and-play sessions. You can complete a delivery between neighbouring cities within a coffee break, or for the real long runs from say Tacoma, Washington to Hobbs, New Mexico, you’ll have to be ready to sacrifice a couple of hours from your day. The trucking life is varied too. One day you’re bumping along dirt tracks through a forest to pick up lumber, the next you’re delivering a giant road-resurfacing machine to a freeway pull-over in Los Angeles. The driving feels great and the game is playable from everything from keyboard and mouse through controllers to great big proper wheel and gear-shifter rigs. Myself I use an old flight-sim joystick and it answers perfectly, with my being able to use the little HAT toggle to look around my perfectly modelled Peterbilt truck cabin and out the windows.
The game is updated pretty regularly, with new roads added in to existing states and new gameplay features and trucks added for free. There are a couple of cargo packs you can buy along with the map DLC, but the base game is pretty huge itself and the prices for what you get are piffling. You can pretty much buy the full six states and the two cargo packs for thirty quid if you’re smart with the bundle discounts. The Washington State DLC map has just come out and though I've only driven a fraction of its roads I've already fallen a little in love with its beauty. Taking the run along the I90 from Seattle to Spokane may not have you drive through the small town of North Bend that Twin Peaks made famous, but you can see the distinctive titular peaks themselves of Snoqualmie pass, and drive through the dense douglas fir forest and up the steep grades of the mountain region. My current favourite location? The snugly nestled away small town surrounding Grand Coulee Dam with its girder bridge, rocky river, white picket fences and local grocery store with its insatiable demand for shipments of cheese.
American Truck Simulator is certainly in my top ten games of all time, and with the release of the Washington DLC I’ll now be able to fulfil my heart’s desire and drive from Las Vegas to the dark woods of Snoqualmie – thus mirroring the journey of Dale Cooper at the end of Twin Peaks: The Return. It may lack the Double R Diner, but it's a place I find to be a welcome escape.
Now please excuse me, I have a giant load of fish-sticks to delivery to Albuquerque.
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