Despite usually being a nightmare under the best of circumstances, the American highway has captured the imagination for generations. The open road, the scenery, the Okies traveling down Route 66 for Californy, something about the roads represents a very American ideal of freedom.
So, leave it to a Czech development studio to take a whack at recreating the experience of that ribbon of highway Woody Guthrie liked to sing about with today’s piece of the Big Steaming Pile, American Truck Simulator, released in 2016 by SCS Software!
American Truck Simulator puts you at the wheel (literally) of the ubiquitous semi trucks that populate the roads of the U.S. of A and lets you live the life of a long-haul trucker, lugging cargo from city to city. Sadly, you won’t be able to traverse the entire country just yet. Currently, only the states of California, Nevada, and Arizona are available (although the developers are working on adding New Mexico at the time of this writing), but that’s not quite the ripoff it may sound like; if you’re familiar with the American Southwest, you know that those states are quite vast, so there’s plenty of ground to be covered here.
You begin your career in logistics by naming your driver, selecting a portrait, giving your trucking company a name and a logo, and selecting a home city where your first garage will be located. Despite being a trucker, you don’t actually begin owning your own rig. Instead, you’ll start out as a contractor, driving other companies’ trucks and hauling loads until you either earn enough money to purchase your own or you decide to take out a bank loan for the same purpose. There’s not a huge selection of trucks here, unfortunately, as only Peterbilt and Kenworth have granted the designers license to use their models in this game, but those that made the cut are very recognizable and very, well, American.
Now, this isn’t some wacky game where you’ll be putting the pedal to the metal and crashing your way through traffic with impunity; as the title implies, this is a simulation, and as such, you’ll have to obey the traffic laws, stopping at red lights, keeping within the speed limit, turning your headlights on at night, and so forth. You have deadlines to meet, and money gets taken out of your check if the cargo arrives at its destination late or banged up. You’ll also have to take care of your rig, taking it to service stations for occasional repairs, stopping at gas stations to fill up, and making sure to pull over at rest stops to sleep every fourteen hours, lest you fall asleep at the wheel and plow into another vehicle or a ditch.
There’s a wide variety of goods to deliver here, from simple trailers loaded with ice cream or tomatoes to fragile goods like electronics and hazardous materials like gasoline or explosives. You won’t be able to choose all of them at first, though. As you make deliveries, you will gain experience points and level your trucker up, and each level you go up gives you a skill point you can use to unlock new cargo categories (in the form of Hazmat permits and access to heavy-haul loads and fragile cargo), increase your pay for delivering those items, and even increase your fuel efficiency.
When you start getting into the swing of things, you’ll eventually be pulling down big money, and the money here isn’t just for show. For one, you can upgrade your truck with new engines and transmissions, although not all are available until you reach certain levels, new paint jobs, new tires, and other cosmetic changes like grill guards and beacon lights. However, the biggest thing you can spend money on here is your own company; you can upgrade your dinky little starting garage to hold up to five trucks, trucks that you can hire NPC drivers to take the wheel of and work for your company, which is very cool. Your employees will tote cargo from your home city to other towns, but unlike you, who has the freedom to go wherever you please, they have to return back to the home city after each run, and if there’s not a load going back there, they’ll make the return leg empty and you’ll still have to pay for fuel and repair costs they incur.
The developers here deserve a lot of praise for the way the game handles; they’ve done a stellar job simplifying the job of driving a loaded-down 18-wheeler without making it feel overly basic. For one, while you’ll have to get used to lugging an articulated trailer behind you, you’ll very quickly learn how to navigate tight turns and such without dragging your trailer along a guardrail. When you arrive at your destination, you’ll have to park your trailer and decouple it, and in most places, you have a choice of where to drop off – from easy spots to more difficult positions where you’ll have to back into a spot and maneuver the trailer into place, with a higher XP reward for more difficult parking.
You can choose from different transmission modes, from Simple Automatic, where holding down the brake button after stopping puts you in reverse, to Real Automatic, where you can choose between drive, neutral, and reverse yourself, to manual transmissions where you can shift through the myriad gears yourself, and there’s even support for USB gear-like steering wheels and H-shifters, which properly simulate using the actual gearshift of a semi truck. Yes, there are such hardcore truck enthusiasts out there that have full setups for this game with pedals, wheels, and shifters, much like flight sim enthusiasts, and it’s really something to behold. Pretty much every function you would expect to find on an actual truck is found here, from turning your turn signals on and off to your windshield wipers to adjusting the seats and mirrors, even down to engine brakes and cruise control.
Even through all that detail, the game doesn’t bog down in the minutia. You don’t have to worry about navigating; you have a GPS system that tells you which way to go and how much longer you have to drive, even including a speed limit indicator. Though the game’s world is scaled-down for obvious reasons, the level of detail is still remarkable. Interstate exchanges look and feel like they would in the real world; there are plenty of back roads and smaller state roads and highways to travel along; and the scenery, from the beautiful coastlines of the Pacific Coast Highway to the barren deserts of Arizona and the bright lights of Las Vegas have been rendered beautifully – you can even stop and see the Grand Canyon if you so please. Like I said, despite only featuring three states for now, it still feels like a trek to get from one end of the map to the other, as going from Eureka, California down to Los Angeles takes a good 25-30 minutes of real-world time, which manages to strike a good balance between feeling too short to be realistic and feeling like a total slog.
The biggest takeaway you’ll probably get from this game is the odd, relaxing, almost meditative quality to it. There’s something relaxing about just hopping in your truck and going from Reno to Bakersfield or from Phoenix to Sacramento, especially when you start at sunrise and you pull into your destination with the sun coming back down. It’s a very simple but hard-to-define joy, just driving through the dusty country of Highway 93 through Nevada at night, alone with your thoughts and your truck as you pass by the small, sleepy towns along the way; or watching the cars navigate the I-80 and I-5 interchange in Sacramento as you pass through town one morning, everyone going off in their virtual cars to their virtual jobs. I’m trying not to wax too rhapsodic about a game where you drive a truck around and deliver materials to stores and warehouses, but one of the biggest draws for me from this game, what kept me coming back for more, is the sense of exploration: just getting to drive around the Southwest and visit new towns and drive new roads, watching the miles tick down until arrival and getting to start fresh and new on another run.
American Truck Simulator is a game that’s definitely way more fun than it appears on the surface. Yeah, this is a game where you live a very mundane existence, but there’s a very passive, welcoming sense about it, and there’s something very charming about just driving your truck around the Southwest and seeing the sights along the way. Sure, there may come a time when you’ve expanded your company to every corner of the map, and the money’s coming in hand over fist and you’ve already upgraded all your stats, so it feels like there’s nothing left to accomplish, but there’s still fun to be had just getting behind the wheel and going for a nice drive to Vegas. I highly recommend this game for anyone looking for an authentic simulation of long-haul trucking or if you want something besides Civilization to give you that sense of “just a few more minutes” that turns into a few more hours.
Current Price – $19.99
Is It Worth It? – Yes, although future states are likely to be paid DLC.