I've always had a bit of a soft spot for detailed simulations.
And I'm not talking about the FarmVille clones that Facebook developers laughably refer to as "sims" these days -- I'm talking about honest-to-goodness simulations of piloting something you'd probably never get to pilot in a million years; games that necessitate the reading of a 200-page manual before you even think about booting them up; games that have keyboard commands for the most ridiculous and mundane of functions.
I blame my father, personally. His long-standing infatuation with Microsoft's Flight Simulator series meant that my childhood home was rarely without the dull hum of a virtual aircraft's engine somewhere in the background, and over the years he invested in increasingly elaborate control schemes to make the experience more authentic.
Being a youngster back when I first became aware of simulations like this, I was more one for the thrills and excitement of jet fighter combat rather than the aimless flying around of Microsoft's long-running franchise -- I recall with some embarrassment that I used to cosplay as a fighter pilot (complete with home-made oxygen mask made from a vacuum cleaner hose) when I played F-19 Stealth Fighter on our family's Atari ST -- but at the back of my mind I always thought, even at that early age, that there was scope for the simulation of other, relatively mundane and combat-free forms of transportation.
Before I was able to drive, for example, I always thought it would be fun to have some sort of open-world car simulation where you could just drive for the enjoyment of driving rather than racing -- the Test Drive series came close to this in several of its earlier incarnations, but were often too "gamey" for my liking; similarly, playing games like Elite and Privateer made me wonder why on Earth there weren't more games that followed a similar formula, but which kept you firmly rooted on terra firma, confined to the cabin of a truck rather than a space freighter.
Imagine my surprise, then, when it turns out that one of those weird-looking, oddly specific, niche simulations that the Internet seems to take great pleasure in mocking, actually turned out to be pretty much the game I've been craving all these years. Enter Euro Truck Simulator 2, which I took a chance on in the recent Steam sale and actually found myself enjoying way past its initial novelty value.
In Euro Truck Simulator 2, you're a trucker, and consequently you get to drive a big truck. To be honest, that alone, when combined with the game's rather condensed but impressively rendered open-world map of Europe, would have been enough to provide an enjoyable experience for a few minutes at a time, but what was most surprising about this game was how much actual, uh, game there was in the package. This isn't a game about aimlessly driving around highways and cities -- though you can play it as one if you please -- but instead a surprisingly detailed simulation of a haulage company operator's life, both on and off the road.
The early part of the game is kept simple. For each job, you're given a truck with a trailer already attached, so all you have to do is deliver it safely to its destination. Along the way you'll have to avoid damaging the truck and cargo by not crashing into things, and avoid fines by not getting caught speeding, running red lights or driving the wrong way down sections of divided highway. (The latter is something you need to take particular care with when moving from the European mainland, where everyone drives on the right like in America, to the United Kingdom, where everyone drives on the left.)
Once you've completed a couple of jobs and mastered the surprisingly taxing task of reverse-parking your trailer, the game starts to open up. You're invited to visit a truck dealership that matches up with your "preferred" model of truck -- a choice you make when creating your profile at the start of the game. Upon arriving there, it becomes painfully apparent that trucks are, in fact, rather expensive, and so right on cue, the in-game bank emails you offering you some competitive rates on a loan. Conveniently enough, the top loan package available to you is just about enough to afford a shiny new truck, and the repayments will be reasonably straightforward if you ensure you keep earning at a steady rate.
From this point on, you're not only tasked with successfully hauling your own cargo from place to place, but also the day-to-day running of your business. Over time, you'll be able to add to your fleet of trucks and hire drivers to increase your available income -- but you'd better make sure you can afford to pay them. Both you and your drivers will level up, too, allowing both you and them to take on more lucrative jobs, drive more efficiently and for longer. Alongside all that, you have to take care of yourself and your truck, too; fuel isn't free, and you can't drive indefinitely. Continue driving for too long and you'll start yawning; keep going even longer and you'll start blacking out at the wheel, so you'd better find a hotel quickly.
Euro Truck Simulator 2 is a pleasure to drive. A wide variety of control options are available, ranging from simple, purely automatic "push forward to go forward" keyboard controls up to complicated systems that support steering wheels and stick shift controllers. I've been playing using an Xbox 360 controller, which provides a decent enough experience, and fully configurable controls mean that you can assign the features of your choice to whatever buttons you have to hand. You don't have to use things such as the windshield wipers and indicator lights, but after a while it feels wrong not to. This is immersive simulation at its finest.
The game's full of nice little touches, too. Each area of Europe, while necessarily condensed and geographically inaccurate, is visually distinct, with accurate styles of road signs, scenery and recognizable landmarks. While driving, you can turn on the radio, and the game will stream actual radio stations from around Europe via the Internet. Alternatively, if you prefer to listen to your own music, you can simply load up the game's folder with a selection of appropriate (or, more amusingly, hideously inappropriate) MP3s prior to setting off on a long journey. Look around your cockpit and you'll see everything working in the way it should -- though the fact you can't see your own knees when you look down is something that continually bugs me in this kind of game. Swing your camera over to the side and instead of your head turning 180 degrees Exorcist-style, your viewpoint will actually lean out of the window and look behind you, complete with a change in how audible the sounds of your truck and the environment are. Authenticity.
I honestly have no idea how long I'll stick with Euro Truck Simulator 2 in the long-term, but I was both surprised and delighted to discover it was an experience that has considerably more value and potential for enjoyment beyond the initial "woo! I'm driving a truck!" phase. If you've been pondering checking out one of these curiously specific games with "Simulator" in the title when you've seen them around, Euro Truck Simulator 2 is certainly well worth at least a few hours of your time -- and you might even find yourself hooked on the process of dominating Europe with your haulage empire.
Now, I must be off; the light is fading, and there's a farmer in Frankfurt who desperately needs the tractor I've got hitched to my trailer.
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