The Premise: Hey, you play ‘real’ games/And this is crazy/But Minsk needs lumber/So haul me maybe?
Is it any good?: So, I’m approximately two hours out of Stuttgart hauling twenty-five tons of industrial grade acid and listening to some kind of Slavic Nu-Metal on the radio. It’s a short-notice job and I’m running late, so I’m pushing the cab as fast as I can get away with then squeezing out some HP on top of that. One misjudged corner means damage and delay, which means less money, but I can’t slow down if I’m going to make the deadline. It’s the middle of the night, raindrops hammering the windshield almost in mockery of the overwhelmed wipers, and to top it all off sleep deprivation is messing with my vision. It won’t be too long before the microsleeps start to kick in and it’ll be me, 25-plus tons of steel and corrosive disaster, and five-second blackouts.
I just need two more hours…
This is me some thirty-odd hours into Euro Truck Simulator 2. Yes, it’s good. It’s very good. Scary good. I-never-saw-it-coming good.
Like all overnight sensations, SCS Software’s success has been built on years of solid but mostly unsung work, slowly building a cult following with their 18 Wheels of Steel and Hunting Unlimited franchises. It’s with 2008’s Euro Truck Simulator, however, that the cult began to filter out into the mainstream and SCS’s reputation began to grow. With the release of the much-improved Euro Truck Simulator 2 in 2012, the series has steadily turned from an ironic Steam sale buy into arguably one of the first true phenomena of the digital distribution age.
The premise is simple: You start the game as an independent truck driver, and asked to select a starting city in one of the major European cities. You get a crappy little garage and have to do quick jobs to raise the money to buy your own truck.
Once you have a steel steed of your own you can enter the freight market proper, levelling up and gaining access to bigger, more difficult jobs for bigger money. Before long you’re earning enough to get a bank loan for new trucks, drivers, and eventually more garages, and slowly build a trucking empire.
So far, so prosaic, right? Well as it turns out, schlepping around driving cargo turns out to actually be pretty fun. The funny thing is, all of the things that make the games sound boring are absolutely true: you’re driving around at (mostly) sensible speeds, obeying the rules of the road while doing a little business management on the side. The more you play though, the more the game sucks you in; hire your first driver, and that involvement quickly becomes flat-out, gnashing addiction.
So what’s Euro Truck Simulator 2’s secret? Stockholm Syndrome? Subliminal hypnosis? Crack fumes sifted through your graphics card?
The answer, surprisingly, is much simpler than any of that. It comes down to pacing and smart design, with a dash of the appeal of the new. For starters, it’s simply refreshing to drive a vehicle in a game and not be expected to thrash it around at unrealistic speeds. It’s become so much part of the language of games that to be expected to drive in a halfway realistic manner becomes a breath of fresh air, especially when the deadlines for deliveries start to get tight and you need to balance timeliness with staying rested.
Fatigue is initially represented by a darkening of the screen, but at its worst can result in several-second long blackouts that can result in careening off the road, or into other vehicles. While it’s not possible to completely total your rig as far as I can tell, crashes invariably result in jamming your trailer between walls, other cars or the landscape in general. This means a lot of time wasted inching yourself free and/or an expensive tow. It’s a risk/reward mechanic that isn’t shoved down your throat, but adds an extra layer of decision-making and consequence (Especially when turning off the speed limiter in the options, which is technically less realistic but gives further scope for courting disaster for the sake of making a deadline).
But even when you’re not hurrying against the clock, driving itself is an entertaining pursuit with SCS’s clever map design condensing the various European countries while retaining the atmosphere of these places. They change the scenery often enough and believably enough to not only keep you engaged with your surroundings, but make you feel like you’ve travelled much further than the parameters of the actual map. Throw in some well-implemented HDR lighting, and you get a game that’s actually quite beautiful to behold.
But there’s more to it than clever map design and pretty lighting. There’s something about the pace of the game that makes it the kind of genuinely relaxing experience developers usually shy away from. It sits at that perfect level between gentleness and pressure that massages the brain, keeping it active but also somewhat at peace. It’s the perfect game for listening to podcasts or internet radio (In fact the game allows you to access a plethora of European stations online), putting in you in that perfect zone for multitasking.
In fact, the only other game I’ve ever found that compares to this – and you’ll need to bear with me a bit on this one – is the original Game Boy version of Tetris. Back in the days before the Tetris Company decreed that the game needed to be cranked to Panic Speed as soon as you get a couple of lines, Tetris was a game of gentle escalation that didn’t really start to get challenging until around the 100-line mark. The early stages were slow, methodical, an opportunity for the experienced player to rack up some Tetrises, correct any mistakes and get ‘in the zone’ before the intensity ratcheted up. This calming pace was never nailed as perfectly as in the Game Boy version, and was at its best when accompanied with music or, in later years, a DVD commentary or podcast.
That’s right, I just compared Euro Truck Simulator 2 to Tetris. But it really does invoke that same, almost zen-like feel. Sure, you get your stressful moments (Which inspire anecdotes like the one at the top of this article) but the gentle pace gives you space to prepare yourself for them, and it’s never long before the crisis is resolved one way or another and you’re onto the next job. They simply become part of the overall experience rather than the jarring prods of danger us ADD-ridden gamers are used to. The game flows, and invites you to do the same.
Bonus Points: The Euro Truck Simulator games are incredibly mod-friendly, with everything downloadable from truck skins to reworked physics, to entire new countries. In addition, SCS have announced that they will be providing map expansions for ETS2 as DLC. SCS are also developing a version of the game for Oculus Rift. If anyone needs me, I’ll be in the corner drooling.
Rumours have also abounded that SCS’s next major release is to be American Truck Simulator, going back to their U.S.-centric 18 Wheels of Steel roots. You better believe I’m naming my first rig the Pork Chop Express.
MOAR LIKE THIS PLZ: 18 Wheels of Steel series, Train Simulator series, European Bus Simulator, Desert Bus (Because we’re all thinking it).