You might have taken one look at the title of American Truck Simulator and laughed it off, and who could blame you? The word “simulator” has been overused to the point of ridicule over the last few years, and prior to that could mostly be found on some of the least interesting software known to man.
But ATS isn’t like that. It’s the sequel to the much-celebrated Euro Truck Simulator 2, and it’s worthy of serious consideration if you like driving games. I donned my trucker hat to see whether ATS is worth your time, and I’m utterly hooked.
It’s An RPG, Puzzle Game & Simulation
In terms of simulating the feeling of driving a great big truck, ATS achieves what it sets out to do. Coming straight off the back of Euro Truck Simulator, this shouldn’t surprise you — the handling and driving mechanics are the most refined aspects of the game, and hurtling down the freeway with a trailer load of fireworks feels better than it sounds. The handling is satisfyingly sluggish, exacting but undeniably heavy — just the way it should be.
But there’s more to ATS than simply driving trucks. Developers SCS Software have also added RPG elements to keep you hungry for more. Completing jobs, discovering locations, and even parking your truck in the right place earns you XP, which in turn levels your character up. Each time you level up you unlock a skill, which in turn provides you with more varied jobs, and the chance to earn even more money.
You can, for example, become proficient in delivering high value or fragile cargo. You can unlock dangerous goods licenses, become an increasingly long distance trucker, or choose to level up your fuel efficiency in order to save money. There’s no right way to play the game, and just like any other RPG you can pretty much do it your way. Once you’ve earned enough money (or decided to take on a bank loan) you can buy your own truck, and grow your empire — taking on more expenses, but unlocking the ability to earn much more money with each job. In that sense, it’s a business simulation too.
SCS even provided a puzzle element in the form of parking challenges. When you complete a job, you can choose to dump the trailer and let someone else deal with it (netting you no extra XP), play it safe by dropping it off in an easy location (a small bonus) or show off your articulated reverse-parking skills by expertly placing the trailer in a tough spot.
It Might Be The Best Looking Sim Yet
While great graphics do not a good game make, ATS shakes off the flat and lifeless visual aesthetic that dull-sounding simulations are traditionally known for. Being the newest simulation from a company that makes some of the best examples of the genre, we can probably conclude that ATS is the best-looking “mundane” simulation yet.
Graphically, there are a few nice touches for you to appreciate from the comfort of your cab. There’s a full day-night cycle, and you’ll see plenty of sunsets and early mornings thanks to the shrunken time scale. Rays of sun crest over hills, pierce the tree line and the resulting glare reduces your visibility just enough to look pretty without being too debilitating. Rain and thunderstorms will have you reaching for your windscreen wipers so you can see where you’re going, while hitting your main beam headlights sends dazzling rays onto the road ahead, scattering light across the empty deserts you find yourself navigating at 4am.
Cities and landmarks have just enough detail, with the lights of Las Vegas and San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge each making an appearance. There’s even a Hollywood sign in Los Angeles (though it doesn’t say Hollywood for licensing reasons). That said, the game is also pretty scaleable in terms of hardware. I’m running it on an old MacBook Pro from mid-2012, at the highest resolution (with just enough detail) and the game still runs at a respectable framerate. If you have a modern or fairly well-specced machine, you’ll get silky smooth performance on ultra settings because it’s not really that demanding.
There’s Plenty of Depth & Detail
Simulation-wise, the game is as realistic and detailed as you’d like it to be. I’ve been using a PS4 controller with semi-automatic gearing, and I’ve had no difficulties getting my truck to go where I want it to. Any crashes or damage I’ve caused has been a result of me looking away from the screen, taking a corner too quickly, or attempting a last minute lane change because I’m about to miss my exit. I’d probably recommend you get yourself a cheap gamepad or use any wired Xbox 360 or regular PS4 controllers you have lying around, but if you want to use a keyboard and mouse then you can do so fairly comfortably.
On the other end of the spectrum there’s support for most driving wheels and accessories, including H-shifters if you’re a fan of manual gearing. There’s a million-and-one buttons for each and every function — your horn, flashing your lights, controlling your trip computer, cycling radio stations — but you can get away with using only a handful for most jobs. After you’ve played for a while, you’ll find yourself thinking “I wonder if there’s a button for that…” and lo and behold, there is.
The game manages to scratch RPG-like itches by incentivizing the mundane. You’ll get rewarded for discovering new cities and businesses along the way. Until you’ve actually driven on a road, it will remain grayed out on your map; and you can’t buy from all dealerships immediately — you’ll need to discover them by driving past first. The leveling and XP system provides a clear sense of progression that gives the game a purpose beyond just ticking the right boxes for a few anoraks.
The world isn’t just a dull canvas on which to haul trailers either, and there’s a definite sense of life within the game world — which isn’t necessarily true for past games with the word “simulator” in the title. Pedestrians walk the streets and stand around building sites, and many of the construction yards, supermarkets and industrial facilities you find yourself driving past actually function as delivery and departure points for other jobs.
It’s Cheap, With More Free DLC on the Way
It’s true that the game world in American Truck Simulator feels a bit small, as you only get the two scaled-down US states of California and Nevada to begin with. Nevada is actually classified as free launch DLC, and there were only two trucks included when the game first launched, thanks to licensing problems with manufacturers like Volvo.
The developers have now added the Kenworth W900 to the game as free DLC, with more releases planned. Anyone who buys ATS will get the next DLC expansion for free, which will add the state of Arizona to the game which effectively increases the size of the game world by a third. It’s likely more states will be added gradually over time as they are built, though it’s not clear if any more of these will be free.
Though three trucks and two states might seem like a rough deal, the game is only $20. In a world where most brand new games cost three times that, while many similarly-priced indie titles provide far less in terms of scope and sheer playtime; it feels like pretty good value. It’s also actually cheaper than the price its predecessor, Euro Truck Simulator 2 launched at — which is still normally priced a few dollars higher.
Mods & Music Galore
The inclusion of a carefully-chosen list of Internet radio stations is a stroke of genius, as it removes the requirement to license music while providing a geographically-accurate list of stations to listen to while on the road. There’s pretty much every genre catered for, but it’s the hard hitting classic rock anthems that sound best on 18-wheels. I even found myself leaving on songs that I’d normally never listen to, and I’m not entirely sure why. You can import your own music if you really want to, but it’s more fun to mark a few favorites and flick through them.
After you’ve purchased a truck, you’re free to make modifications to it. Some drastically change the look of your rig, like buying a new cab or fancy paint job; others seem utterly pointless like new door handles and upgraded wing mirrors. This is an entirely optional way of blowing all your cash, but I’m sure glad they added so much variety.
Last but certainly not least — Euro Truck Simulator 2 is one of the most-modded simulations of all time. The community has dedicated serious time and effort creating new trucks, more maps, mods that improve realism, tweaks to graphics and texture packs; producing gigabytes of content that will keep your game varied for years to come. Developers have even included a mod manager in-game, which you can use to enable or disable modifications with ease.
Even though the game has only been available for a few weeks, work has already commenced on converting many ETS2 mods to ATS, with a few completely original mods (like the addition or sandstorms to desert areas) springing up too. Keep an eye on the official ATS2 mods forum for the latest releases.
On The Road Again
You may have already written ATS off as just another boring simulator for nerds, but you’d be wrong. You don’t have to take my word for it either — there is a now a demo available on Steam, which is playable on Windows, Mac and Linux.
Have you got your trucker tan yet?