American Truck Simulator

SCS Software returns to the shores of the United States with their highly anticipated American Truck Simulator

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Released in early February (2016), American Truck Simulator (ATS) brings the feel of Euro Truck Simulator 2 to North American audiences. At a release price of $19.99, ATS provides great gameplay value for the initial investment. SCS no doubt anticipates additional revenue from DLC that will likely include different vehicles, custom cargo, and expanded map areas. For those that want to take a look and get the feel of the game, SCS has offered a demo that includes a limited number of jobs and a limited demo area: DEMO HERE

Initial impressions

After purchasing and downloading ATS from Steam, I fired up the game to gather some initial impressions. While I own Euro Truck Simulator 2, I’ve probably only spent a few hours with it, so I would be approaching ATS from a novice viewpoint. On opening the game, you are presented with menus to create a profile with a character photo, a truck, and company logo and name.

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Difficulty levels can be tailored to your preferences and hardware. I’ve been playing the game using an X-Box wireless PC controller and it works great. I have a Logitech MOMO that would no doubt be a better choice, but I haven’t wanted to swap out hardware on my desk lately, so I have no reports on how it works with that. The selections include different shifting options that range from automatic to actual sequential shifting and other controls such as trailer brakes that can be assigned to your hardware.

In the career mode you select a home garage for your new company. Other areas of the map have upgraded garage facilities that you can purchase once you earn enough money and grow your company.

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When you launch a career you only have a limited amount of money, so you typically start out by driving jobs for other companies to build up cash. You can select routes that appeal to your desire to explore the map, or you can go for maximum cash per mile, or perhaps you want to drive a certain type of cargo – it is up to you. Route length and type of cargo determines the payment and allows you to tailor your session length to the time you have available.

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In the cab

Once you select a job you are plopped into the cab of the truck you have been contracted to drive. If you are driving a job for another operator (using their equipment) then you are instantly placed in their rig at the start location with the trailer already hooked up. Later in the game, when you buy (or lease) your own truck, you will be responsible for driving to and from the job locations, so that is an important consideration when selecting where you choose jobs. The truck cab is nicely detailed and there are many adjustments to positions and displays that you can set. (I have not tried TrackIR yet!) Exterior views include top down views, tire views, panning views, drive-by, and a few others that will help you maneuver your truck into tight spaces.

During your first drives, tips and hints will pop-up to introduce you to the game mechanics and features. I elected to use the “Real Automatic” driving mode, which simplifies driving to just using my controller button to select reverse, neutral, and drive while the automatic transmission handled gear shifting. The X-Box controller works great by assigning steering and accel/brake axes that allow for fine control of the truck. While truck control difficulty is fairly scalable, the game sort of stays consistent in it’s driving difficulty. For instance, my first job had a fairly tight maneuvering exit from the trailer dock that required a very slow and methodical approach – a lot of fun for sure, but I was surprised that the game didn’t start off a bit easier.

On screen aids include a GPS with route prediction capability and a moving map. Also included are icons to select damage reports, the status of the current job, e-mails, and roadside assistance in case you damage something or need repair. A status bar indicates truck health, driver fatigue, and time of day. Your account balance is also reflected, giving you a good gauge of your financial status at all times. When driving for another company, fuel is paid for, so you don’t have to worry about that expense.

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Driving on my computer was silky smooth with maximum rendering options enabled. The environments are very nice and half of the fun is driving to new areas of the map to explore how SCS modeled the different regions. As one would expect, the urban areas are full of traffic, stoplights, buildings, and congestion. As you leave cities, the terrain gradually changes to reflect the new area you are driving to. Thus, driving through California and Nevada you encounter deserts, mountains, dirt roads, straight highways, twisty mountain passes, and all manner of different scenery. The Pacific Coast Highway is a beautiful seaside road that snakes along the coast and upon entering cities such as Oakland and San Francisco you are greeted with local landmarks that are approximations of the real thing.

The entire driving area is scaled down to give a sense of long distances without the requisite hours behind the wheel. I’m not sure of what exactly the scale is, but miles tick off at about one every few seconds and time acceleration is constant so that you get periods of dawn, day, dusk, and night throughout the longer deliveries. Typical mission lengths are anywhere between 10 and 30 real time minutes depending on the length of the route you select. Atmospheric lighting, shadows, glare, and HDR are very well done in the sim, giving a great sense of the environment. Penalties are assessed if you don’t turn your headlights on as dusk turns to night – so take care to get those lights on. Driving on darkened country roads and through the forest can be really cool and you sort of feel like this sim should take on a horror movie aspect at some points as you wander through some of the more desolate areas of the map. The weather will occasionally change and driving through the rain with wipers thumping will soon have you humming the classic  Eddie Rabbit song

Making that money

The gameplay in career mode is centered around making money and gaining experience, then turning around and reinvesting both the money and the experience points into further building your character, equipment, and business (as well as repaying debts!). The game is chock full of ways to trick out your truck, including engines, transmissions, interior options, etc.  As you earn money, you can buy your own truck and start to mod it with the money you earn. To help you out, you can expect to receive offers from banks to loan you a certain amount of money. As you gain experience, the banks will want to loan you even more money. Obviously, you must make enough money on your transports to pay the bank back, provide for fuel, maintenance, and upgrades if you are modifying your truck with more advanced parts. Making enough money is not all that difficult to do, but requires an investment of time and hauling goods. It’s not all just driving point A to point B though – as you’ll get deductions from your account for damaging other vehicles, speeding, traffic violations, and things such as tolls and fuel. Fortunately, the game is pretty balanced in that it doesn’t automatically fine you for exceeding the speed limit – there is some buffer there to go over the speed limit. Turning right on red without signaling can earn you a ticket as well.

 

As you drive through the map areas, you will also discover new businesses and opportunities. Truck dealers, service shops, banks, rest areas, and employment agencies will soon start populating your map. At service areas, you can spend your cash to upgrade your truck, or you can wait until you are back at your home base. For those that want to get into management, and help grow their business faster, you can recruit other drivers, buy more equipment, and purchase a bigger home base. Keep an eye on your in-game e-mail for offers and specials from banks and possible employers that have lucrative jobs. I haven’t become big enough to hire anyone yet, so I can’t really comment on how that component works, but I’m guessing it is just like running any business – earn more revenue than expenses and you’ll be good to go.

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Earning money and experience can vary according to how you drive, the route you take, and some of the options you select. As you gain experience points, you can apply those points to build skill levels that will unlock more types of missions (high value, fragile, HAZMAT, etc.). All of the levels and points are explained in detail on the menus, so there is a lot of depth to the game beyond just driving cargo around and trying not to hit things. One of my favorite parts of the game (and one no doubt many people will skip) is the actual delivery portion of each mission. Upon reaching the delivery point, you are given the option of just skipping the parking, taking an easy parking space, or really putting the trailer exactly where the recipient wants it. The hardest option gives you the most experience points, allowing you to ramp up the accessible missions faster. Some of the delivery points are pretty tight, and you risk damaging your cargo or truck in the process, but it is fun stuff learning to park these big rigs. It is a bit of a shame that physical damage to your rig isn’t reflected on the 3D model.

While your truck requires maintenance, fuel, and maybe the occasional upgrade, the driver can only perform if he is well rested and alert. A fatigue system is in place that shows a colored symbol as you become more tired. Just in case you don’t monitor the symbol, an audible yawning sound (which scared me the first time I heard it) is played to caution you that you need to find a stopping place. Rest areas and hotels are scattered across the map, allowing you to pull in and get some sleep. Why is this a consideration? Because for some hauls you are given a certain amount of time, and while the time allocations are very generous, a broken down truck, or taking a wrong route could cause you to run up against that time. Throw in a weary driver and you could lose the job. If you decide to ignore the yawning, eventually your driver will start to micro-sleep for short periods and the screen will go dim. Running into the back of another truck or running off the road will quickly earn you several thousand dollars worth of damage, so ignoring sleep is to flirt with disaster. If you are struggling to stay awake, perhaps tuning in to the radio stations that are streamed live from various sources on the internet will help you stay focused.

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Play it your way

Now, ATS is probably not a game for everyone – it does involve fairly repetitive activity. Flight sims could borrow a page from the career building aspect of the game though in that you do become vested in your character, your company, and equipment. It would be nice to see a flight sim approach the “gamer” portion of their audience with a similar resource and experience building model. That said, you can just drive single transport missions all day long in ATS and not worry about the deeper aspects of the game, or you can dive headlong into building up a huge shipping business – the choice really is yours. I’m unable to comment specifically about the more advanced career options available, such as hiring drivers and buying more trucks, since I’m still working my way up the ladder.

Coming soon….

According to SCS – the next state expansion will be free to all ATS owners and will feature the state of Arizona. There are also apparently plans for a Collectors Edition boxed version that will have some additional merchandise within. SCS has alluded that the paid DLC success or failure will ultimately determine how far the ATS map stretches – with hints of the Arctic Circle, driving to the East Coast, and South toward the equator. It isn’t hard to imagine all of the fantastic areas they could model with such diverse environments.

Conclusion

American Truck Simulator is a perfect time waster that has some nice hooks to get you involved. Exploration, career building, precise driving, and a polished piece of software with what looks to be long term support and expansion (at a cost of course) promise to give this game/sim legs well into the future. As well, mods are already becoming available to tweak your ATS experience to your liking. It would appear that SCS is in it for…..uh…the long haul..!

Chris “BeachAV8R” Frishmuth

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