American Truck Simulator Review - More of the Same Great Game

Published: April 21, 2016 10:00 AM /

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I have fond memories of my childhood experiences with the Boys & Girls Club summer program. Among them were the times we would be riding on the "Cheese Buses" (as we called them) and pumping our hands at passing truck drivers hoping that they would notice us and honk their awesomely loud airhorns. Nearly every time they were more than happy to oblige and wave at the kids from the city going on a field trip somewhere in the great state of New Jersey. I'd wonder what it was like to drive one of those great trains of the road, and American Truck Simulator (developed and published by SCS Software) is about the best I can hope for short of getting my CDL.

I had previously purchased Euro Truck Simulator 2 after watching various YouTubers play the game. It looked like an awfully good driving game, and the fifty-five hours that I have in the title preceding American Truck Simulator should be evidence enough that there's something interesting there. Much like Gollum and The One Ring, I've grown to both love and hate the quirks of Europe's road systems. There are the right-hand exits that are practically right angles, the multiple traffic signs that I don't understand as an American, and the roundabouts that I inevitably elect to plow through as there's no hope of maneuvering around them properly.

I'd first heard of American Truck Simulator being developed a couple of years ago and I was rather excited to play it. I enjoyed the amount of time I had put in Euro Truck Simulator 2, so even if it were more of the same, I'd think that it would be quite an enjoyable experience. I've since found that American Truck Simulator is indeed more of the same, but not without a good number of improvements compared to its predecessor.

County roads provided a nice break from minor annoyances like other people and traffic lights.
County roads provided a nice break from minor annoyances like other people and traffic lights.

The game begins with you choosing a starting location for your garage. You have a handful of cities to choose from between either California or Nevada. Once you've set up your character and chosen your starting location, you can select from a variety of different one-off jobs using a company truck.

Your first goal is to purchase a truck of your own. This makes it possible for you to free roam and explore at your leisure, and the profit margins for running Freight independently are much better than picking up odd jobs here and there.

So, you will drive from place to place doing jobs and hopefully keeping your traffic citations to a minimum. You'll be able to buy new garages, stock them with trucks, and hire other drivers to work for your company. An in-game bank will lend you money at relatively fair interest rates to help you get started. In both American Truck Simulator and Euro Truck Simulator 2, I had toyed with the idea of eschewing a loan entirely and earning all of my money upfront, but both games can be terrifically slow to start in terms of earnings. The interest rate that you'll have to pay is, in my opinion, more than balanced out by the increased earning potential from having multiple trucks and drivers in play.

That's the basics of the game. Drive around doing some odd jobs, get your own truck, buy another garage, buy trucks for the garage, and then finally hire drivers. When that garage fills up, buy another. In the twenty hours on the road (and an additional ten hours or so looking over menus, managing my business, and more) I had a Level 12 truck for myself and three starter trucks with drivers in a second garage. I could have played for two hundred hours and had essentially the same experience save for unlocking more trucks and skill points as I leveled up. American Truck Simulator is a very open-ended sandbox. With only two out of fifty states in the game, it's likely that we'll be seeing more of the Continental United States in the future. (Indeed, the game technically is only the state of California with the Nevada expansion added in for free.)

SCS Software had a similar model of expanding the map, trucks, and gameplay with Euro Truck Simulator 2 and it will surely come into play again here. Of particular note is that the trucks in American Truck Simulator are listed under DLC - it makes me wonder if they have the intention of selling future trucks outright as opposed to keeping DLC options to new cargo types, paint jobs, and expansions of the map. We'll have to wait and see as they've had some difficulty with licensing from American truck manufacturers - the game as it is only has Peterbilt and Kenworth trucks in. That said, my experience with SCS Software is that they've been quite good with constantly updating their games and adding new content as the years go by. I wouldn't be surprised if you could drive through all Fifty States in American Truck Simulator by 2020 or so.

There's a whole lotta road in American Truck Simulator. Thankfully it doesn't feel as cramped as some of the European roads!
There's a whole lotta road in American Truck Simulator. Thankfully it doesn't feel as cramped as some of the European roads!

Speaking of the States, California and Nevada are pretty faithfully recreated in a smaller sort of scale. It's nowhere near 1:1 of course, as that would be a monumentally insane endeavor that would take hundreds of people several years to create, and I doubt anyone other than the most dedicated of trucking enthusiasts would want to do a fourteen hour haul in real time. SCS Software has also managed to put in several nods to American Businesses and culture. For example, UPS and FedEx trucks are a common sight in any major American city and they've taken the time to include "Brand X" versions of them in the game.

The roads aren't perfect, of course. Many of the highway on-ramps have Yield signs. This means that you have to wait for an opening in traffic at the top of the ramp. America's fifty states can be as different as the dozens of countries in Europe or Asia so I thought that a full-speed on-ramp being a rarity might just be how things are in California and Nevada. I did take the time to consult with some friends who live in that area and they've generally agreed that an on-ramp with a Yield is comparatively rare to its occurrence in the game. That said, I imagine that the smaller scale of the map necessitates some breaks from reality in this respect and it likely comes down to a matter of putting the world together (though it could also be a lacking of understanding on their part for how the roads tend to be in those states).

I also encountered a device that I had seen for the first time in my life in Euro Truck Simulator 2. One lane of a two-lane road was under construction and so opposite directions of traffic had to take turns using the one open lane by means of a portable traffic light stationed on either end. I had accepted this as a neat innovation that exists in Europe as I have never in my life seen one of these in America (and my Californian friends hadn't, either). I've been all over the Northeastern United States with hundreds of hours on the road and never seen anything like that at all; we would have a man with a flag waving vehicles through a few at a time. Whether it is ignorance on their part, asset reuse, or a deliberate design choice for the sake of convenience is unknown to me, but seeing a traffic light in a construction zone was a bit of a weird thing that I hadn't really ever encountered.

California traffic is just like this except there's about ten times more cars.
California traffic is just like this except there's about ten times more cars.

While we're on the topic of traffic lights, the citation system in American Truck Simulator is a bit schizophrenic. Thankfully, it's not as bad as Euro Truck Simulator 2 has been in previous years but there are still quite a few glaring issues. For instance, you will always get dinged for running a red light no matter where you are. The America of American Truck Simulator is some Orwellian nightmare where every single traffic light is watched 24/7 by some mysterious force, and yet I was able to run Stop signs and fail to indicate turns with impunity. You would only receive a "Wrong Way Offense" if you were in the wrong lane and another car witnessed you - just any other car, not a police car. Speeding seemed to be enforced only by police cars - if you were over the limit you would see a police car light up and the infraction pop up on your GPS. To make things worse, there are occasionally missing Speed Limit signs that indicate the speed has changed. In my experience, I was most often caught out being at too high of a speed within the boundaries of a town and not having noticed that the GPS indicated a lower speed limit.

To be fair to the game, things have improved greatly since launch. Speed infractions used to be much more costly, so much so that players were complaining about them and SCS Software tuned them down in American Truck Simulator. That was very good of them, but I feel this is one of the biggest missed opportunities of the game. Running stop signs, red lights, and speeding should all be calculated risks that only blow up in your face when there happens to be a police car or a red-light camera with its trademark pulsed flash. As it is, you have to remember what you can get away with and what you cannot regardless of witnesses.

There's plenty of charts and stat pages in the game to help you manage your virtual trucking business.
There's plenty of charts and stat pages in the game to help you manage your virtual trucking business.

Colliding into other vehicles will not only damage your vehicle but earn you a financial penalty for doing so. The A.I. of American Truck Simulator has been improved a good deal - longtime players can tell you horror stories of the nightmarish A.I. in Euro Truck Simulator 2 which will ram into your much larger truck with seemingly no regard for their own lives. Thankfully this has been largely resolved in both games, but I will still meet the occasional suicidal Prius facsimile that feels it's a good idea to ram into me while I'm turning into a lane with more than enough room for them to stop - and then the game has the audacity to fine me for it! Thankfully, the A.I.'s stupidity is usually relegated to being the most cautious person to ever sit at an intersection and taking seemingly forever to decide to turn or pull onto a highway.

I'm also not terribly fond of the "sleeping" system in the game. To be fair, I haven't taken the time to reach out to real-world truckers and ask them if they start to doze off after 14 hours straight driving, and I'm happy to concede that this is a resource-management element of the gameplay that might take some mild breaks from reality. However, the world of American Truck Simulator is one where coffee does not exist. The only way to fight off fatigue (which can eventually cause you to pass out at the wheel while driving and is generally not a good thing) is by sleeping. You can only sleep for a certain amount of time, never any less. Alarm clocks also do not exist in American Truck Simulator, it seems, and it's one of the most frustrating elements of the game to me. I want to be able to take more calculated risks by taking another job immediately after finishing one, catching a two hour nap, and hoping that I don't pass out at the wheel. Unfortunately, the way sleep is handled in this game seems rather straightforward and not terribly nuanced, and I feel this too is another missed opportunity to add some depth to the title.

One final nitpick that I just have to get in is the Quick Travel system. If you have two garages you can "warp" between them which is helpful for saving time when you're travelling between jobs and want to start a new job in another region. Time passes while you are using Quick Travel, but the game doesn't tell you how much time will pass before you do it. You have to remember from how long it took previously. I'm not certain whether it's a flat rate of time or whether it's based on the distance between two points as I only had two garages by the time I was finished with the game.

I just had to pull over and get this shot of a satellite array with my Level 12 truck. I probably should have taken the time to actually stop my truck, though.
I just had to pull over and get this shot of a satellite array with my Level 12 truck. I probably should have taken the time to actually stop my truck, though.

As for the driving itself, it feels as great as it did in Euro Truck Simulator 2. What was particularly striking to me is how I forgot about the differing tiers of trucks. My initial vehicle was a bit on the slow side and took forever to accelerate. Once I reached Level 12 and was able to purchase the next tier of truck things really picked up. It was much more spry (as trucks go) and definitely felt like it was worth the investment.

In terms of the sound and music, well... I didn't listen to any. American Truck Simulator offers you the option to play local files from your computer, but I elected to go with listening to podcasts while I drove around. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy American Truck Simulator and Euro Truck Simulator 2 so much. There's something relaxing about driving down a facsimile of a country road in the middle of the night while you're listening to a podcast. I fondly recalled memories of road trips while talk radio or news was in the background. In fact, the only issue I took with the sound whatsoever was that the splash screen at the start of the game practically blows out my eardrums every time and I haven't figured out a way to lower that volume in particular.

Graphically, American Truck Simulator did not disappoint me. I had everything set to the highest settings and thought that objects in the mirror were vanishing a bit early. I found that you can get into a good deal of customization and was able to resolve this issue entirely. It's quite a pretty game. The trucks themselves (both exterior and interior) are recreated lovingly by SCS Software, and the customization options you're offered were pretty expansive. It didn't seem to me (at a casual glance, anyway) that there were as many options as there are in Euro Truck Simulator 2, but then again that game has had years of additional development and DLC to expand upon the original title. In time, the selection of customization in American Truck Simulator is sure to improve as well.

American Truck Simulator Bottom Bumper

All in all, I had a few problems with American Truck Simulator. These minor annoyances were really the only bad things about an otherwise fantastic game. Should you buy it? Well, they have a demo and you can try it for yourself. Drive around for a while, and if you like it, the game is going to be basically a whole bunch of that. If you've liked Euro Truck Simulator 2, you're sure to enjoy this title as well. Treat it as an American expansion pack under a different name.

American Truck Simulator was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher. You can buy American Truck Simulator for $19.99 or your regional equivalent on Steam or directly from SCS Software (though it will still require a Steam account).

What do you think of American Truck Simulator? Do you have any interest in driving games like this, or would you prefer to be racing around in a sports car? Let us know in the comments below!

Review Summary

American Truck Simulator is a great game for listening to podcasts while driving around a virtual simulacrum of Nevada and California. It has some flaws, but the overall presentation was fantastic and very enjoyable. (Review Policy)

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More Info About This Game
Learn more about American Truck Simulator
SCS Software
SCS Software
Release Date
February 2, 2016 (Calendar)
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