Sunday, February 10, 2013

Truck Pun #124

It's remarkably difficult to find a driving simulation. There are plenty of racing games that endeavour to simulate (Gran Turismo, Forza, various incarnations of F1), and driving games that don't, usually because the driving is more of a way to pad set-pieces than an end in itself (GTA and Saints Row stand out here, though the customisation and sheer size of the latter franchise lends itself well to long drives), but games that simulate driving on ordinary streets in ordinary cars are few and far between.

A few have tried. In the console world Test Drive Unlimited did a pretty good job of an open-world driving experience, but was let down by a lack of reality in the cars themselves. Forza Horizon is probably the best expression of the sub-genre, but like TDU it still revolves around racing as the core of the experience: so, no traffic lights, roundabouts or unexpected contraflows.

You can fake it, to some extent. In Forza Horizon cars do indicate (although you can't), and the world is large and detailed enough to be worth exploring within the speed limits. The in-car view is exceptional, and the addition of a handful of right-hand drive cars (which Americans apparently loathe going by the forums, perhaps missing the point of the import tuner scene) makes it almost realistic for a Brit. But one still has to drive on the wrong side of the Colorado highways. In fact, I've only found one game in all of Console Christendom that lets you drive on the left in traffic, and that's the Hong Kong-set GTA knockoff Sleeping Dogs. Not bad, but no cockpit view.

Needless to say, my quest for a console driving sim has been driven (ha) by real-life events, the aforementioned (actually, twice aforementioned - I managed to forget the first time I posted about that and repeated myself somewhat) driving lessons. With no car of my own (and no available parent to watch me drive) I had no opportunity to practice outside of lessons so I wanted to find an alternative - something just realistic enough to help me practice British roundabouts. Having been failed by the console world, I broke with lifelong habit and sought a PC game... which I also failed to find.

I can't imagine why a driving simulator set in the UK is such a rarity: the pass rate for UK driving tests is 42% and learner insurance absurdly expensive. Can there really be no market for this?

Well anyway, I did find one in the end, sort of. Euro Truck Simulator 2 (yes, this is a a real thing that really exists) has UK roads and rules, right-hand drive, cockpit view and no necessity to race. It's also - and this surprised me as much as it will you - the most insanely addictive game I've ever played. This dragged me away from Skyrim. Seriously.

It's as near to a a lorry-driver RPG as you could imagine: there is XP, levelling, day/night cycles, customisable trucks (with real-life manufacturers), little popups saying "You have discovered Grimsby" and the like... once you've got the hang of motorway driving between industrial estates (which is the bulk of the game, and like NASCAR a lot harder than it sounds) the game opens up, rapidly becoming a business simulation as you hire drivers and expand your garage. European countries - with their own signage and road rules - are unlocked, and seem to have a lot less rain than we do. Best of all, you can listen to online streaming radio via the cab of your truck as you drive, which is how I was introduced to Radio Antenne Niedersachsen, which I liked so much I installed the app on my phone.

Yes, it's all nerdy as hell, but ETS2 is one of a whole bunch of real-life job sims (Agricultural Simulator 2013, anyone?) that understand a fundamental truth of game theory: more or less any activity that has goals, a skill requirement and complexity can be turned into a video game. Remember Tapper, or Burger Time? They were classic gamifications of onerous real-life activities, and way more fun than the real thing.

I think it took me playing a proper simulator to make me appreciate how far games have strayed from real life in recent years: games are seen as an escape from humdrum life into an impossible world. Maybe it's just as compelling to escape into somebody else's humdrum life.

Either way, I passed my driving test last week. Without Euro Truck Simulator 2 and Forza Horizon, I probably wouldn't have.

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