Love letter to Euro Truck Simulator 2 from confinement

Euro Truck Simulator 2 hides a real game under a deceivingly austere look. I fell for it for contextual reasons, but I stayed with it for its qualities.

As a foreword, I’m a late Maxis/Bullfrog fan. I dived into SimCity 2000, SimIsle, then Theme Park, Theme Hospital and Dungeon Keeper. They all are simulations, but abstracted enough to be accessible. Well, all except SimIsle whose paper manual was thicker than the case of the CD-ROM the game came on.

Since, I’ve tried a bunch of drier simulators. Car Mechanic, Airport, Construction, Farming, Mining & Tunneling… Many of them were low-quality gotten cheap in game bundles, but even the better ones didn’t capture me for long.

I’ve known Euro Truck Simulator and its sequel for years, but given my history with Simulator games and the relative unappealing subject, I never gave it much thought. My first contact with the game was a YouTube video of a mod that allows up to 4 chained trailers and the trickiness of maneuvering them in traffic. Aside from taking the game to an extreme, it really didn’t look like much. I eventually got it as part of a game bundle, but again let it aside for a while.

Until I started self-confining during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Anxious and bored out of my mind, I looked for a low-energy game I could mindlessly play to distract myself, and I installed Euro Truck Simulator 2. And fell right into it.

As in real life, dawn and dusk both produce rather beautiful scenery.

Pulling your weight

The first nice feeling about this game is how unresponsive some commands are. Steering is conveniently responsive (and fully configurable), but the inertia in acceleration and braking really makes you feel the weight of the truck you’re driving, depending on the actual tonnage you’re hauling. This gives an actual gravity feeling to the task at hand, no matter how unglamorous it is.

About the steering, my whole gaming life I’ve been playing racing games with my keyboard. It was perfectly fine for Need for Speed games for example, but I found it incredibly unnatural in this simulation game. So I enabled precise mouse steering and first-person cabin view because it felt more natural and “right” in this context. Driving a truck on public roads is mostly about staying in your lane, and I found it easier to do that from the cabin itself.

I was curious about the scale of the game. When I first heard about it I was wondering if they were using actual map data and real-world distances. Fortunately, they don’t, the road map is only inspired by real world and both time and space are compressed when driving between urban areas. It does have the annoying side effect of making toll gates infuriatingly close to each other though.

Truckin’ through the Uncanny Valley

The game looks deceivingly uninteresting. Hauling common cargo trailers on highways between the fake industrial zones of existing European cities in officially licensed trucks doesn’t carry much magic to me. Even the extensive truck customization options are exceedingly conventional and coming from Need for Speed games it’s been unsurprisingly disappointing.

A few landmarks are present in the game, like the Pont of Normandie (Normandy Bridge) depicted here.

However, what this game doesn’t provide in extraordinary, it made it up for me with a warm and fuzzy feeling of familiarity. I can’t speak for all the depicted countries, but France’s roads are pretty accurate. SCS Software, the Czech company behind Euro Truck Simulator 2, went to great length to reproduce the road markings, signs and typical intersection shapes one would encounter in France.

Expectedly, it isn’t perfect. For example, the game features police vehicles from both the French civil National Police and the military Gendarmerie, but they can appear in locations usually outside of their respective jurisdictions. National Police usually operates in urban zones, while Gendarmerie usually oversees rural areas, including highways.

Another weird behavior is with roundabouts. Cars will stop in the middle of it to let you enter it, and inversely, sometimes cars will happily crash into your trailer from the entrance roads as you circle around. I can’t blame SCS, roundabouts are confusing even in real life, but it does pull away from the familiarity and back to the virtual simulation.

Roundabouts: the most hazardous part of the game.

Painting the town yellow

Beyond the dry and detailed freight hauling simulation, the game offers some welcome gaming elements to entice players that are less than absolute truck enthusiasts. For starters, the game can be made as accessible or as involved as desired without any influence on rewards. Exploring all the available simulation options (5 steering and 4 gearbox modes!) is a mini-game in itself, and many tedious parts of truck driving decision-making can be made automatic. Parking trailers can be skipped, expensive traffic fines can be lifted, the fatigue system making some trips tricky can be disabled, even the legal engine cutoff limit at 90km/h can be removed for extreme truck speeding action.

But the real kicker is in the road painting system. Every single piece of road in the game can be marked as “driven on”. It appears yellow on the GPS instead of the usual grey once it’s been, huh, driven on by the player. And I’ve been enjoying modifying some of my trips to maximize the amount of roads driven. There also are a couple of rare and satisfying Steam achievements to be gained from painting respectively 60 and 100% of the roads in the game.

Video (Games) Killed the Radio Star

Euro Truck Simulator 2 still is a limited game. With no sandbox and no wacky side events derived from the physics engine, there is little more to do than precision driving for hours. Thankfully, some extra features help alleviate the inevitable boredom that is inherent to the trucker job itself. Starting with radios. The game can play real-world radio streams, or one of the 5 virtual radios channels. While the former definitely improve immersion as radios from most European countries are offered, the latter is in a category of its own. Featuring real hosts, it also features real ads for various Virtual Trucking Companies (VTCs).

The French side roads hide picturesque village whose architecture and layout feel accurate.

VTCs are the equivalent of guilds in other online multiplayer games, despite Euro Truck Simulator 2 being a single player experience with no inherent multiplayer capabilities. Through third-party mods they can record jobs completed on behalf of the VTC, and even organize convoys. And the game is so popular that some of the biggest VTCs can even afford to advertise on the virtual radio broadcasted in-game.

Job completed

So I fell right into the game and according to Steam I logged in just under 120 hours of play in about 20 days. Not all of it is actual play, but it still is significant. However I do not think this game is for everyone. For me it hit a sweet spot at a very uncertain time where I needed to find some familiarity, and as a French immigrant in New York City the French map DLC of Euro Truck Simulator 2 turned out to be exactly what I needed.

But despite its austere appearance, it is a real simulation game that is enjoyable to play and optimize on its own, and I believe I played it way beyond the extraordinary reasons I fell for it in the first place.

Keep on truckin’.

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