SCS Software's series has its grand homecoming, and a slim initial release doesn't quite hold back its measured majesty.
Other games have promised the free-spirited thrill of the open road, but few have delivered it quite so well as SCS Software's truck simulator series. Maybe it's something in the mundane honesty of their sojourns, where long stretches of tarmac between the likes of Southampton and Sheffield pass by with a soporific hum while you fuss over each vehicle's exquisitely detailed cabin.
Or maybe it's in their wonderful partnership of simulation and systems, where you crunch through 12-speed transmissions and feel the weight of a creaking 50-foot gooseneck trailer through each spin of the steering wheel while slowly building an empire of your own; where big business mixes with the small, satisfying chore of a cross-state drive to pick up a set of chrome door handles for the latest addition to your fleet. Pitched somewhere between a blue-collar OutRun and a greasy spoon Elite, it's no wonder these games have grown so popular in recent years.
American Truck Simulator, SCS Software's long-awaited follow-up to 2012's Euro Truck Simulator 2, sings to those same rhythms, only this time with a West Coast lilt. It's a homecoming of sorts, not just to the country that SCS Software first explored with 18 Wheels of Steel, but also to the natural hunting ground of these beautiful beasts of industry, and to the land of the great American road trip.
There's a mythical allure to American roads that's long inspired automotive pilgrimages. (I took my own a couple of years back, snaking from Chicago down to New Orleans by way of Indianapolis for the 500, though the Ford Focus hire car that my budget allowed was more Dagenham than Detroit.) At the heart of American Truck Simulator, SCS Software plays to both the truth and the ideal - to the monotony of endless roads, and to the heady dream of broad horizons.
In American Truck Simulator, driving is a sedate treat, a digital barbiturate that calms with its simple, soothing pleasures. Dial into the local country radio via the in-game tuner and enjoy the journey from Reno to Elko, watching the big sky slowly bruise with another perfect sunset as the scenery shifts and you tick off another job. Drive blinking dryly through the night on an interstate, drinking in the neon light signs of the small town you pass through in the 3am still before heading back out into the darkness again.
I find myself playing American Truck Simulator with a full wheel set-up - other control methods are supported, from controller to keyboard, and they all acquit themselves equally well - not simply to engage with the mild simulation SCS Software has crafted but to have somewhere to rest my arms while I sit back and enjoy whatever strange new radio station I've picked up, and settle into the lullaby of this gentlest of games.
It's a subtle spell that American Truck Simulator casts, yet one whose alchemy can be surprisingly complex. The roads are filled with more traffic than prior games, and it's dictated by convincing AI; fellow road-users are beholden to the same everyday rule-set as you, stopping at traffic lights and observing a speed limit that fluctuates as you cross state-lines and keeping an eye out for patrolling police cars that enforce the laws of the road. Negotiating busy highways offers its own challenge, the mirror-signal-manoeuvre that precedes a lane-change becoming a part of your vocabulary as trusty as Street Fighter's quarter-circle fireballs.
Ticking beneath all this like a diesel thrum are the systems that piece each journey together; the acquisition of XP that sees you level up and opens up more trucks and more parts, the growing income that allows you to buy more garages, to hire more drivers and to take on more jobs. There's a satisfying sense of progression that sits neatly alongside your excursions, which themselves can escalate as you move on: longer journeys see you battling fatigue and looking for rest-stops lest you fall asleep at the wheel.
If that all sounds familiar, well it is. Beyond the shift in location and a handful of very minor tweaks - those patrolling police cars, the ability to haul longer cargo and a slightly fancier GPS unit - this is quite simply Euro Truck Simulator 2 with a new lick of chrome and transposed to America, with the front-end and all the slow crawl of empire building it enables near-identical. In many ways, it's a more limited game, too.
There's not the same variety of hardware to pick from - though what's there remains impressive, the beautifully overstated cabins of Kenworth and Peterbilt that are initially available making you feel like a six-year-old all over again. There's not the same variety in scenery, either, with California the sole starting state while Nevada joins as free day one DLC. There's a sandblasted similarity as you cross from one state to another, though American Truck Simulator enlivens it all with a keener sense of detail. Cities don't come anywhere close to 1:1, but they're more exacting copies of the real thing than the often anonymous urban spaces of Euro Truck Simulator 2, the bustling sprawl of Los Angeles or the gaudy strips of Las Vegas presenting a much keener sense of place.
More is on its way, and given how Euro Truck Simulator 2 quickly expanded thanks to SCS Software and the modding community's efforts, it's safe to assume American Truck Simulator will slowly fill out. Right now, though, it's an openly modest game - with a Ł14.99 price tag to reflect that - rather than a full-blown sequel. What you're currently buying into is the pull of those American roads, and the slightly mysterious promise of where they'll head next; Arizona is next on the menu, and after that there's the hope that SCS Software could head all the way to the midwest and beyond.
Even before that journey eastwards, though, American Truck Simulator offers a generous expanse that's not so much a playground as a state park to calmly explore. Slow, deliberate and measured, it's a game that understands you don't have to be bouncing off the redline to enjoy yourself; sometimes life's better taken in at a smooth and steady 55mph.