It started off as a joke. Have you heard the one about Farming Simulator, a game in which you plough lonely fields in a tractor? Well, how about Chemical Spillage Simulator, the one in which you get to sample the glamour of life in a hazmat suit? And hey, get this, there's even a series called Euro Truck Simulator in which all you do is haul freight across the motorways of Europe.
Yet somewhere along the A63 just beyond the borders of Grimsby, I realised Euro Truck Simulator 2 was more than just a throwaway curio. Hauling timber from Rotterdam to Sheffield, rain trickling down the windshield as a local radio station cheered me through the night with the strains of Labi Siffre's Something Inside So Strong, some rare and intoxicating video game magic shimmered into focus.
It runs seriously deep. Czech developer SCS Software's been pursuing its mundane art for well over 15 years, and by the time Euro Truck Simulator 2 launched late in 2012 (with a worldwide release earlier this year - hence a little leniency that allows it to feature here), the formula had been polished to a sheen.
There's driving - there's lots and lots of driving - but it's backed up by a squall of systems any other game in any other genre would be proud to host. You start off your venture with nothing to your name but a thirst for the open road and an ambition for a trucker's life, and SCS sets ahead of you a swarm of paths upon which you can pursue your goal.
Euro Truck Simulator 2 is an RPG, then, that's about levelling up your trucker as you explore the wilds of central Europe and beyond. Just set your truck in any direction and see where it takes you, unlocking new dealerships and locations on the way, or pick up jobs that ferry you across the sizeable map. It's Fallout or Skyrim, only Whiterun has been swapped out for Rotterdam, Megaton for Portsmouth.
Earn enough money and you can buy a truck of your own. You can start running your own jobs, picking up lumber or oil in Felixstowe and escorting it to Bremen for a better payout, and stacking up the cash. Bring some more in and you can start hiring other drivers, and acquiring other trucks, setting up an empire that spreads across Europe. It's like Total War where you get to be Eddie Stobart instead of Caesar.
Have enough surplus and you can even customise your fleet, decking out the cabin or painting the exterior and lavishing it with accessories. Or you might want to hold on and save up for a better ride, anyway: in Euro Truck Simulator 2, you'll likely start in a Renault Magnum, with its top speed of a rippling 68mph, while having your heart set on the 111mph Volvo FH16 750, the trucking world's equivalent of a Pagani Huayra. It's like playing a Forza that's just ingested a full English breakfast, fried slice, black pudding and all.
So Euro Truck Simulator 2 isn't a joke: it's a swirl of compulsion loops that gracefully grip you, an RPG that runs deep with empire building that runs as long and far as the countless roads it features. There's a craft in the single-player progression that I sincerely hope other, more widely respected games take note of: a Gran Turismo or a Forza could learn much from how SCS makes its driving meaningful.
Even without all of its exquisite stuffing, Euro Truck Simulator 2's got something else; it's got driving, and it boasts a purity that so many other games have strived for. The dream of an open-world driving game that bottles a little of the excitement of the open road - a thrill that's captivated people for centuries, well before digital roads were first laid down - has been a recurring dream in recent years that's only fleetingly been fulfilled. The illusion of the endless road, and the impeccable journey, was what propelled OutRun to legendary status, and later Need for Speed would borrow that formula for its inaugural outing, as resurrected in Criterion's excellent 2011 Hot Pursuit.
It's a dream half-remembered in Eden's Test Drive Unlimited games, and one more fully brought to life in Playground's exquisite Forza Horizon. In Euro Truck Simulator 2, it's a dream brought to scuzzy, all-too-real life: there's no glamour to be found in port towns and A roads. Speeding tickets and traffic offences are a constant threat, but none of that dims the allure of the open road. Quite the opposite, in fact - even when the rain beats down in the grimmest backwaters of northern France, and when roadworks inspire slow tails of queuing cars, there's still something intoxicating about the conquest of the road, no matter how miserable it may be.
Within a world of commerce and everyday road laws, away from the race track and the stopwatch, there's a certain sedateness to Euro Truck Simulator 2's driving too. Journeys are slow and ponderous - those speed limits are easy to obey when it takes a good stretch of tarmac to even tickle them - ensuring that, after a short while, it's a meditative experience. Driving for driving's sake, and for just slowly exploring a world of bleak authenticity, it's enough to put you in a soothing, reflective mood. At times like this, Euro Truck Simulator 2 is Proteus for men with hair on their chests, and quite possibly their shoulders too.
And so SCS's sim is so many things: an RPG, an empire builder and a hymn to the grit, grime and glory of the open road. It's everything, in fact, but a joke.
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