Thursday, January 10, 2008

18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul Review

18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul, developed by SCS Software and published by ValuSoft.
The Good: Accurate simulation, fairly truthful North American map, company management options
The Not So Good: Tremendously slow pace, no in-game tutorial and partial readme file, severe graphical pop-in even on the highest settings, some major cities are missing and some terrain is way off
What say you? Most people will find it extremely boring, but this budget-priced trucking simulation is enjoyable if you really like to drive: 5/8

Trucking. You know, you can make more money here than in most other industries (I’ve been watching the Roadmaster commercials a bit too much). If only someone could capture the fun and excitement of driving cross-country with little sleep on four-lane highways. But they have! The venerable 18 Wheels of Steel series is back with its sixth iteration: American Long Haul. The studio that brought us the surprisingly decent Bus Driver is back with an (hopefully) enhanced version of their most famous (or infamous) series. Does 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul provide the hot merging action I crave so much?

The graphics and sound of 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul is exactly what you would expect for a budget game: passable. Most of the towns in the game feature an almost impressive level of detail, at least at a distance. Towns are equipped with skyscrapers, animated planes and signs, copious amounts of traffic, and enough varied buildings to make each town appear like a real location. The “empty” space between cities is pretty boring, although that’s not totally different from real life. 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul features some nice time of day effects (each second of real time represents a minute in the game), although the Sun coming up at 5 AM is a bit curious (I guess the developers live further north than I do). Weather is also represented well, with falling rain and the occasional snow shower if you venture to Canada. The physics are somewhat suspect, with AI trailers toppling over on sharp turns, and the game features some severe pop-in: distant objects magically appear no matter what your graphical settings are. I think 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul actually looks somewhat worse than Bus Driver, though this probably has to do with the fact that an entire continent is represented here instead of a single city. The audio is just OK: there is some variety in the voices over the CB, but the music is repetitive and the radio stations are limited. Still, for a budget title, 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul isn’t too far behind the curve in terms of presentation.

18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul is a single-player game where you run a truck delivery company to make piles and piles of cash. Though a massively multiplayer universe would be a cool addition to the game, it doesn’t surprise me that it’s not included (I’m sure a trucking MMORPG is not too far fetched). You can play single missions where you can choose your origin, destination, and type of goods, but you’ll be doing the same thing in the career mode so there’s no real point in wasting your time with one-off jobs. One thing you’ll notice is the complete lack of a tutorial. You mean I have to study the readme file? What’s up with that? In addition, the readme lacks descriptions of several game mechanics, so you have to do some trial and error while you play. You’ll be delivering around fifty goods to forty-four cities around North America, although there is really no difference in goods other than the type of trailer and your specific delivery point. You will find a job at a building listed on the minimap, pick a good and destination (precious goods and places farther away are worth more money), drive to that city, and unload the cargo (a very difficult process that involves a lot of backing up).

Though 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul features an improved roster of cities, there are still some limitations. A Road geek such as myself holds the geography to a high standard, and in general 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul does a good job presenting a pretty realistic depiction of North America. Most of your travel will be made on interstates, and almost all of the major interstate highways are present in the game. However, there are a number of notable missing cities: San Diego, Jacksonville, Denver, Baltimore, Milwaukee (I need to transport beer!), Denver, and all cities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Virginia, Oregon, and Kentucky (plus others). I’m not expecting Flight Simulator or Google Earth level accuracy, but adding more major cities isn’t too much to ask I think. It probably wouldn’t be too hard to add at least simple cities at major intersections; having I-70 and I-25 intersect at a truck stop instead of the bustling metropolis of Denver is weird. Even weirder is the fact that Roswell is present but all of these cities are not. In addition, terrain is suspect as most areas are hilly. Driving winding roads along cliffs on the way to Miami shows that the developers think that California and Florida have the same topography. The inaccuracies take some of the realism out of the game, at least for an obsessive person such as myself.

Each city features a number of services to tailor to your needs. You can fill up at gas stations, buy new rigs at truck dealers, sleep and find drivers at hotels, and receive repairs at garages. There are also a number of companies in each town that offer jobs. Problem is most of these services are only present in urban areas, as 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul lacks exits between major cities, with the exception of the occasional truck stop. This is, again, unrealistic, as (especially in the Eastern U.S.) there are plenty of exits with gas stations and hotels between major metropolises. This means you really have to plan your gas usage and look at your map ahead of time. Luckily, you can sleep in your cab (by stopping on the side of the road, setting the brake, and accelerating time) since your view will start to black out when you get sleepy (a neat feature).

Of course, the only way to get to these locations is to drive, and 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul features a realistic driving model. Driving is intuitive, especially since you can enable automatic transmissions. There are a lot of buttons to press that activate turn signals, lights, the horn, wipers, cruise control, and the radio. 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul also has multiple views to aid in precise driving. You do need to obey the rules of the road: don’t run red lights, follow the speed limit, and use your turn signals. If you don’t, cops positioned on the side of the road will issue tickets if you pass them after you’ve recently done an illegal act (your “wanted” level will decrease slowly over time). Tickets are unrealistically expensive ($6,000 for running a red light?!?) to driving within the rules is really important. It can be difficult, however, since lights change too fast: even if you are driving the speed limit, sometimes there is no way you can slow down in time. The AI traffic does a good job navigating through the game, so they aren’t generally the cause of your legal troubles. If you deliver your goods with no damage then you will earn your maximum income and be well on your way to founding a profitable company.

After a while, you will have enough money to hire other drivers to make money for you. You are hire other drivers at hotels, purchase new trucks and trailers, and negotiate contracts with clients. You must deliver for a company yourself before they will offer jobs to your drivers. The management aspects of 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul gives you more to do than simply drive your truck and expands the appeal of the game. Even though 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul is a realistic game, I think that most people will be very uninterested by this game. The game scales North America to make driving times less than in real life, but there is still a lot of empty space between cities that, frankly, is not very exciting to drive through. The inclusion of little towns on minor exits would have made driving across America a lot more interesting. I am in the target audience for this game, and even I was getting a bit bored with the long haul distances. So unless you really, really like truck driving, you can probably avoid this title.

Although 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul is technically an accurate simulation, trips take too long to be very much fun. A trip that should take about 15 minutes takes 45, and most people probably won’t consider 45 minutes of interstate driving to be very enjoyable. 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul offers 44 cities to visit, but there are some large cities missing and exits between cities are almost non-existent. The lack of a tutorial makes the learning curve steeper than it should be. The graphics are out of date and terrain is generic at best, completely wrong at worst. The management aspects of 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul makes the game more interesting, but you’ll have to make some multi-hour hauls before you can really expand your business. 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul is only $20 so there is a good amount of value for that price, but only a small niche of people will really enjoy this game. Even though the title is right up my alley, I found 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul difficult to fully enjoy thanks to the drudgery of long-distance driving. After six versions, the 18 Wheels of Steel series still has room for improvement in a couple of key areas, one of them being fun.