One day soon, my son is going to ask why we never park the truck in Euro Truck Simulator 2 (SCS Software, 2012) and I will explain, nay confess, that it is because it is bloody difficult. Having to get the truck into a precise position, like boarding a wagon for the Eurotunnel Freight Shuttle at Folkestone, freaks me out.
Oh, I've tried therapy. One night, while Little HM was asleep, I practised parking a trailer, determined my son would see his father reverse a truck without a hitch. And, in this parental fantasy, he would be inspired and grow up to do great things in the world.
Fortunately, the meat of ETS2 is driving and Little HM has always pushed for the longer jobs. He wants to take on a job that's too long for our driver to do in a single stretch and has to find somewhere to "sleep" in the game. At this point, the jobs available to us are not that long and we can drive from start to finish without stopping for fuel or rest.
A couple of weeks ago, we didn't have much too time to spend on the PC and we chose a job delivering coal from Luxembourg to Verona. I thought we’d be done in about twenty minutes or so.
According to Pavel Sebor, CEO of SCS Software, those who play ETS2 come in two flavours. There are those with a professional interest, some connection to the trucking industry. And there are children. Yep. They got my number, alright. I’m using the game to teach Little HM a little bit of geography. When we drove to the Netherlands in the game once, Little HM asked, “Is that where Peter Pan lives? In Never Land?” There is much work to be done. To help remember the places we have been, we compile a montage in our TRUCKS scrapbook for each new city we visit.
Mrs. HM and I visited Verona in 2006 before two children left muddy bootprints all over our lives. We were there for a few hours before moving on to Lake Garda, which is renowned in tourist circles for its ice cream, so whenever I think about Verona, I don’t tend to recall Arena di Verona or Piazza Bra – I lie back and think of ice cream. This was not going to help driving a virtual truck to a virtual Verona. And right now, I'm thinking of virtual ice cream.
Originally I bought the game so I could explore real places with Little HM, who is fascinated with transport in all its forms – from high-speed trains to recycling trucks. I was hoping for a trucked-out version of Google Streetview but I was disappoint. Exploring the UK revealed that ETS2 is a stripped-down abstraction. Cities feel like generic assortments of roads with a few landmarks dotted on the horizon. In da real world, I hurtle down the M4 every few months but the ETS2 version of the motorway was unrecognisable. It's like the uncanny valley effect but for whole cities: ETS2 London is definitely not real world London.
Hence I prefer travelling around mainland Europe because I don’t know those places and can pretend I'm really there. A wonderful feature of ETS2 is that it has a ready-made list of European internet radio stations which you can play while driving. I always select a “local” station to heighten the illusion of being in a particular country.
“Do you understand what they're saying on the radio?” I ask Little HM. “No, because it's in French! That's French you're listening to!”
I should take a moment here to explain that in ETS2, players needs to level up before they can take on long-distance trucking jobs. Yes, the game has an experience point system, where completing a job earns not just money but experience. Climbing up a level earns skill points that can be allocated to different skills, which translates into a broader range of jobs the player is eligible for. Luxembourg to Verona only became available because we had pumped three points into the Long Distance skill.
I always do most of the work in the game, but try to make Little HM feel like part of the truck team. He gets to put on the windscreen wipers and lights and, after lots of coaching, he now watches the mirrors for me and can follow the sat nav, pointing out icons for fuel and truck stops.
Oh and shortly after starting out, I slammed the truck into a roadside barrier.
In Desert Bus from the unreleased Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors (Imagineering, 1995), the player drives a bus for an eight-hour journey – in real-time – on a drab, straight road. The game cannot be paused or saved and, as the bus always veers to the right, it requires constant attention if the bus is to complete the journey.
ETS2 sometimes feels like Desert Bus.
There’s only so much Europe in the game's graphical assets and so most roads will trigger déjà vu rather than an endorphin rush of WOOOOOO LOOK AT THAT. Although the roads do twist and turn, widen and narrow, the player’s truck never seems to be travelling in a straight line and it’s easy for the player to over-compensate when the truck deviates. It was a small lapse in concentration that plunged me off the road.
Still, there are those Into the Black joys and the developers take some delight in surprising players: flocks of birds flying overhead; trains overtaking the traffic with ease and there are, apparently, operational railway crossings in the game; hot air balloons dotting the sky over a great lake. I’ve even seen people walking around, which is far less common in ETS2 than you might expect. There is some lovely attention to detail in this budget open-world game.
Yet all it takes is a moment to enjoy the view, or a brief exchange with Little HM and I can run the truck off the road in a heartbeat. In UK Truck Simulator (SCS Software, 2010) the trailer often detached if I turned the truck too hard. Re-attaching the load was monstrously difficult as the truck had to be re-aligned precisely with the trailer. That’s never happened to me in ETS2 but it is possible to roll over – and that is my new fear.
I smashed into a barrier again and a miserable attempt to avert impact lead to the truck jack-knifing across the road. The traffic waited politely while I got the truck back on track. No one beeped. There was no road rage. The AI drivers never crash into you, always stopping at an appropriate distance. This is very much a game. The player's only challenge is getting to the client on time and in one piece. And if you’re in the mood – without breaking too many traffic laws.
See, I’m a bit of a traffic deviant at times. I once missed the exit I needed on a French Autoroute and, well, reversed. I know, that's bad, but I've already explained that reversing is a tricky thing. Reversing wasn't working out too well for me so I was forced into a U-turn. Sure, I got fined for travelling the wrong way but no one arrested me. If all you want to do is drive then all that other stuff just becomes some meaningless numbers in a game.
Now, the truck’s handling became damaged, which made it even easier to spin out of control. After a few more punchy crashes, the engine accrued enough damage to start cutting out. Little HM and I were unable to build up a head of speed and progress begins to slooooow.
I could have got the truck repaired, especially as repairs would have been paid for by our hapless employer, but I didn’t want to make the game longer than it needed to be by heading into a city and seeking a repair shop. But Little HM finally got his wish: slow progress meant the driver became “tired” and when night fell, we headed into a truck stop for some shuteye.
This revealed an odd incongruity. Following the lead of other open-world games, ETS2 sports augmented reality hotspots such as showrooms, toll booths and repair services. Places to sleep are marked on the map but have no busy, bouncy icon in the virtual world, so it took me some time to figure out that I was at the right place even though I couldn't see anything. I stopped and the option to take a rest appeared on the dashboard. I think I would have preferred fewer colourful, hyperactive hotspots to make the world feel more real but, then again, the ETS2 target audience suggests a more cooperative game environment was necessary.
When we woke, it was early morning. I was excited to learn I could use the in-game camera control to make better screenshots. This, of course, is bloody dangerous. Little HM remarked that I shouldn’t take pictures when driving and he was right. I almost crashed a couple of times while taking screenshots, but nothing untoward occurred.
I’ve tried driving off the road deliberately, too, just to see if it is possible to explore. At times, the world just looks so… juicy and attractive with things. I want to ride into the countryside, taking my big black tyres to etch dirty lines on the lawn of nature. But the ETS2 world is full of invisible walls. While the cab confines us, it is the road that traps us. I wonder if, somewhere, there’s a chink in the road’s invisible armour, somewhere I can break out into the wilderness and roam free.
We reached a section where we were thrust through long tunnel after long tunnel after long tunnel and this was bad news because the walls had some sort of weird gravity where I was compelled to smash the truck into them. I began to ponder whether we would actually make it to the destination on time yet was still determined not to use the breakdown service, even though starting the engine after a cut-out now took a long time.
We passed through the Italian border then reached Milan where there was another little surprise from SCS Software: a roadside airport complete with planes taking off. Every time I saw something like this in the game, I pointed it out to Little HM but he had already seen it.
“Look, a plane taking off!”
“Yes, Daddy. A plane.”
“Look, there’s another one!”
We were not too far from Verona, when another crash brought the truck's damage up to 80%. It was impossible to start the truck any more. I tried again and again but eventually conceded that I'd have to call the breakdown service. I knew what was likely to happen and was proven to be correct: the game immediately transported us to Verona, the nearest city. Defeat stolen from the jaws of victory. VERONA DISCOVERED.
The repairs seem to cost more than the price of the truck but it was some meaningless numbers in a game so I didn't really care. (And the employer paid for the repairs.) We had been travelling for an hour – half of that time with the engine cutting out – and I was pretty hacked off that the truck trek was ending in such a way. I took my frustration out on a fellow road user. He didn’t get out of my way, so he ate fender.
But there remained a chance of a happy ending! Driving into the client's site lined us up almost perfectly to reverse into the target loading bay. I was sure it would be a cakewalk and I could show off some ace reversing skills in front of Little HM at last, instead of just tapping ENTER to skip the parking segment.
But I said lined up almost perfectly. During the attempt to reverse, the truck doubled up across the loading bays as if in pain. It was a disgrace. It was embarrassing. And I hit ENTER.
Well done, Daddy, we were quite late. Time for ice cream.