Fishbreath Plays: Train Simulator vs. American Truck Simulator

If you caught the most recent episode of The Crossbox Podcast, you may recall that I cited these two games as examples of a genre I don’t quite understand. (I’ve come to call it the Podcast Screensaver genre1.) At the same time, said I kind of understood the appeal of Train Simulator. Namely, driving a train is at least a little unusual. Driving a truck on a highway is a little too similar to my daily commute.

Predictably—inevitably—further experience has made me change my tune.

What makes a good entry in the Podcast Screensaver genre? It needs to take a little attention, but not so much that you can’t follow the thread of the podcast. It should present occasional challenges—if it doesn’t, it ceases to be a game in the Podcast Screensaver genre, and you might as well just watch a screensaver. Ideally, it should be immersive. Most importantly, it should be pleasing to look at.

Let’s go down the list.

Takes a little attention
American Truck Simulator fits the definition more or less perfectly. If you drive a car, you know this. Driving isn’t difficulty, but it does take a constant minimum expenditure of brainpower.

Train Simulator, on the other hand, is a little harder to defend. Driving a train, though it is more exotic than driving a truck, takes basically no attention at all. You have to watch out for signals every mile or two, and if one of them is red, you have to fiddle with some brakes. Things get more complicated if you’re running a steam engine, but not dramatically more complicated.

The distribution of required attention is different, too. A driving game requires a relatively constant amount, whereas a train simulator takes extra thought when you’re coming up to a signal: you have to squint through the window to see the thing, decide whether or not to brake, and then carry out the action of braking to stop where you want to stop. This is not conducive to paying attention to a second thing. (At least, not for me.) The human mind (or my human mind) is much better at handling two constant cognitive loads (such as driving and listening) than it is at handling one constant load and one highly variable load (such as listening and train driving).

Points, then, to the truck simulator.

Presents occasional challenges
It may perhaps be a result of Train Simulator’s demographic2, or perhaps it is a result of the inherent ease of driving trains3, but Train Simulator is easy. Nor is it only easy because trains are easy. Even the scenarios labeled ‘difficult’ (for example, using a tiny British tank engine to haul a rack of passenger cars up a hill, or using an enormous American gas turbine locomotive to haul a bunch of hopper cars up a different hill, and taking a steam locomotive low on water4 to its next stop) are straightforward. I’ve seen some people on forums complain about the difficulty of these precise scenarios, while I—a train neophyte if ever there was one—had no trouble whatsoever.

American Truck Simulator is also not all that difficult, provided you’ve driven a vehicle with a trailer before. That said, there are some places where it is honestly hard, mostly relating to maneuvering trailers in tight spaces, whether they be right-angle corners or narrow loading docks.

Again, points to the truck simulator.

Is immersive
Immersion is, of course, subjective, and I can see how it might go either way. For the particular games I’ve played (American Truck Simulator and Train Simulator with 2016 and 2017 routes), it comes to a coin toss.

I’ve done a little bit of driving in the American Southwest, and ATS gets that right on a reliable basis. Sunrise and sunset are also super-pretty, and the sound design is excellent. That said, Train Simulator’s Sherman Hill route also has things to recommend it, and in fact, the scenario I played there obscures one of Train Simulator’s biggest flaws.

Is pretty
This, unfortunately, is where Train Simulator falls down a bit. In terms of graphics and audio design, it lags far behind American Truck Simulator5. For a game in the Podcast Screensaver genre, visual and aural beauty are non-negotiable. The whole idea is that, while your brain is mostly focused on listening to something, you have a pleasant background scene to enjoy. If the background scene is ugly, then it all falls apart.

As I mentioned, there are moments where Train Simulator looks and sounds good. I was hauling a load of empty hopper cars up Sherman Hill at sunset. A rainstorm was overhead, but it didn’t reach the horizon, and as the sun went down, it lit the scene in a perfect gloomy orange. The sounds for the turbine locomotive I was driving were also excellent, lovely whirring, a bell which rang as clear as itself, and an air horn in the finest tradition of train air horns. Moment to moment, though, I give this one to the truck simulator.

As scored above, the final tally goes to American Truck Simulator, 3-0, with one tie. I should note that the difference is not quite so vast as I make it seem. For instance, the Unreal Engine 4-based Train Sim World, the next in Dovetail Games’ series, is extremely good-looking, and the sound design is just superb. That would pretty handily tip the balance in the ‘pretty’ and ‘immersive’ categories, and suddenly the score is 2-2.

Or is it? If you’ve looked at American Truck Simulator and Train Simulator on Steam, you’ll have noticed a certain crucial difference: price.

American Truck Simulator has a list price of $20. At press time, it’s on sale for $14. Going by European Truck Simulator 2, we might expect DLC prices in the $10-$20 range. Those DLCs massively expand the road network—ETS2 has DLCs for regions like France and Scandinavia—along with new cargo types, which are at least graphically interesting.

Train Simulator, on the other hand, seems bound and determined to extract as much money from its captive audience as possible. A small route runs $20 or $30, and I mean small. That’s about sixty miles of track, generally without any branches off the main line besides sidings. (Some routes, however, do give you a little more for your money. Sherman Hill has two routes over the hill.) You get one to three locomotives and a few types of rolling stock, and that’s it.

In this genre, repetition is bad. The world ought to be big enough so that by the time you see scenery again, you’ve forgotten what it looks like. If the world is small, it should be cheap to expand. Train Simulator has neither quality. American Truck Simulator has both. Buy the latter.

  1. There are evidently two classes of people unlike me: those who can simply sit and listen to a piece of audio-only content, and those who can multitask effectively enough that they need not focus primarily on a piece of audio-only content. If you’re one of those sorts of people, and you still like transport games, please drop me a line as to why.
  2. Let’s face it. On aggregate, train simulator fans are, well, old.
  3. The only major challenge is learning braking distances. Working out how to keep steam up in a steam locomotive is an additional challenge. Otherwise, it’s a vehicle which travels in one dimension, and navigation is done for you at the switching office.
  4. Well, not so low that you can’t make it if you don’t know how to use the water troughs the scenario tells you to use. Which I didn’t. (Neither knew how nor did use.)
  5. At press time, the next iteration in Dovetail Games’ train sim series, Train Sim World, is in preview-beta. Built on Unreal Engine 4, it appears to be quite a lot prettier, and a lot more sonically pleasing, than Train Simulator 2017, which is built on an eight-year-old engine.

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