Simulation fans and patient drivers may find a lot to enjoy in this often likeable and surprisingly deep game.
Its aggressive title notwithstanding, Hard Truck: 18 Wheels of Steel isn't a traditional foot-to-the-floor racer. Unlike most driving games, this budget-priced game from ValuSoft does not put you in high-speed wheel-to-wheel duels with computer-controlled competitors. Instead, you must carefully navigate your way through a semirealistic version of America, picking up and delivering cargo, weighing the hazards of available assignments against potential monetary gain, and eventually building an untouchable trucking empire. At some points, you'll feel compelled to drive at maximum big-rig speeds and bend a few rules here and there just to ensure that your payloads arrive in a timely fashion. But Hard Truck is very much a solo journey that emphasizes truck management as much as it does point-to-point pace. Whether you'll enjoy the game depends very much on your affinity for its unusual concept and your ability to look past several quirks and glitches to see the rather intriguing challenges that lie underneath.
Although Hard Truck isn't exactly a household name on this side of the Atlantic, the game has actually existed in one form or another for several years, having originally been developed way back in 1998 by Russian design studio SoftLab-Nsk. This, the third iteration in the series, is produced jointly by Czech-based SCS Software and America's Sunstorm Interactive (of Deer Hunter fame) and will be seen by veteran Hard Truckers as a very different game from prior editions. Whereas earlier versions of the game featured an action-packed arcade mode and a worrisome amount of vehicular contact, Hard Truck: 18 Wheels of Steel dispenses with the arcade-style wackiness in favor of simulation-style authenticity.
When you begin your very first assignment, you'll find yourself parked, engine off, in a San Francisco loading dock, preparing to pick up and haul your first load to one of several cities in the American Southwest. This is the chosen locale for Hard Truck's "easy" mode, whereas the medium level takes place in and around the Midwest, and the difficult level runs through the uneven terrain and inclement weather of the Rocky Mountains.
Hard Truck offers a truly impressive variety of viewing perspectives, many of which you'll want to audition right away. From the first-person cab view, you can see all that is ahead of you or use your mouse to virtually turn your head from side to side to peer out the driver and passenger windows. The game offers several other camera angles, including right and left mirrors (which are unfortunately not incorporated in the cab view), an aerial camera position that lets you monitor everything in the immediate vicinity, and a nifty mouse-controlled free-floating exterior cam that pivots 360 degrees around the truck.
As is typical of every Hard Truck mission, you'll see a number of trailers, each filled with a given cargo and ready for transportation. Large floating message boards appear above each trailer, displaying the nature and fragility of the cargo, the time allotted for your run, and various other critical details. Naturally, remuneration for your efforts will vary in accordance with their relative difficulty. Hauling a load of delicate glassware over a long distance in a short time frame will pay far more than trucking a container of clothing on a short jaunt down the freeway.
If you manage to make your delivery, you'll use the resulting paycheck to increase your bank account, effect necessary repairs, and improve your company's rating. With a better rating, you'll be offered more-profitable jobs. With more-profitable jobs, you'll gradually improve and upgrade your truck, purchase new trucks, hire new drivers to handle the extra workload, and, with any luck, grow your company to obscene proportions.
But Hard Truck has many potholes on the road to success. Most often, the missions' allotted time frames are frightfully tight. In many instances, you'll find yourself ignoring stop signs and traffic lights and exceeding speed limits just to complete a job on time. In so doing, you may incur the wrath of the local authorities and pay a significant penalty. You may try jumping the occasional curb just to cut precious seconds from a given run, only to see your trailer detach and drop to the road. You'll then be forced to dial 911 and pay a towing service just to get reattached and remobilized.
And those aren't the only potential hazards. Just as in real life, Hard Truck requires its drivers to regularly replenish themselves with a certain amount of sleep, or they'll risk nodding off at the wheel. To monitor whether you need sleep, you need to watch the game's "drive time" readout at the top of the screen. When the clock reaches zero, which due to Hard Truck's accelerated time and compressed distances will occur every 20 minutes or so, your virtual eyes will begin to close and the screen will grow dark. They'll pop open again in just a second or two, but in the meantime you may have driven off the road or into another vehicle or roadside abutment. As you continue to drift in and out of sleep, the dark periods grow more frequent and the potential for accidents increases. Fortunately, you can pull into a motel, a truck stop, or even a rest area for some shut-eye, an instantaneous procedure where your only decision is the amount of sleep you can afford. The downside, of course, is that you'll have even less time to complete your run once you do get moving again.
Soon, you'll realize that sleep stops, fuel stops, weigh-in stops, and inadvertent police stops cut seriously into your schedule. Throw in the occasional accident--some of which occur independently of you but block the road ahead--and you'll quickly see that you must take a few risks just to keep your company in business. Luckily, you can always hit the N key to gain immediate access to critical company information. How's your rating? How effective are your new drivers? Can you afford to hire a better driver? Are you rated highly enough for an upgraded cargo license? Are you talented enough to be assigned a higher-paying regular route? The questions are many, and in this way, Hard Truck is a very interesting game.