Written by: Rik

Date posted: December 12, 2007

There's nothing much to look at. This river is quite nice, but it's best to pay attention to the treacherously narrow road instead.

While it’s fair to say that the ability to accurately simulate the life of a trucker probably isn’t all that high on most gamers’ wish lists, as an idea for a game it certainly ranks above the likes of Trophy Bass and MS Train Simulator in my book. It may be stretching it a bit to suggest that driving a 32 tonne truck for a living is glamorous and exciting, but there have been enough trucking references in US TV shows and movies to make a game seem like a vaguely intriguing prospect. Though any title based on the life of a UK lorry driver would largely consist of driving your speed-limited Tesco lorry up and down the M1 all day while pausing only to buy yourself a Yorkie bar and a big stack of pornography, the explosion-laden packaging for King of the Road swiftly conjures up images of the romanticised version of American road haulage – transporting illicit cargo, breaking the speed limit and sharing a joke over the CB radio, à la Snowman and Bandit.

However, despite the introduction movie depicting high-speed police chases, wheel-to-wheel rivalry and gung-ho driving in general (all accompanied by a preposterous 80s power rock soundtrack – the twiddly guitar solo kicks in just as another vehicle is forced off the road and consumed by a massive fireball – nice!), anyone expecting Need for Speed in a truck is likely to be disappointed. While the game does include all the illicit elements advertised (and more), its main concern is with providing a representative simulation of life on the road rather than with high-speed racing. Which is why, in case you needed to ask, we’ve plonked it in the ‘Simulation’ section of the site.

You begin the game with a relatively unimpressive rig and a small amount of cash. Money is earned by driving to the nearest town and picking up a job, which will normally involve the transport of goods to another town within a set time limit. Get the goods there undamaged and on time, and you’ll get some decent money, but spend too much time admiring the scenery or crashing into things and it’ll come out of your pay packet. Matters are further complicated by the presence of rival truckers, who may be able to do the same job faster than you, and the police, who lie in wait by the side of the road should you ever think about breaking the speed limit. Save up enough money and you can upgrade your truck or even buy a new one, but along the way you’ll also need money for petrol and repairs.

Weather effects, especially rain, are well implemented.

If pressed to come up with a lazy summing-up-sentence to describe the gameplay in King of the Road, it would probably be “Elite on wheels”, and the emphasis on trading/transporting goods with the option to expand your operation once the profits start coming in will be familiar to anyone who’s played a space-trading sim. The main difference of course is that instead of transporting valuable minerals across the galaxy in a ship capable of light-speed and beyond, you’re trucking a shedload of meat products to the next town along at speeds easily attainable in a low-powered hatchback on the average trip to the supermarket.

Put simply, it’s slow going. While some of the scenery is reasonably interesting, there’s little else to keep you interested as you plod from one location to the next. While up in space you could expect at least one frenzied laser battle with pirates per journey, here the challenges you face come in the form of a tricky junction or a steep hill. As with the real thing, concentration is the key to avoiding major disasters, especially on long winding roads where plunging down the side of a cliff towards certain death is a real possibility. Day/night cycles and weather are also a consideration, and to the game’s credit, driving at night with the wipers pumping requires an extra level of focus in the same way it does in real life.

Altercations with the police are also largely down to carelessness, especially early on when your truck isn’t capable of breaking the speed limit unless presented with an extremely long stretch of straight road. If you do stray, the cops are pretty tenacious and the financial penalties are harsh. While choosing to make a dash for it is an option, the cops don’t give you much leeway before rolling out a spike strip or, worse, sending a helicopter armed with a machine gun your way, and even though major infractions effectively wipe away any profit from your current job, pulling over normally seems like the best option.

The police may come down hard on you, but your opponents can bash them out of the way without fear of punishment.

Although it may not be a thrill a minute, driving in King of the Road does at least feel fairly realistic, and the driving model is a reasonably accomplished effort. It’s pretty comprehensive, too: although you can select automatic gears, you’ll still need to operate the ignition, headlights and wipers yourself, and a glance at your mirrors from time to time is also necessary, unless you want another truck to plough into the back of you while you’re pulling away from the petrol station.

Not many road-based titles put too much effort into accurately replicating the real-world motoring experience, and there is something quite intriguing about a game that encourages you to ‘drive properly’ for once. For a few hours at least, King of the Road is quite refreshing to play, and you can happily chug from place to place enjoying the open-ended nature of it all (there’s apparently over 150km of road to drive along) and deriving mild enjoyment from completing relatively simple early challenges such as making a successful delivery without running out of petrol. Even once the novelty wears off, the feeling persists that you’ve got a job to do, and you soon find yourself ploughing on with delivery after delivery even though there’s a lingering suspicion you might have had slightly more fun if you’d stayed at the office to work on some spreadsheets.

And that’s the main problem really: if you’re going to make any progress in this game, you’re going to need to spend some serious time on the road, which can be a lonely and largely excitement free existence. While this may be quite accurate in terms of what real-life trucking is all about, it isn’t an especially enticing prospect for the thrill-hungry gamer. Furthermore, it’s not an especially polished package, and there are rough edges a-plenty, from the amusingly-translated manual to the bizarre behaviour exhibited by other road users, along with a smattering of other minor (but frustrating) bugs and glitches. It’s no great shakes in the looks department, either, and the frame-rate seems to fluctuate alarmingly regardless of the level of detail selected or the amount of action taking place on-screen. And if any game could have done with the option to listen to your own MP3s, it’s this one: sadly, you’re given a straight choice between relentless cheese-rock and the sound of your own engine (and system fan).

The external view is next to useless, other than to survey an amusing accident from a more interesting angle.

There’s no doubting that there’s plenty of game here if you’re prepared to put some time in, and eventually you can build up your own trucking empire, and employ other drivers to do jobs for you. To be frank, though, it’s difficult to imagine anyone but the most hardcore of road haulage enthusiasts progressing that far into the game. For everyone else, while there is a definite novelty factor in having the freedom to drive along miles of open road, ultimately King of the Road suffers from being a little bit too much like the real thing.