In the halcyon days of the PlayStation 2, there was a constant stream of weird and wonderful racing games for me to spend my part-time market research cash on at my local Computer Exchange. When I got bored of playing the latest instalment of the Colin Mcrae Rally or Gran Turismo franchises, there were stacks of other less well-known games to peruse while the latest Rammstein record was played on repeat and the queue of sixteen-year-olds trying to buy GTA III lined up on to the street.
While the quality of these titles was far from consistent, the market was at least full of variety – something that I think has been lacking lately. But thankfully, FIA European Truck Racing Championship is here to appease my curious side. As someone who spends far too many of my weekends watching various forms of motorsport instead of shouting at a football or mowing the lawn, truck racing is a bit of a stretch even for me. Which is the main appeal. I took it as an opportunity to learn more about a sport I’m not fully up to speed with.
As soon as you engage first gear – or in this scenario, five low – there is a lot to get used to. I think the biggest adjustment is the speed or lack thereof. Lorries, even racing lorries, are slow. As per the rules of the real ETRC, all vehicles competing are limited to 160 kmh – 99mph if you’re of an Imperial persuasion – and they aren’t exactly what you’d call spritely off the line. That’s part of the reason why each race is a rolling start.
They are heavy too, with massive tyres. To prevent the trucks from tearing up circuits, penalty bollards are placed around the lap, generally at a corner apex or on an exit curb. Hit three of these in a race and you are landed with a whopping 30-second penalty.
By far the most unique thing about truck racing, however, is the brakes. As any good racing driver will tell you, braking is where a lot of time can be made up or lost. Modulating the brakes and applying them at just the right time is what separates the champions from the backmarkers. As you can imagine, slowing down 5.3 tonnes of mass is no mean feat. Not only are braking distances in truck racing lengthy, preventing the brakes from overheating requires a managed cooling system.
There is a brake temperature level on the screen at all times, and should that enter the red zone, you press a button to squirt water onto the braking system. Don’t monitor the temperature levels, and you simply run out of stopping power. You also have a finite amount of water to use throughout the race, providing a small level of strategy. You want the brakes to be cool, but you need to be sparing with your water application.
It’s a good job that there is this level of depth to the driving, as the AI doesn’t add much in the way of competition. With eleven other large lorries on the track and the 160kmh speed limit, you’d have thought the on-track action would be full of close battles and plenty of overtaking, yet even with the difficulty set to the sternest level, you can win from the back of the grid in a three-lap race. Sadly, once the sheen of a new type of racing game wears off, the driving is dull. Such tedium does not incentivise playing this game for more than a few hours. I did though, so you don’t have to.
The main bones of the game is a career mode. Starting out with some well-needed mandatory training sessions, you progress straight into the European series. This is the main deal. In your first season, you will get offered one-off drives for each round, building reputation points depending on your results. After your first season, you can then set-up your own team and start earning money which is used to repair and upgrade your vehicle. Why this upgrade path isn’t in the game until you are several hours in is beyond me. Even when you do get to it, I earned enough money to fully upgrade after just two race weekends.
Using a steering wheel, the handling is good fun. Sure, the trucks lumber around, with slower responses than a sun stroked koala, but that means you have plenty of time to ponder the financial markets or try to remember if you’ve put the washing in the tumble dryer before you have to apply corrective steering. With a pad though, things go more than a little awry, with the throttle and steering control being far from linear in response. The net result is a slowly rotating doughnut before the inevitable crunch of an AI rival driving into your side and sending you to the back of the pack. Again.
Even though this is the official game of the FIA European Truck Racing Championship, the Hungaroring is strangely missing. Instead, there is a fictional track called ‘Hungary Speedway’. For an official title, not being able to get a licence for one of the eight tracks is a letdown, especially when it’s such an iconic circuit. To bulk up the game, there is also a fictional championship too, the ‘World Series’. I was very excited to try this as tracks such as the underrated Winton and the spectacular Laguna Seca are included. Alas, the world tracks are at times less accurate than if I was trying to draw the layout blindfolded.
Away from the uninspiring career, there is split-screen multiplayer and online racing which I haven’t been able to find a single race with since launch. Either the mode doesn’t work or I’m literally the only person on Earth trying to race online. Smaller items are also irksome, such as drivers wearing their helmets on the podium and the lack of a photo mode.