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Trucks don’t get a ton of love in video games. They’re slow and unwieldy, the precise opposite of what you usually look for in a gaming avatar. When they do show up as drivable vehicles, like in the shockingly popular Truck Simulator series, it’s often because of how impossible they are to drive. So how do you build a swift, satisfying game that stars these humble road hogs? Why not try letting the computer control them.
This week has seen the release of two silly truck-based games that take the wheel for themselves and give you more interesting things to do. First there’s the aptly named Demon Truck, which puts you behind the guns of Satan’s self-driving big rig as it battles monsters on the road to the “Next Hell.” Available for $5 on Steam, it’s a simplified twist on the classic shoot-’em-up style of game that filled arcades back in the day, and it sports a distinct Sega Genesis-inspired look and sound. (The four-song score, composed by Andrew “Zircon” Aversa, is a faithful riff on the Genesis’ abrasive FM-synth audio, and it’s glorious.) The car drives itself while wave after wave of enemies and obstacles fall upon you. You just have to worry about two buttons: one to fire the truck’s auto-aiming guns and another to activate its soul-fueled overdrive, which turns your truck into an invulnerable crushing machine.
Your mileage may vary when it comes to the knowingly silly, excessive “heavy metal” trappings, but underneath all the fire and brimstone, the game boils down to a decidedly un-metal struggle to manage the truck’s resources. Killing enemies replenishes fuel and using fuel to plow through barriers and motorcycles in overdrive mode replenishes bullets, so finding the right balance between those offensive and defensive capabilities is your biggest challenge. The enemy patterns and power-ups you’re offered at the end of each stage are randomized, and if you die—which can happen in seconds if you’ve pulled a particularly nasty sequence—you’ll have to start over from the beginning, plowing your way through the painfully slow introductory levels until you’re back in the thick of it. That concession to old-school design is a real downer, but it in no way ruins this charming slice of retro reverence.
Also released this week was Clustertruck, a first-person platforming game where you run and jump along the roofs of poorly driven 18-wheelers to reach the goal line of an abstract obstacle course. What starts out as a series of simple jumps between trios of trucks turns into death-defying sprints through trap-laden levels. While the courses—full of hurdles, flamethrowers, and lasers—and the convoy’s general route through them remain the same, the trucks don’t always behave predictably. Because the game is based around physics rather than a strict script, the slightest change in their route or speed can throw everything out of whack, and suddenly, you’re forced to ax your entire strategy. There’s an undeniable frustration there, as so many of your failures—which will number in the hundreds, if not thousands, by the game’s end—feel like they were out of your control. It doesn’t help that, when on foot, your invisible character only has two speeds, shambling or darting, which combines with the trucks’ slippery roofs for plenty of accidental deaths.
The best you can hope to do is memorize a general path through the course and wing it from there. Trucks will crash and flip and explode all around you, but after playing for long enough, you start to see the order in the chaos. It’s thrilling when it works. You’re making leaps of faith from airborne tractor-trailers to their brethren hundreds of feet below and sailing through the tiny openings in walls of deadly lasers. But when the trucks get the better of you and you feel control slipping away, it’s absolutely maddening. Companies are already hard at work on the terrifying prospect of putting self-driving big rigs on the road. Let’s hope they’re safer than the ones in Clustertruck.