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View of three racing trucks pulling away from the start line in FIA European Truck Racing Championship.

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A no-frills game makes big rig racing seem like a long haul

It takes a while for the ETRC’s five tons of thunder to get rolling

N-1 Racing/Bigben Interactive
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

I was drawn to FIA European Truck Racing Championship mainly because it looked like something unemployed people used to watch on ESPN at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, between the World’s Strongest Man and a darts tournament. I was prepared for a no-frills, modestly budgeted piece of entertainment, in other words. But FIA European Truck Racing Championship, by N-1 Racing and Bigben Interactive, is so conspicuously stripped-down in some departments that it doesn’t inspire much hope that post-release support will make it a guilty pleasure worth defending.

Let’s start with the good news, though: The racing action is ... interesting! at least. There is a distinct, understandable challenge to piloting one of the two types of big rigs in the game, and the trucks snarl and belch and whine with personality through every turn. Racing a 5-ton semi delivers a sense of driving something beyond its limits in a way that delicate Formula One and macho NASCAR cars simply cannot illustrate in their video games.

Your brakes are going to howl so much that you’ll think you’re damaging the vehicle for sure. Cooling the brakes with a blast of water after a big hairpin is vital, although I never came close to running out my water tank even in a full-length race. There’s a downhill stretch, into a sweeping right, at the Hungaroring (yes, your truck actually races F1 circuits) where standing on the gas will feel flat irresponsible, even for a video game, to anyone who has driven a U-Haul. I am a very high-strung F1 driver, self-flagellating at the slightest deviation in racing line or mild squalling of the tires (sorry, tyres). FIA European Truck Racing Championship forces me to accept imperfections and chaos.

Screenshot of drivers Steffi Halm and Jochen Hahn in the paddock for FIA European Truck Racing Championship
Real-life drivers Steffi Halm (left) and Jochen Hahn (right) show up in the career mode, but they never take off their helmets in a series of badly canned animations.
N-1 Racing/Bigben Interactive

And I accept them, because I’m not the only one completely overshooting a turn or spinning out into a sand pit. The AI drivers do as well, and it’s important that they do when the races are largely defined by who has the fewest of these moments, rather than who has none of them. I had worried that European Truck Racing Championship would give me opponents who raced with a perfect line at top speed throughout; they don’t. They get too aggressive overtaking in turns, too, but weirdly timid when they have the chance beginning a straightaway, which is important because the trucks are speed-limited to 160 kph. It was discomfiting, though, to see an AI driver reset to track right in front of me on the Nurburgring, especially as I don’t have that option when I wipe out. By and large, you can be competitive from anywhere within the field, provided you have the right mixture of vehicle setup and driver aggression. Late in the race, though, things will usually resemble an F1 event with a leader well out in front and then two clusters well back, held up by a defensive or just plain slow driver. That makes a fast start a high priority, and it’s where you’ll see most of the truck-on-truck crime.

The trucks’ handling really is something to behold, but it takes a lot of acclimatizing. The tasks in the (unskippable) license test that begins the career mode may seem very ordinary, but they’re necessary. I started the game by jumping right into a race at Slovakia and had no idea what I was doing. The license test, at least, gave me a better appreciation for the turning radius and braking distance, and they will vary, at least in feeling, based on the type of cab. You can turn a lot more tightly in what I call the Optimus Prime cab (the square one, where the engine is directly underneath the driver) as opposed to what I call the Rhino cab (which has a nose-shaped engine compartment forward of the driver). Ever ridden a city bus and marveled at the driver nimbly whipping that sucker around a 90-degree turn, the steering wheel pinwheeling as they accelerate through the apex? That’s the feeling I got here once I learned how to tap-dance through a squared-off chicane. That said, there is very little productive braking through a turn; braking locks the wheels up so frequently that it has to be done well in advance, leaving just the right amount of momentum for cornering. Though I do have moments where I drift and even, heaven forfend, counter-steer, there’s still a sense of only being able to do one thing at a time — steer, brake, or accelerate, which is how I imagine it should be.

If FIA European Truck Racing Championship did not have a solid and distinct racing experience, it wouldn’t be recommendable even as a lark. That’s because it’s supported with a lot of features and details that simply feel slapped on. A collision will tattoo your windshield with a generic spiderweb crack, for example. There’s a discordant narrator — she doesn’t sound like a race engineer or pit teammate — who frequently breaks in with mistimed or repetitive advice; the only option to get rid of her is to shut off narrator volume altogether, which eliminates the voice-overs in the career mode.

Racing trucks rounding a corner in front of a cheering crowd in FIA European Truck Racing Championship.
A second “World Series Tour” (which is fictitious) supplies a different class of faster but less nimble vehicles, and will take you to real-life tracks in Argentina, North America and elsewhere.
N-1 Racing/Bigben Interactive

The career mode features a full season of ETRC driving, plus a second, fictitious World Series Tour throwing in some extra tracks and a different vehicle type (it has faster acceleration, but less agility) for variety’s sake. You can drive both of these concurrently. But it’s a station-to-station experience, and the going is very slow as you freelance for several teams before getting a longer-term deal. Only when you have a lengthy contract can you start upgrading and modifying your vehicle. It reminds me of the early iterations of the new NASCAR Heat franchise, and not just because they use the same menu typeface.

An ETRC race weekend comprises a qualifying run, the super-pole qualifying round, the main race, and then a sprint race with the field reordered. Don’t ask me how the super-pole or the sprint work; the game didn’t even tell me. But that’s a lot of driving, even if a full race is only 12 laps, because of the slow pace. With lap times north of two minutes in the ETRC, I thought about getting some books on tape or gospel music to make the long haul through Misano’s back straight more tolerable. Pace and action in the World Series is a little more rollicking, but they’re still limited to 160 kph (and the cabs are not as stable). That restriction can be turned off in a Race Now event, but you’ll always be starting last out of 12 drivers.

But hey, at least all the real-world drivers are here, even if all you see of them is a helmet (and a terribly canned podium animation). And at least all the tracks are here, even if they come with plenty of jaggies on a standard Xbox One. The visuals are borderline previous-generation, certainly nowhere close to the standard expected of a modern motorsports game. Still, this is the one racing game where the driver’s-seat perspective is the preferred view. It is plenty high and wide enough to give a full view of oncoming traffic and turns ahead (I race with TV pod cameras in F1, and third-person view in other games).

FIA European Truck Racing Championship’s no-frill-iness didn’t endear itself to me, but the game didn’t push me away either. Sitting here describing the discrete racing challenge it poses makes me want to go back into it, actually, to prove something I just thought of. I’ll probably restart my career after this publishes, which I have done multiple times in F1 2019 already. That is usually the highest compliment I can pay to a sports video game’s playability — that it’s worth learning how to do right, and then doing all over again.

But I’m under no illusions, and you shouldn’t be either. FIA European Truck Racing Championship is largely a kit-assembled experience whose developer seems OK with the stopping point it reached. It’s good that N-1 Racing showed so much attention to the racing action itself, because it’s obvious the studio couldn’t give much to anything else.

FIA European Truck Racing Champuionship launched July 18 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” Xbox One download code provided by Bigben Interactive. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.