In its quest to cover just about every corner of the transportation industry with its games, Sega is releasing 18 Wheeler: American Pro Trucker for the Dreamcast--an unexpectedly exciting game, for those who've never played it. The game is essentially a port of the arcade game of the same name, with a handful of new options thrown in to justify its purchase. In it, you assume the role of a rookie trucker who must prove his worth to his employer by, as you'd expect, hauling massive payloads of cargo from city to city, all the while minding the ever-ticking timer. To our surprise, the game seems to work very well on the Dreamcast, despite the fact that the arcade version largely relied on a pretty elaborate cabinet.
The meat of the game is its arcade mode. The mode re-creates the experience of the arcade version, sending you on a series of missions across various cargo routes throughout the US. In order to successfully complete a mission, you must reach your goal before the timer expires. What's more, you're constantly harassed by a perpetually present rival trucker, who does his damnedest to foil you at every turn. The game controls very well. The right and left analog triggers control acceleration and braking, respectively, while the face buttons have camera, reverse, and gearshift functions mapped to them. You can also honk your horn, though it seems to have no effect on pedestrian traffic.
It must be noted that in its default difficulty level, 18 Wheeler is insanely hard. You basically have to drive flawlessly in order to beat the timer, and if you end up finishing before your rival (which nets you a cash bonus), you can consider yourself pro-trucker material. Each level has more than one route that you can take, and the trick to mastering 18 Wheeler's rough courses is in learning how to successfully exploit each one's advantages. Most routes will have a variety of possible shortcuts you can take in order to maximize the efficiency of your trek, though some are quite well hidden by obstacles. One stage, for instance, will have you literally crashing through a suburb before revealing its subtle shortcut, while another will cause you to drive off the edge of an expressway lane in order to access the quickest route.
There are several ways to gain speed and add a few extra ticks to your clock, however. When driving behind another big rig, you can take advantage of its slipstream, which grants you a slight increase in acceleration rate. You'll eventually begin to move much faster than the truck you're trailing, however, so you'll want to swerve at the just the right moment in order to prevent a wreck--provided a path is available. Also dotting the courses are specially marked cars, whose destruction grants you a slight time bonus of a few seconds. Though your first instinct will be to simply pass the cars rather than directly colliding with them, destroying them is the only way to net their time bonus.
In all, the game seems rather exhilarating, if a bit frustrating in difficulty level. There are many ways to superficially affect the difficulty, however, the most notable of which is by choosing lighter rigs at the beginning of each stage. Since you're given the choice between heavier, longer, and more expensive cargo and lighter, shorter, and less expensive cargo, choosing the latter will often make it easier for you to complete the stage. When all is taken into account, the courses are rather short, even though they supposedly span several states in length. Time and distance are compressed, however, and you'll often see landscapes shifting in an almost surreal manner.
18 Wheeler's production seems spot-on. The graphics are crisp and clear, and the frame rate seldom stutters, even during the craziest moments. During the final stretch of the second stage, for instance, a Texas twister ravages the highway, sending fuel tankers and commuter buses alike into air and littering the road with debris. Throughout all the madness, the game remains wonderfully playable, seldom skipping a beat. All the vehicles are nicely rendered, and the textures are all fairly sharp. A host of subtle visual niceties permeate the game as well. When in the first-person view, for instance, all objects on your dashboard and whatever baubles your character has hanging from his rearview mirror react realistically to the physical behavior of your vehicle. It's a very nice touch, and it serves to immerse you in the sleazy world of the trucker.
18 Wheeler: American Pro Trucker should prove a suitable treat for Dreamcast owners looking for a slightly different driving experience. Look for it this May.