It has been a busy few days at PAX East 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts; needless to say, I am playing a lot of video games. Ranging from big AAA blockbusters to small indie darlings, PAX is brimming with unique experiences. Perhaps the most surprising was a game about driving a bus. That’s right, STILLALIVE Studios’ Bus Simulator. Not because it is, quite literally, a game about the technicalities of community transit, but how unexpectedly satisfying and fun it is.
This is coming from the guy who used to play True Crime: Streets of L.A. and attempted to follow the rules of the world. I would make up speed limits for certain areas, wait for civilians who may be crossing the street, and stop at street lights as they turn from green to red. If you guessed following traffic laws in an open-world M-rated game led me into a gunfight or a car chase, you would be right. Bus Simulator is exactly that if you were actually rewarded for following the law and if you weren’t always running away from your inevitable death.
The demo for Bus Simulator began with a tutorial, showing me the ropes of what it takes to become a successful bus driver. In proper “simulator” fashion, the gameplay is more than just simply driving a bus to a bus stop, picking up some passengers, and taking them to their destination.
Every route in Bus Simulator begins with your created character outside of your bus. From there, you’ll open the door, get in your seat, and familiarize yourself with the cockpit view. To get things really started, you have to start the bus, take it out of idle, put it in drive, and close the door. It sounds incredibly simple, right? I drive a car almost every day, it can’t be too different. That process is actually harder than it seems for two reasons: I’ve never driven a bus and using a gamepad – in this case, a DualShock 4 – doesn’t seem to be the optimal way to play.
Every bus in the game is officially licensed which means it is a true-to-life representation of the actual buses you may see on the road. That also means the controls inside the bus are indicative of what you would see in-person. It was a bit daunting to see all these buttons with the only description being the name of said button; there is nothing about what that button does or if I actually need to press it.
Luckily, there is a radial menu that tells helps you through that beginning process and every process during your route. The radial menu, which can be engaged by pressing left on the d-pad indicates which processes need to be done by color coding each symbol red indicating which processes have yet to be done. For example, after you drop people off, you can use the radial menu to close the bus doors which will be colored red since you can’t and should drive with the doors open.
After you complete that beginning process of starting the bus, driving and dropping your passengers off isn’t unlike other driving games. You use the right trigger to accelerate, the left trigger to brake, and the analog sticks to look and steer. A differentiator is actually using turn signals, which can be activated with the bumpers, but it doesn’t necessarily affect the fundamentals of driving the bus. You can also switch from first-person to third-person point of view which helps with looking at your surroundings to avoid potholes, curbs, and speed bumps.
Why would you want to avoid these obstacles and use turn signals? After each route, you will receive a summary that tracks how well you drove, as well as your timeliness. If you drive like a lunatic, crashing into signs and hitting every pothole, you will lose money. Being a proficient driver, which entails following the speed limit and using your turn signals properly, will earn you more money. Being timely also factors in as you don’t want to be too late or too early. You want to be as close to “on-time” as possible. Whether you drive poorly or well, the game lets you know with a small prompt at the bottom of the screen.
The villain of Bus Simulator is the European environment; from potholes to traffic, these are the things that will ruin your day if you aren’t careful. In real-life, this would be incredibly stressful. No one wants to sit in traffic. No one wants to be responsible for picking up a bunch of ungrateful pedestrians. Yet, here I am wanting to play more Bus Simulator. These moments are relaxing. Unlike in real-life, I want to be a better driver, and all the intricacies of the game’s loop make it oddly satisfying. Bus Simulator may not be the spectacle every one desires, but it was nice to play something where I wasn’t fighting some demons.
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