Sometimes you need a change of scenery. Really, it’s the season for it.
That craving for something different can apply to the burgeoning racing game scene too. There’s a veritable ton of titles out there right now, and the last few months alone have seen the full releases of Assetto Corsa Competizione and F1 2019. Both of those focus on specific disciplines, but they’re both still about racing cars. That’s where FIA European Truck Racing Championship comes in.
Featuring five-ton behemoths and the official seal of approval of the real-world championship, ETRC is a very different proposition in the genre. These big rigs aren’t going to break any land speed records, but so what? The more important question is whether or not ETRC is fun. The answer, thankfully, is “yes” — but with some sizeable qualifiers.
FIA European Truck Racing Championship released Thursday, July 19, on Steam (globally) plus PS4 and XB1 in Europe. The European Switch release is August 5, and the North American console launch is August 20. Bigben Interactive provided a pre-release version of the game for review on Xbox One. I played it on Xbox One X, with both a pad and the Fanatec CSL Elite PS4 wheel (with P1 Elite rim).
Content and Value For Money
ETRC focuses on the 2018 FIA season, including most of the drivers. All of the trucks are here too, from brands such as Mercedes, Iveco, MAN, and Scania — though for whatever reason, the latter two are debadged. The full eight-location calendar is in here as well, with its own exception: Hungaroring is swapped out for the fictitious Hungary Speedway. That’s not really a problem though, as it turns out to be one of the best circuits in the game.
In addition to the real-world competition, developer N-Racing has included a second, fictional championship, dubbed the World Series. This features entirely different truck models, including classic American names like Mack and Freightliner. They’re heavier and faster than the ETRC rigs, providing a slightly different experience for those craving a touch of variety.
Arguably more importantly, the World Series brings with it its own tracks, and — surprise surprise — they’re not just located in the Old World. Of the six, three are North American (Laguna Seca, COTA, and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park), with one each for South America (Autodromo de Buenos Aires), Australia (Winton Motor Raceway) and Japan (Fuji Speedway). Yes, you can send one of these big boys down the Corkscrew.
Happily, no matter which discipline you pick, you can drive on any of the tracks in Quick Race, custom Championships, or Time Trials. The exception to this is the game’s Career mode. However, even here, you can run both championships concurrently, jumping in and out as you desire.
That’s likely going to be necessary for most players, as the career can be a monotonous affair at times. It starts simply enough, with a Gran Turismo-style helping of license tests to get accustomed to the unique driving experience of ETRC. These aren’t skippable, but are also both short and very easy. I managed gold on my first attempt for all but one, usually with a half second or more of buffer.
Once you’ve proven yourself, ETRC drops you into the season as an unsigned newbie. You’ll pick up single-race contracts from teams at first, providing you with a truck for each race. Do well and the offers will continue to come in, slowly increasing in length. It’s once you have a full season contract that you can actually start spending the money you earn.
What’s so monotonous about that, you’re asking? Every race weekend includes four races at the same track. From the perspective of authenticity, that’s great: the real ETRC does it, after all. Races two and four shuffle the order too, reversing first through eighth. But I’d wager that will turn off players more than it will draw them in. On the plus side, it definitely helps to learn the track layouts! Race lengths can also be set to 25%, 50%, 75% or the full 100% of the real-world count.
No matter which series you’re taking part in, the ruleset is the same ETRC one. There are penalties for cutting corners, hitting corner markers, and particularly egregious truck-on-truck mayhem. The game strikes a fair balance between lax and punitive with these, where I hardly ever felt I was unduly punished. A nice touch is having the ruleset available in every menu during the career, to always be able to easily check if need be.
Special mention goes to the AI for being quite human. Not so much in speed — even on the hardest of the three difficulties it’s not terribly challenging — but in its ability to make mistakes. Trucks will miss braking points or take bad lines throughout the career. It’s refreshing, because the pace and size of these things means a follow-the-leader procession would wear thin very, very quickly.
There are no surprises with the online modes in ETRC. Players can find events from others or create their own, either as a simple race or a full race weekend. Exploring the features, it seems like up to eight players will mix it with AI on track. The two truck series can’t mix, and the host has the option of disabling individual penalties, such as only corner cutting, or collisions.
I say “seems” because during my review period I couldn’t actually take part in any online races. The modes are there, but the limited release roll-out, especially here in Canada, means I couldn’t join in the fun.
There’s also an option of a Weekly Event, which I’ll also assume will come on stream once the game is available in more regions.
In addition to the online race modes, there are leaderboards for time trials and the license portion of the career.
Driving Physics and Handling
You’ll have to recalibrate your expectations when driving in ETRC. These are a completely different challenge to the vehicles in other racing titles, and their comparative lack of speed does not mean they’re a simple steer.
The biggest change, outside of the trucks’ sheer size itself, is the braking. ETRC pilots have to manually spray water on the brakes to avoid them overheating over the course of a sprint. Water, like fuel, is a limited resource however, not to mention the brakes have a sweet spot in terms of operating temps. Drown them and they’ll get too cold, increasing stopping distances. It’s a fun balancing act that’s unique to the truck experience.
Stopping five tons before a corner is important too, as neither class of truck is what you’d call malleable mid-bend. With all that weight up front, trucks will plow straight on if they come in too hot. The front tires howl in protest, requiring a huge drop in speed to correct a missed apex. That in turn has a major impact on lap times, since the 160km/h (99mph) speed limiter on these beasts means there’s not much room to make up for mistakes on the straights.
Trailbraking shifts the weight up front more gradually, helping coax the cab in earlier. The basic physics make for some hair-raising moments when applying the brakes while already turning, though. The fictional Hungary Speedway has a deceptively tricky soft right into tight left hairpin that really drives this home. Braking starts in the right-hander, but apply too much and the rear will try to outrun the front to the inside of the next corner.
There’s a certain character to the engines of the trucks too. Redlining at under 3000rpm, they’re all about low-end grunt — but even more than you’d think. Short shifting is key in the ETRC series, with a positive surge of power coming on at 1500–2000rpm. The turbo is at full chat here, and will happily unstick those rear meats without hesitation.
It’s here that pad users might get caught up, as there’s little feedback from the Xbox One controller to telegraph a swinging tail. Drivers need to be quick with the corrections, as it doesn’t take much angle to turn a small slide into an unsalvageable spin. While I’m sure a light helm is actually probably pretty accurate for big rigs, I wouldn’t miss additional rumbles to stand in for the seat-of-the-pants feel that’s absent.
Thankfully the wheel is more talkative. I didn’t change anything on the CSL Elite’s setup going into ETRC, nor fiddle with any in-game settings. Out of the box there was a decent level of road texture, clearer indications of loss of grip, and more feedback on rumble strips or grass than the very faint levels on the pad. And since modern race trucks use a smaller, more vertical wheel than your typical bus, there was no major mental disconnect between what I had in my hands and what I saw on screen!
ETRC is all about conservation of speed. These may be big brutes, but they require smooth, considered lines. Racing at speeds closer to those we deal with in real life makes one focus so much more on every scrubbed mph in a corner. It’s surprisingly addicting.
European Truck Racing Championship uses the KT Engine, which sim racers will recognize from the WRC franchise. It works better for those rally games: here on the comparatively expansive tarmac circuits, the graphics come off looking just adequate. The digital trucks all match their metal equivalents, but it’s the locations that lets this side down. Textures are flat and repetitive, with little in the way of track-side details to make the tracks stand out from one another.
On consoles, the game is also locked to 30fps. That’s quickly becoming a rarity in the face of smoother 60fps, but that ETRC keeps it going is a disappointment, especially on the One X. Under-truck shadows also pop in and out in the (photo mode-less) replays, which is quite jarring on a 2019 title.
Props to N-Racing for the interior view of the cabs, though. Unless you have a big screen or are obsessed with realism, cockpit cam isn’t always the best choice in sims. It can feel claustrophobic, robbing players of valuable screen real estate to show a bunch of headliner. That’s not the case here. Thanks to the cab design of most of these trucks, the view is ideal out of all of the camera options. You get a clearer impression of the size of your rig, you can look to the sides — not possible from the teetering roof cam — and the interior itself is modelled well.
ETRC claws back half a star for its rainy circuits. There’s a palpable change in atmosphere when the clouds open up, and the Nurburgring in particular looks pretty damn convincing. This is a first title from a developer new to the genre: that it can already pull this off when other studios still haven’t put weather in their game is encouraging.
I mean, these sound like trucks. That big, rumbly diesel noise is present, though out of the box you may want to knock the other sound effects down in the options menu to bring the rigs’ voices to the fore.
The tires also play an important role, since they’re your first line of defence in keeping the truck under control. They have that signature sound that marks them out as different from usual passenger car tires. You know the one: that low-level wail from Terminator 2. Once it gets to a certain level, you can pretty much kiss any hopes of saving the slide goodbye.
There’s also the brakes, which will cry out for mercy after any prolonged prod of the pedal. Cool those suckers off! Atmospherics are all generally good too.
Then there’s the voiceovers.
If you play ETRC for more than a few minutes, you’ll meet the unnamed woman. She’ll pop up nearly every time your brakes crest 500 degrees Celcius. After the sixth time in the same race of her reminding you to spray water on your brakes, you’ll be hunting for the mute button.
It doesn’t stop at the stoppers, either. Our anonymous ear-woman will offer color commentary on passes and collisions, which is fair enough. But she’ll also say things like “try to hold your position”, which comes across as just a little out-of-touch when you’ve got a 20-second lead on the final lap.
I enjoyed my time with ETRC. It’s not a very deep game by any means, but that’s for the best. If it were, it’d further limit its appeal to players looking to try something different.
On the flip side, that means this feels like the sort of game players will pour a few dozen hours into instead of a few hundred. That’s not a mark against ETRC — I’d argue there’s a basic appeal to knowing there’s an end to a game — but given its hyper-niche focus, it does make it hard to recommend you buy it with your own hard-earned, even at the discount price.
There’s little to keep you occupied outside of the on-track action, without features like saved replays, a livery editor, or photo mode. But if you’re a sim racer that can’t get enough of the genre, you owe yourself a drive in these big boys.
FIA European Racing Truck Championship
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