I’ve got a little bit of history with dry European simulation games, but until this week I’d never played an entry in the Bus Simulator series. I have been missing out.
With a bit of downtime between other titles, I thought I’d give Bus Simulator 18 a go because hey, why not, I like to drive around and surely a bus simulator would be nothing but driving around.
It took a while for me to adjust since I’ve just come off Wreckfest, a racer that wants you to break everything, while Bus Simulator 18 punishes you for getting a single tyre up on the kerb. But once I’d learned to slow down, obey the speed limit and not smash my way through red light traffic jams, I was ready to go.
BS18 is a combination driving/management sim. You’re in charge of a fledgling young omnibus corporation, located in some mysteriously idyllic and fictional part of Germany, and have to work your way up the transportation food chain by driving routes, picking up passengers, avoiding road penalties, not crashing and then spending any money you scrape together on bigger and better buses.
I know, buses, right? Nothing I just typed out sounds interesting in the slightest, but there’s just something about this game that I adore. The management stuff, while slick and clean, doesn’t really do it for me, but the bus driving itself is fantastic.
While there’s an option to zoom out to a third-person view of a bus, that’s the coward’s option. The best way to play BS18 is in first-person, where you take on the role of a driver who gets to walk up to the bus every morning, settle into your seat, flick every switch on the dash to activate controls, manually release the handbrake then take a nice leisurely drive around town.
In first-person mode, you’re in charge of everything. There are shortcuts for the tired/lazy, but it’s much more fun to take direct control of the bus’ functions. The experience is similar to the one I only just found in FAR: Lone Sails, where the repetition of seemingly mundane tasks in service of forward momentum has a strange, almost-zen-like quality to it. I know on many levels it’s dumb, repetitive work, but it’s also so soothing.
On longer, more difficult routes, you’re not just driving the bus either. Because you’re a person, and not just a camera stuck behind the wheel, you can get out of your seat and walk around the bus sometimes, which you’ll need to do to clear people blocking doors, check tickets and pick up litter.
Again, I know this sounds boring, but I love it. That might have something to do with the fact that, as pedestrian as it sounds to drive around slowly and stop every few minutes, the act of moving a bus around in full simulation mode is more than enough to keep you busy. Braking safely, avoiding kerbs, braking gently, opening doors, lowering ramps, closing doors, printing tickets, handing over change, there’s a surprising amount to do on even the simplest bus routes, and driving a bus into a garage at the end of the day is as satisfying as any time I’ve landed an X-Wing or F-16 after a dangerous mission.
BS18 isn’t the prettiest game around, but it’s serviceable enough. The character models and general scenery might by a bit sterile, but the actual bus interior is nice, and some of the weather effects—storms especially—are surprisingly pretty, not to mention an added challenge since unlike fun racing games rain here is a genuine obstruction to your driving.
I can’t speak for the management side of things too much because I don’t really know the series, and also didn’t care that much for it since all I wanted to do was make enough cash to buy better buses, but it was easy to navigate, clearly presented and everything I wanted to know was only a click away. Which is all you could ask for from a management panel, I guess.
Coming from Wreckfest, and now making my way back to Red Faction: Guerilla, it’s been a month where video games have been very fast and loud and destructive, so it’s been a pleasant change of pace to boot up Bus Simulator every now and again, take some deep breaths and just unwind by getting people to and from work every day.
Correction - 12:01pm, July 10: This post originally referred to the game as Bus Simulator 19, following the convention of many sports games to use the following year in the title. The game’s actual name is Bus Simulator 18. Apologies for the error.