I'm a big fan of PC-based simulators. Always have been, probably always will be. Flight simulators, motor racing simulators, even boat simulators have found a place on my hard drive at one time or another. I even have a wish list of simulators I'd like to see. For example, you know those huge cranes they use to erect bridges and skyscrapers? I think it would be a blast to be able to run one of those on a PC. Even with all of that, though, I have to confess that I was somewhat taken aback by Meridian4's new title “Bus Driver.”
At first glance, It seemed to me that it would take a lengthy and deliberate process to come up with a more mundane occupation to simulate than driving a bus. I figured it would be like Crazy Taxi, except there would be no 'Crazy' and no 'Taxi' to liven things up. I asked myself what could be the possible sequel to a title like this? “Grand Theft Tractor Driver?” “Blades of Grass: 3D Lawnmower?” “Union Negotiations 3D?” Still, I thought it might be worth a look.
It went poorly at first. Bus Driver crashed repeatedly on my new Windows Vista machine, either because it doesn't like Vista (or vice-versa) or it doesn't like my video drivers. I lean towards the latter as it was the drivers that posted the error message. Hmm, my video driver didn't like Bus Driver. Ironic. In any event, as most Vista owners know by now, it pays to keep a Windows XP box in reserve. The game ran fine on the older but more stable box, but I did spend a few minutes trying to figure out why my mouse doesn't work in the menu screens. I finally decided that there was nothing wrong with the mouse; for some reason, it appears that you simply don't get mouse services within the game. That caught me by surprise, and I thought that it boded ill for the prospects of support for my Logitech G25 steering wheel, but such wasn't the case. Configuration of the wheel was easy and painless.
With the preparations complete, it was time to get behind the wheel of a bus. There are 12 to choose from, but I decided to start with the ubiquitous American yellow school bus. The first routes you will drive are short and easy, but through time they become more challenging. The shorter routes give you a chance to get familiar with the driving qualities of the bus, which is a good thing because they are pretty, well, bus-like. It takes a little experience to learn how to lead turns to avoid lane transgressions and to leave plenty of time to get slowed down and stopped for red lights. I've actually driven one of these buses before, and one of the most memorable things about it was how hard it is to brake smoothly with the air brakes. Until you get a feel for it, you'd think they have only two positions: off, and screeching to a skidding stop. Bus Driver models this pretty well, and attempts to discourage you from jamming them on and skidding to a stop by deducting points from your score, but the sound of the frightened kids screaming makes doing it worth the loss of points.
In fact, there's no real reason to worry about your score, and I found that to be the least compelling part of the game. There are point deductions for things like changing lanes without using turn signals, running red lights, and running into parked and/or moving objects. To balance that out, you can drive as fast as you want without incurring any penalties. As a daily commuter, these are rules I could live with in the real world! You also get points for being on time, but I never did manage to figure out how they were awarded. You don't earn anything with them, so I rapidly adopted an attitude of simply not caring. Which, now that I think about it, is a pretty realistic representation of every bus driver I've ever ridden with.
The driving all happens from a camera position above and behind the bus, which is unfortunate. I find there to be a lot more realism when driving from behind the wheel. The sounds, though, were so realistic that I had to remind myself that it was probably my dog that I was smelling and not the exhaust from a bus. The air brakes in particular were really well done.
There were a few quirks in the driving rules, though. First, don't even think about making a right turn on red. You'll lose 200 points for that. Also, the other traffic doesn't stop as it should when the yellow school bus is embarking or disembarking passengers. You'll get used to that, though, so you may want to put a Post-It note in your real car to remind you.
Unfortunately, there's one aspect of the game that I suspect is also true to real life: once you get the hang of doing it right, there's not much left to challenge you and keep it interesting. While it is the type of game that can be picked up and learned quite easily, it is equally easy to drop once you've mastered it. Keep in mind that this is an observation from a guy that has to drive way too much in the real world, though. Part of the appeal of computer-based simulators is that they allow you to experience things that you probably can't do in real life. While driving a bus around town doesn't seem that exotic and attractive to me, I can easily see how it would appeal to the younger set.