The simulator sub-genre has become something of a joke, and Bus Simulator seems to recognise that it’s part of the punchline. This cunningly self-aware public transport affair from StillAlive Studios straddles the line between silly and serious, blending arcade action with obsessive attention to detail. It plays a little bit like if you put Crazy Taxi, Cities Skylines, and Train Sim World all into a blender – but the resulting concoction is much more palatable than one of those fruit smoothies with carrot and ginger.
Set in a fictional city inspired by central European countries such as Germany and Austria, you’ll find yourself at the helm of your own transportation empire. With licensed buses from real-world brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Setra, and the extravagantly named MAN, you’ll create your own routes through an expanding open world, linking television obsessed travellers to different districts, spanning downtown areas to industrial quarters.
Operating the eight or so included buses can be as complicated or as straightforward as you desire, with various handling models available for differing skillsets. While the nature of the vehicles means that operation is never as complicated as in, say, a flight simulator, you’ll still need to disengage the hand brake, toggle any lights, and make any other cockpit preparations before you embark on your journey. You’ll also have to adhere to the rules of the road to maximise your profits.
The title keeps things interesting with a series of random hazards en route; disabled passengers will require use of a wheelchair ramp, while other passengers may leave litter behind that you’ll have to clear up. You can toggle the frequency of these events in order to customise the experience to your own personal tastes, and this is certainly appreciated when it comes to tasks like ticketing, which soon starts to grate.
As you progress, you’ll be able to recruit drivers, each with their own tongue-in-cheek resumes. The game definitely has a strong sense of humour, as passengers ponder whether they’re part of a video game and if their monologues are merely being used to fill out the soundscape. Navigating the user interface can be cumbersome on the DualShock 4, but the management aspect is entertaining and adds a sense of progress to an otherwise no-frills experience.
One thing we really appreciate about the gameplay loop is how hired drivers will earn a percentage of your best performance, encouraging you to run routes flawlessly in order to maximise your income on subsequent weeks. This incentive to drive well and design the most profitable routes is moreish, and even though you’ll have seen much of what the title has to offer within a few hours, it’ll keep you on the road beyond the initial honeymoon phase.
In fact, this is a game that’s more fun than it has any right to be, frankly. The actual act of controlling the vehicles, whether it’s from a first-person perspective or a behind-the-bus hover cam, is always entertaining – and there are differences between how the various automobiles operate. As you build up your transportation network, you’ll start to see other wheels from your garage out on the road, and if you play in online multiplayer you can divide tasks between friends.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that from a presentation perspective, the title wouldn't look out of place on the PlayStation 3. Bus interiors are relatively well modelled, but they don’t look great from the outside, and NPCs share the same limited pool of looks. The traffic AI is decent enough, but it can be frustratingly conservative, meaning you can get stuck behind cars that simply won’t turn off because there’s another car way off in the distance.
We also think the lack of PlayStation VR support is an oversight, as it would really enhance the sense of presence when you’re inside the bus and completing your routes. There is compatibility with various steering wheels which is a nice touch, but you definitely get a sense that the experience has been optimised for a mouse and keyboard, which makes some of the console-based commands a touch clunky. Fortunately, this isn’t a deal breaker.
A curiously compelling gameplay loop makes Bus Simulator much more entertaining than it has any right to be. The presentation is poor, but the act of actually picking up passengers and taking them to A-to-B in an expanding open world is moreish, and the title has a self-aware sense of humour that’s easy to appreciate.