Trucking Can Get Dull Fast

aaron.curtiss@latimes.com

Everything I know about long-haul trucking comes from watching "BJ and the Bear" and listening to Jim Croce albums. Turns out, that's more than enough to feel right at home with "18 Wheeler American Pro Trucker," a Sega Dreamcast game that lets players experience the freedom and carnage of the open road.

A simple, cheap thrill, "18 Wheeler" is the kind of game that makes the passing of Dreamcast all the more tragic. Here's to hoping more games of its caliber make the leap to other platforms such as Microsoft's Xbox, Nintendo's Gamecube and Sony's PlayStation 2.

Yet, despite its fast-paced play and gorgeous graphics, "18 Wheeler" suffers from a critical deficiency that prevents it from earning a spot in most folks' permanent collections. After a few hours, it pretty much plays itself out.

The goal of "18 Wheeler" is to haul a series of loads from New York to Los Angeles. Sounds easy enough--like a "Cruisin' USA" for big rigs. But every route is timed and crowded with cars and other trucks. Plus, players race against a rival trucker who thinks smashing into other vehicles is a perfectly acceptable way of coping with traffic.

Originally a coin-op arcade game, "18 Wheeler" enjoys lickety-split play and great graphics. The main portion of the game is a direct port of the arcade version.

That's good and bad.

It's good in that the game takes about 30 seconds to learn. Right paddle to accelerate. Left paddle to brake. Button "A" to shift. The thumb stick, of course, controls steering. Each leg of the trip has a simple objective: Get to the end of the course before time runs out.

Almost everything in the courses is interactive. Players can knock over light poles, plow through shrubbery, bash into other cars and bust through fences and poorly constructed buildings. It's a gas.

But "18 Wheeler's" duplication of the arcade version is bad in that each of the four trips in the game takes only a couple of minutes. In other words, it's possible to travel cross country in a fully loaded big rig in less than 10 minutes.

The arcade sensibility offers a quick, simple return on a tiny investment--usually a quarter. In that realm, short courses make sense as players slowly master them. Who has time to spend hours on end at the arcade?

That plays out in front of the TV as dozens of short games while players get the hang of the routes. Play for 30 seconds. Run out of time. Start again. Play for 30 seconds. Run out of time. Start again.

To Sega's credit, the company packed some extra games onto the disc--mainly four circuit tracks in which players bash cars for points. Plus, there's a parking simulator. Yup, a whole series of mini-games devoted to parking a big rig.

"18 Wheeler American Pro Trucker" is a great rental for a long weekend or the perfect game to mooch off a friend. But save your cash, good buddy.

'Red Faction'

On its face, "Red Faction" for Sony PlayStation 2 seems like just another first-person shooter set in some exotic locale. In this case, the place is Mars and players assume the role of Parker, a guy who passed up Harvard to work in the Martian mineral mines. One thing leads to another and before you know it, Parker leads a resistance group of miners trying to topple the brutal Ultor Corporation.

Yeah, yeah--you've heard it all before. But "Red Faction" delivers some stellar play and gives gamers more than the standard first-person run-and-gun experience. For starters, the corridors of Ultor's Martian mines are exquisitely detailed--making every turn a tour of technical grace.

Lights glow eerily in dusty corridors. Side caves shoot off and wind around for what would be hundreds of feet in the real world before sputtering out in dead ends. Elevator shafts and laboratories include all sorts of interactive lockers and catwalks.

All this makes for a wonderfully interesting romp as players accumulate ever-more-powerful weapons. Were "Red Faction" just a first-person shooter, it would be among the top tier on PS2. But wait, as they say, there's more.

"Red Faction" also allows players to take command of various vehicles, including a heavily armored drilling machine, a nimble star fighter and a submarine. So just as players start to feel a little ho-hum with down-and-dirty skirmishes, they can slip behind the stick of some heavy equipment.

It's that variety that keeps "Red Faction" interesting and enjoyable.

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Aaron Curtiss is editor of Tech Times.

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The Skinny

"18 Wheeler American Pro Trucker"

* Genre: Driving

* Price: $40

* Platform: Sega Dreamcast

* Publisher: Sega

* ESRB* rating: Everyone

* The good: Simple fun

* The bad: Too short

* Bottom line: A rollicking ride

*

"Red Faction"

* Genre: First-person shooter

* Price: $50

* Platform: Sony PlayStation 2

* Publisher: THQ

* ESRB rating: Mature

* The good: Nice variety

* The bad: Very little

* Bottom line: Unexpected

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* Entertainment Software Ratings Board

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