Reviewed: April 1, 2008
Released: May 30, 2008
When I first heard about Bus Driver I had to check my calendar. I knew April 1st was right around the corner and I thought this was an obvious prank, but after a few minutes of research I found that Bus Driver, despite its mundane title, was in fact a real game and one that actually intrigued me. With a premise based loosely on the design of one of my all-time favorite arcade racers, Crazy Taxi, Bus Driver has you transporting mass quantities of people around the city and countryside, only this driving game is far from crazy in its speed or action. This is a simulation, and these multi-ton buses wonít be drifting around turns or catching crazy air anytime soon.
Personally, Iíve never spent too much time on a bus. I was within walking distance to school growing up, and my city bus experience has been limited to the few times my car has been in the shop, although I did take a Greyhound from Indiana to Florida once, but thanks to therapy Iíve put that experience behind meÖeewww. My sister actually drove a school bus for a couple of years, so hopefully that makes me qualified to write this review, even if she wasnít consulted.
Bus Driver offers 12 unique and detailed buses to drive around cities, suburbs, and the outlying countryside. Your goal is simple; drive from stop to stop, pick up and drop off passengers, and try to stay on time while obeying traffic laws and not wrecking the bus. Easy huh? Not quite.
There are 30 routes divided into 5 tiers of increasing difficulty where the timetables are shorter, the routes are longer, and traffic and weather conditions get even more challenging. Depending on the bus you are driving and the particular mission, your duties might vary slightly. One mission might have you taking kids to school while the next might have you transporting tourists on a sightseeing tour or visiting businessmen to a convention center from the airport. And things get really exciting when you get to drive the prison bus and transport prisoners from the jail to the courthouse complete with police roadblocks, chopper escort, and a free pass on obeying traffic laws.
I wonít lie, Bus Driver can be a bit boring and repetitive, but Iím guessing real-life bus drivers didnít pick their vocation for the thrills. The buses are painfully slow and aside from the few missions where you actually get to go out on the highway you are seldom going to achieve speeds greater than 30-40mph. But that is probably a good thing since just about the time you do get ďmovingĒ you find yourself quickly approaching a bus stop or a red light or some crazy driver pulls into your lane and cuts you off.
The rules for each mission are simple. You have a list of stops and an interval time assigned to each. You need to get to each stop on time (or as soon as possible), then stay until the designated departure time. This part really threw me, because I always wanted to leave once everybody had boarded so I had extra time to get to the next stop, but you really canít leave early or you might miss a straggler. RememberÖĒno child left behindĒ applies to school buses too.
No matter how hard you try itís impossible to stay on time. Between traffic and stop lights my best percentage for staying on time was 47%. There is no real penalty, just a lack of bonus points when your final score is tabulated at the end of your route. You will get penalized for breaking traffic laws, driving recklessly, and of course, crashing the bus. There is even a meter to judge how hard you are applying the brakes. If you brake too hard and cause discomfort to your passengers, points will be deducted.
The game tracks a lot of information like the current happiness of your passengers, how many are sitting, standing, getting off at the next stop, etc. When you pull into a bus stop and open the door the loading and unloading counters tick off the people that board and disembark the bus and a timer counts how long each stop takes. One clever element I found while driving the prison bus; the passengers start off with red angry icons and get happier with each sudden stop and wreck.
Being a simulation it is imperative to obey all traffic laws, even ones that we, as everyday drivers, might have become a bit lax in. You must signal when pulling away from the curb and changing lanes. You must stop for red lights and not drive too far into the intersection. You even have the four-way flashers for the school bus. The only bus-specific law I didnít see implemented was stopping and opening the door at railroad crossings.
I also want to file an official complaint about the length of green lights in this fictitious city. Red lights last at least 3-4x longer than green lights (which is why I am never on time) and green lights cycle back to red so fast that unless you are first or second in line at an intersection youíll be going through on a yellow or even red. At least as long as you are in the intersection before the light turns red it wonít count against you. Itís a 200-point penalty for running a red light or encroaching into the intersection, but if you lock-up your brakes to stop for one youíll lose 100 points for distressing the passengers. The best rule is to drive slow and always expect the light at every intersection to be red.
Bus Driver has a massive city with multiple areas of diversity, so each missions looks and plays out differently. Sure, there is a bit of overlap in the scenery by the time you reach the third or forth tier, but the routes are always different as are the stops. There is even a day and night cycle and rain and snowy weather, which also affect the handling of your bus. Nothing is scarier than starting to fishtail a shuttle bus in the snow as you speed away from the airport.
Of course a driving game is only as good as the controls and physics. Bus Driver nails the physics of these massive vehicles with special attention to momentum and a larger turn radius that makes right turns challenging. The game defaults to keyboard control and it gets the job done while being a bit awkward at times. Itís really hard to make a smooth arcing turn with a keyboard. I played the first tier with the keyboard then broke out my gamepad for the rest of the game, but even that presented some interesting challenges, especially with the gas and brake, which were overly sensitive. I really had to learn how to feather the brakes to keep my passengers from screaming in terror.
You have commands for using your blinkers, which automatically triggers the appropriate mirror, or you can activate PIP mirror views for either side. You also get to manually open and close the door after you are in the proper stop zone. All of these commands can be mapped to the controller. I was disappointed that you cannot navigate the menus with a gamepad, so you still need to use the keyboard until you get into the actual game.
I had my doubts about how good a game called Bus Driver would actually look, or even how well I needed to look. Itís a fairly utilitarian game design that doesnít lend itself to flashing visuals or special effects, but that didnít stop the designers from really making the most out of the opportunity to create a massive living city. Each area of the game world is quite distinct but blends naturally into each adjoining section so you wonít even notice when you go from the narrow streets of the city to the curvy mountain roads or the passenger pick-up lane at the airport. It just looks and feels real.
There are nice subtle effects, especially for the weather. Leaves will float off trees, headlights will illuminate the road ahead, and there are nice lens flare effects off all the lighting. The city architecture is diverse enough but the textures and signage definitely gets repetitive. The framerate is really smooth and there is support for all screen resolutions, even widescreen modes.
The traffic models are excellent with a nice assortment of cars, trucks, and other buses. Naturally, the bus models received the most attention and the look fantastic, complete with realistic physics that cause them to tip slightly during sharp turns. Working brake lights, turns signals and flashers complete the design. There are no pedestrians on the streets and the design for the passengers is limited to static images of people at the bus stop who magically vanish and appear inside your bus.
The interface is informative and gives you all the necessary information you need along the top and bottom edges including a real-time status and scoring report for your driving performance in the animated ticker window. A mini-map insert shows you the road ahead, much like a GPS, and the game uses animated overlays in the 3D world to show you turns at intersections and your stopping position at each bus stop. Pop-up windows at each bus stop show your current timetable for the rest of your route. I did notice the top part of the HUD often blocked my view of traffic lights, at least when I was first at the light, and I had to rely on the green flare effect or watch other cars to know when I could go.
The one thing I really wanted was some selection for camera views. The ďbehind the busĒ angle works when you are going straight, but making turns, especially sharp turns, often became blind turns as the camera takes way too long to swing back in behind the bus. It also gets dangerous when following other cars. Despite the bus turning transparent, it is too easy to rear-end another car, especially in the confines of a tunnel.
There is a very pleasant jazz theme for the opening title sequence and menus. Itís part piano, part drums, and part guitar, and totally enjoyable. Once you get into the game youíll be left with the sounds of traffic, the click of turn signals, the ding sound when you open and close your bus door, the purr of the engine and the hiss of the air brakes. You can even honk your horn but nobody seems to get out of the way when you do, even when you are carrying a busload of prisoner which a chopper flying above you.
Of course the best sound effect is the one you donít want to hearÖyour passengers screaming out in terror when you lock up your brakes, hit a car or glance off a guardrail. I was also amused at the cheers from the prisoners who enjoyed my reckless driving and the cheers, whistles, and applause at the end of each mission always strokes my ego, even if I didnít get a high score.
There are 30 routes that should take several hours to complete. The initial routes are short and take only a few minutes but later in the game you get some real endurance missions that has you driving across the entire map, often without making a stop. Itís these levels that really test your patience and quality of driving.
Replay potential is limited to your desire to best you previous scores. High scores are tracked for each mission, and with dynamic traffic patterns and signal lights, each replay is guaranteed to be somewhat unique, even if the route and mission parameters are the same. $29.99 might be a bit on the high end of the price scale, especially for an online purchase with no disc, box, or manual. Bus Driver has the technical quality of a $30 game but its substance and limited appeal would probably be better suited at $20. Regardless, you can download a Free Demo and find out if driving a bus is something you are interested in.
Bus Driver is a surprisingly engaging driving simulation that might just give you some insight into the daily lives of real bus drivers around the world. Itís great fun in a non-traditional game setting where you actually feel good about obeying traffic laws and driving safe, rather than running from the police and driving like a madman. I know in my personal life, I am now a lot better about using my turn signal for lane changes, so I can thank Bus Driver for that.
My only regret is that this game is confined to the PC, a platform that is quickly slipping away into obscurity when it comes to gaming. Bus Driver is the perfect type of game for the console, specifically, Xbox Live Arcade. The potential for even greater fun with improved analog controls, interesting achievements, and even some multiplayer challenges would make this a fantastic original offering on the Xbox 360.