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Star Trucker is sluggish, frustrating and my favourite Steam Next Fest demo

 A space truck.
A space truck.

I've always loved Euro and American Truck Simulator, at least conceptually. But I spent too much of my youth stuck in my parents' car, driving across Europe, to find the series' purposefully mundane road trips particularly novel. Space, though? That's a more thrilling—and crucially dangerous—setting, and the source of Star Trucker's more thrilling journeys.

While Star Trucker does not merely transpose Truck Simulator from Europe or America to space, veteran truckers will still find the bones welcomingly familiar. As a cosmic trucker, you'll need to pick up cargo hauling jobs, hitch your vehicle to big containers, travel long distances to drop off points, and maintain your fuel levels and the integrity of your truck. Damage and missing deadlines come with big costs, and you may even find yourself out of pocket despite all your hard work.

Using a gate
Using a gate

But it doesn't quite revel in the mundane in the same way as its Earthbound inspirations. Despite the sci-fi setting, Star Trucker is obsessed with '70s Americana and the romanticisation of life on the road. It's full of accents dripping in southern drawl, the radio spits out country blues and rock, and I can only assume the diners still serve disappointing coffee. It's full of playfully retro artefacts and charm—personality that sets it apart from its grounded predecessors.

Space also throws a lot of complications into the mix. At the start of the demo, I have to leave the safety and artificial gravity of my cab and head outside to conduct some EV repairs on the hull. This would not be the only time I'd need to do some DIY fixes. After travelling through a gate that flings me towards my distant destination, I bump into some debris, necessitating yet more repairs.

All this damage and faffing around also costs me some of my payment for the cargo, and drains my power. Despite warnings about my power cells, I carry on with the tutorial, expecting to reach a point where the game will inform me how to deal with this impending crisis. It does not. I search for a place to buy more cells, but can't find anything. "OK," I say to myself, "I'll pick up another job and hope there's a shop at my destination." Big mistake.

A space station
A space station

My next big mistake is to head directly to the gate. You see, there are highways in space, and these are clear of floating debris. The same cannot be said for the areas around them. This creates a welcome risk versus reward dynamic when you want to take a shortcut, but none of this is made clear during the tutorial. So after weaving in between debris for a few minutes, trying to rein in my sluggish truck and its precious, hefty cargo container, I slam right into a big chunk of metal. I'm so close to the gate, though, that I ignore the hull breaches and hurtle through space towards my next destination. Big mistake number three.

When I get to the other side, I try to accelerate, but nothing happens. All of my monitors, which are normally full of information, showing me my power levels, damage, and exterior video feeds, are turned off. There's also a box floating right in front of my face because the gravity is also off. Getting out of my chair, I find all of the smaller containers that I store in my cab similarly floating, their contents strewn all over the place and damaged.

I plant my head on my desk when I realise that spare power cells are among these now broken items. I had them with me all along. It would have been very nice if there'd been any indication beforehand. With my truck now completely stationary, and with no hope of going anywhere, I'm afforded some time to properly explore the cab. Solar shutters, air filters, a fuse board, power units—there's a lot going on.

By lifting up the stairs I find the gravity unit, but all my spare power cells are too damaged to be of any use. Instead I take one of the two working cells currently powering the maglock that keeps my cargo attached and assists with docking, cramming it inside the gravity unit instead. Everything falls to the ground. Including me. That's one problem solved.

Cargo floating
Cargo floating

Unfortunately, I have no way to power my core systems. I'm dead in space. It's only after I quit the demo that I discover I can search for nearby salvage. Which would have been great to know. Judging by the Steam discussion page, I'm not the only one who feels Star Trucker could use some more guidance. The fact that there are tutorial pop ups and objectives tricks you into expecting at least a brief explanation of how to deal with the game's myriad crises. One suggestion that I really like is a trucker manual that you can flip through, which would stop it from feeling like the game's babysitting you. Hopefully it's feedback the team takes to heart.

Despite some issues with the not-so-great tutorial, however, Star Trucker has a lot to recommend it, and my enthusiasm hasn't been dampened. It wasn't long before I hopped back in my truck.

Simply getting from A to B requires a lot of planning and demands a degree of reactivity as you balance your truck's power-sapping systems. Space is always trying to kill you, whether you freeze to death or run out of oxygen, or damage your cargo, lending the game a survivalist bent that I really dig. I'm equally smitten with how tactile it is, your cab covered in buttons and dials and levers demanding to be fiddled with.

A space truck
A space truck

The vibes also do a lot of work. I'm so here for the juxtaposition of the majesty of space with things like American highway signage and space lanes filled with spaceships that look like junky, gas-guzzling trucks. Trucks, I should add, which can be upgraded, not just with practical components, but cosmetic ones too, letting you turn your vehicle into a gaudy monstrosity. I love it. Sims like this so often feel dry, so the whimsy and silliness really sets Star Trucker apart.

And now that I've shared my trials and tribulations with you, your experience of the demo should be a lot smoother, so go ahead and take it for a spin now. There's no release date yet, but it's expected to launch this year.