STAFF REVIEW of Bus Simulator 21 (Xbox One)

Thursday, September 23, 2021.
by Adam Dileva

Bus Simulator 21 Box art When I reviewed the inaugural Bus Simulator on Xbox One back in 2019, I wasn’t blown away but I did understand what it was attempting to accomplish for its specific target audience. It had a laundry list of minor issues and didn’t wow me with its bland visuals, but I still had a certain calm and relaxing experience as I drove around the city on different routes. Well, it’s a new year and Bus Simulator 21 is now here for the masses, so I was interested to see what has been changed and improved, hoping for a slightly better experience with a few needed improvements from the last outing.

“Your Bus. Your Route. Your Schedule.”. That’s the tagline of Bus Simulator 21 and encapsulates its core game quite well. Sure, most of your time will be sitting in one of your busses, driving a route to earn money for your company and drive citizens to their destinations, but the other half of the game is the management part of running a transportation business. Part bus driver, part city planner, Bus Simulator 21 expands on its base game allowing for much more personalization with bus liveries and route planning across two very large maps compared to the previous game.

While I’m not a bus enthusiast by any means, some people out there are, and they’ll be happy to know that the same bus brands make their return like MAN, Setra, Mercedes and IVECO, but developers stillalive studios wanted more, so they’ve also now included other brands like Volvo, Alexander Dennis, Scania, BYD, Grande West, and Blue Bird, adding to a total of 30 licensed busses and unique options that are a first for the series. They all appear to be authentic, as you can sit in the driver seat in first person and toggle every knob, switch and lever as you drive from stop to stop.

Before we delve into the rest of the game maybe you’re wondering what’s exactly new in Bus Simulator 21 compared to the last version like I was. While there’s not really a bullet point list of new features, a few of the notables would be the latest inclusion of not only double-decker busses but also now e-buses as well. Driving these new additions are an interesting addition and you’re even able to walk to the top deck as well. The other major addition is a whole new map, Angel Shores, based in the US. The European Seaside Valley map returns from the previous game but it’s been slightly revamped and improved but also includes the map extension, making for a massive city to plan, route and drive. There’s also a handful of other minor improvements like AI, route planning and character customization but those previously listed are the major additions for this year’s entry.

Before you delve into your new bus driving career though you’ll be tasked with creating your character, vastly improved from the last version with 15,000 combinations, but still quite limited compared to other games. The choices are decent, though there’s some odd clothing choices available, as I had my driver in a crop top and super short skirt, not something you’d expect for professional bus attire. There’s a complete lack of lip syncing as well when you do see people talking to you up close, not a deal breaker, but distracting enough to take the immersion away.

Once you complete a short tutorial you’ll be able to choose one of the two maps depending on your preference. I of course felt right at home in Seaside Valley from the previous game but chose the new Angel Shores map to see if there were many differences. I guess given that developers are based overseas, as is the European map, it was specifically pointed out that you can turn right when at a red light, a common rule of road here though I guess not overseas. Just like the original map, each has its own districts that vary from residential, commercial and more. One area was littered with restaurants, clubs and a place where the nightlife comes alive, so I had to create a route that serviced that area during the later hours when citizens were wanting to go out for a night on the town.

As you progress through the career you’ll have main objective to complete, though you aren’t forced to do them right away if you want to sit back and enjoy driving certain routes and earn some cash for your booming business. You’ll start with a few small routes with just a few stops, eventually creating more routes as you earn enough to purchase more busses and having multiple stops all across the city. Your main objective isn’t just to constantly drive a bus route either, but plan and build routes and schedules that will earn you the most money and service the city for its citizens.

As you drive routes and stop at your scheduled bus stops you’ll drop off and pickup new passengers. The more you service these stops they’ll be able to level up, allowing more routes to connect to them. In the beginning a bus stop might only support one or two bus routes at a time, but drive the route enough and they’ll level up, allowing you to add more routes to them as you progress. As you drive and complete routes you’ll also earn cash for the business based on how well and accurately you drove. You’ll lose star ratings based on if you hit any potholes, objects, cars, people, speed, forget to use your turns signals and more, just like in real life. This is a simulator so you need to keep all of this in mind, as well as being at your stops on time. As you drive better you’ll earn more. While it’s not explicitly explained, I believe that the better you drive a route, the better the AI will drive it as well if you choose to have them take over. You can leave driving a route at any time and have a fellow AI employee take over at any time, and vice versa if you want to drive a specific route that’s already on the road.

You can build as many routes as you want, connecting any of the bus stops on the map, but you’re given much more information about people’s habits and wants, when peak times are and more, so if you delve into it you can earn much more if planned properly. Have a super heavy route full of riders that say leave school at a certain time or want to go downtown at night, then maybe you’ll want a larger or double-decker bus for those specific routes. Have very windy roads and sharp turns? Then it’s probably not a good idea to set a double length articulating bus in that area.

There are numerous difficulty and accessibility options, allowing you to customize nearly every aspect you want, like turning traffic violations off, speedbumps, potholes, automatic cashier, etc. Driving a bus route is much more involved than simply driving point A to B, as you’ll need to do your best to stay on schedule while dealing with traffic, fare evaders, changing weather and more. The simulator in the title really lives up to its name, as you’ll need to hit a switch or button for nearly everything you want to do on your bus, from turning on your lights, lowering the hydraulics, extending the ramp, e-brake and more. There’s a redial menu that you can use to quickly access these or you can play in first person and actually hit each button if you want the most authentic experience of being a bus driver, even if it takes much more time to do so.

A few quality of life improvements have been added, like being able to jump to any specific stop on the map, fast forward time, fast travel to specific points like your headquarters, bus shop or even take over any route from the NPC’s currently driving it whenever you want. Even with these minor features added, the overall gameplay felt much more fluid with not so much downtime as before. One feature that wasn’t improved though was the atrocious voice acting from the passengers that say random one-liners from time to time, and while there’s more sayings than before, it’s some of the worst voice acting I can recall.

With many more busses this time, there’s surely a few that will be your favorite, as they all drive quite differently based on their engine, turning radius, length and more. The articulated buses were very challenging to take in tight corners, but the smaller regular sized buses were much easier to maneuver in the smaller streets. The driving and turning itself does take quite a bit of getting used to and I guarantee you’re going to hit quite a few objects for the first while until you get a feel for it. You’re even able to update your buses with liveries and different colors and paint schemes. There’s even some ads you can place on the sides of buses, and while it’s nowhere near as in-depth or customizable that you’d expect from a Forza title, it certainly helped me distinguish which bus was what in the menus.

Creating and editing routes still feels a bit ‘off’. This is all done in the menus with the city map and is completely functional, but can be quite confusing once routes start to overlap each other. Routes are color coded, but having two slightly different shades of blue overlapping one another can be quite confusing as to which one you’re currently highlighting. I found it easier to delete a route and build a new one rather than editing, but you do eventually get used to the wonky menu controls the more you spend time with it.

Those that have a steering wheel for Xbox will be happy to know that a handful are currently officially supported: HORI - Racing Wheel Overdrive, Logitech G920 Driving Force and the Thrustmaster TMX Force Feedback. I have a Fanatec wheel and there are others out there, and even though they aren’t on the official supported list, they should all still work as long as the Xbox itself recognizes it as a steering wheel. You’ll simply need to configure the wheel manually and all the functions may not completely work, but it’s still great that there’s wheel support at launch, adding another layer of simulation.

Driving a bus route can be tedious and boring if you do it for a long time, so why not invite a friend to help you out? Playable in single or multiplayer, Bus Simulator 21 allows you to invite up to three other friends to help your growing transport business, with some caveats. Playing cooperatively, you and your friends can either split up and drive separate routes, drive in convoy along the same route, or ride along in each other’s bus checking passengers for fare dodgers. Be careful though, as any fines they incur goes towards your company, so if you have random people join your game and they start hitting pedestrians, you can lose all of your money and go in debt within minutes, though there are a bunch of toggles you can choose to restrict players that join you from doing certain things to prevent this.

While there are a bunch of improvements from the last game like the new dynamic weather system and a day and night cycle that does add to its realism and is welcomed, it still isn’t going to impress you with its visuals. Sure, the busses themselves are recreated to appear as their actual real counterparts, but aside from that everything else still looks quite dated. Passengers look simply 'fine' at best, but animations of walking and movement is quite janky and stiff. The environments and roads look decent, but anything not directly on the road like buildings and rock formations are of a much lower quality. Audio is basically the same, with the busses having a whirling engine sound, hearing the hydraulics release its pressure as it lowers and even being able to hear the turning blinkers, but the passenger voice acting is so terrible that it’s incredibly distracting.

Bus Simulator 21 is a slight improvement from its previous outing, adding new and welcome features like a whole new map and bus types, but still feels like it’s lacking a lot of polish. Surely simulator fans will overlook its shortcomings and enjoy creating and driving their routes but it’s a bit of a harder sell for casual bus drivers.

**Bus Simulator 21 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X with a controller/Fanatec steering wheel/pedals**

Overall: 7.0 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 6.0 / 10
Sound: 5.0 / 10


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