Review: Spintires: MudRunner

One of the great things about cars is going fast.  Zipping down the road at top speed to prove nobody’s a better, speedier, more skilled driver is an incredible rush.  Need for Speed, Burnout, Forza, Dirt Rally and an endless parade of other racing titles have the “fast” thing covered, but the thing about speed is that it’s only one of the great things about driving a vehicle.  Not everything revolves around getting places when the road has already been cleared, and for that you don’t need top-gear white knuckle driving, but rather power and careful judgement of the terrain.  Spintires: MudRunner sets you in the barely-settled wilderness with a collection of vehicles designed to deal with the harshest conditions, but all the heavy engineering in the world doesn’t help when the mud is deep, bridges are chunks of unfinished wood held together by wishful thinking and the necessary resources to get out of the current mess are back at the garage on the other side of the map.

Spintires: MudRunner isn’t a game about taming the wilderness, but rather surviving it in a fleet of trucks, cars, and other specialized equipment.  It’s also not a sequel to the original Spintires, but rather the continuation of the game after relations with the original publisher fell through.  The original version went from tech demo to Kickstarter to Early Access and then full release, but even after release it kept getting updated with new content.  Development never stopped, but the updates eventually did, and now Spintires: MudRunner picks up where the first version left off with new vehicles, updated graphics, tweaked physics, more maps and gameplay modes, and the same wild outdoors that isn’t so much hostile as it is completely indifferent to your existence.  Water flows where it wants, trees grow on the land that isn’t submerged, hills poke up wherever they like and you get to work around all this using roads that are little more than a couple of ruts cleared out of the forest when there’s any road at all.

The point of every map is to deliver logs to the mill, which doesn’t sound particularly exciting on the face of it.  The problem is that there’s one of you and a good number of jobs to be completed before you can start hauling lumber, plus maintenance along the way.  You start at a garage with a few trucks to choose from, and the map has several locked points of interest scattered around it.  There are other trucks kicking around waiting to be accessed, blacked off sections of the map with watchtowers that reveal the terrain when reached, other garages to unlock, and plenty of natural hazards to make getting from point to point a proper challenge.  The trick is to realize this is going to take a while, and then settle into the map’s rhythm while enjoying the ride.

There are a couple of ways to attack a map, depending on experience.  If it’s your first time in then exploration may be best, and whether you grab a muscular truck or a perky jeep it makes sense to learn the map before getting down to business.  The other option is to bull your way to the goal, acting on the assumption that you’ll find what you need on the way, but Spintires isn’t a game about rushing so that can be counterproductive unless you know the terrain already.  Starting at the garage that acts as home base you can survey the available map, then load up your vehicle with a number of add-ons depending on where you want to go first.  Repair items let you fix up any broken vehicles you come across, enabling them to be work without stalling, or a couple of garage attachments to unlock another base, a cistern to transport gas, or various types of log holders.  Different kinds of truck bed let you carry various lengths of logs, with the longer ones being the heaviest and therefore the hardest to transport.  They pay off nicely at the lumber mill, but there’s an unhelpful landscape of rocks, trees, standing water, and squishy earth between goal and the log supply, and that doesn’t even take into account how tricky it can be to load the logs onto the truck.

And then things start going wrong.  Maybe the log loader, found at a point far away from any place it would actually load logs, fell off a bridge on the way to its workplace.  Maybe you decided the jeep really needed to climb a mountain and rolled it.  Maybe a truck got stuck in a river with nothing close enough to pull it out.  It might even be something as simple as running out of gas.  The point is, plans go wrong, but there are multiple ways to fix things.  You can usually switch vehicles and ride to your own rescue, bringing a repair kit or gas along or just using the winch each vehicle comes equipped with to drag the broken truck to safety.  The winch is the most useful tool in the game, and its use quickly becomes second nature.  There are multiple spots on each truck for it to attach to, and it can hook on to any vehicle or tree in range.  Whether you’re pulling a flipped truck up an embankment, linking vehicles together to create a convoy, or just using it for a boost up a steep, muddy hill by latching on to a tree near the summit, the winch is your friend and trusted companion.  In most driving games you can get by with four wheels and an engine but Spintires doesn’t work that way.

The trick to Spintires is to learn how it thinks, because otherwise it will come across as slow and unnecessarily brutal.  The game seems user-hostile on the surface but with a bit of play its quirks become tolerable and some even make sense.  Menus and the in-game user interface are awkward at best, but the camera is its own special kind of unusual.  At first the camera seems utterly insane, swooping around and twisting at ridiculous angles that rarely leave the truck in the center of the screen, and then with a bit of play it becomes obvious why that is.  Spintires needs a camera that can go almost anywhere, showing you the front, back, or side of the truck at any point so you can see what the tires are doing, and while it’s a beast to come to grips with it gives exactly the right view once you learn that controlling it is an important part of the game.  It’s also nice to just look around now and then, because most of the time you’re traveling slowly enough that a few seconds of sightseeing won’t put you in danger.

There’s no question, though, that Spintires: MudRunner takes a bit of learning to figure out.  A forced tutorial the first time you fire up the game gives the basics, and a series of nine Challenges provide the rest of the instructions necessary to get the most out of the experience.  Whether that’s loading logs onto a truck, using the winch to create a convoy that combines the power of multiple vehicles to power through the wilderness, going on a hill climb, or fording a river without getting swept away, there’s a good amount of technique to driving the muddy tracks that pass for roads far away from civilization.  Whether you go for the Challenges or dive right in, however, the bulk of the game is spent in Spintires‘ various sandbox maps, and it can take a couple of hours to beat just one of them.  It’s a slow, steady progression towards a goal that shouldn’t be anywhere near as entertaining as it turns out to be, but there’s a surprising amount of satisfaction to be had in wrestling trucks across terrain that no vehicle should be subjected to.

Closing Comments:

Spintires: MudRunner doesn’t make a lot of sense on the surface.  “Drive slow, deliver logs” isn’t the usual recipe for a good time.  It works amazingly well once you get used to it, though, and while there’s a learning curve, it’s one that takes place in untamed nature where you’re driving giant trucks through the mud.  The terrain ranges from unfriendly to downright brutal, with rocky ground, standing water, muddy roads, and tire-grabbing ruts absolutely everywhere.  Navigating this is a slow, deliberate affair, but each stretch of road (if there’s one to drive on) has its own new difficulty that makes pushing on through a good challenge rather than an exercise in extended patience.  At times the overwhelming Russian-ness gets a bit much, with the grey landscapes only getting good colors during sunrise and sunset, but then a short drive by the rushing waters of a turbulent river makes it all better.  Spintires: MudRunner is a giant game of trucks played in as close to a literal sandbox as possible, and while they don’t have Тонка stamped on the back, the spirit of playing with the big toys shines through.

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