Think about all the factors that would normally ruin a driving game: sluggish, unresponsive controls; a difficult to handle vehicle; a difficult to navigate track or roadway; slow, grinding progress; and the ever-present possibility of getting stuck. You will find all the above in Spintires: MudRunner, but you will also find that this is not a normal driving game. It delivers tough terrain, sluggish slops through mud, chunky trucks, and disappearing tracks and uses them for a unique off-road experience.
Building on the original Spintires game, MudRunner challenges you to get in the driver’s seat of a variety of all-terrain vehicles from 4x4s to trucks and tackle some of the toughest driving conditions ever presented in a virtual environment. The premise is simply to navigate the terrain and pick up and deliver lumber. There are 19 vehicles to unlock and choose from, each offering a different feel and a unique challenge as you attempt to traverse river crossings, bogs, rocky hills, and mud….lots of glorious mud.
This first thing to hit me about the game was the graphics. Each vehicle looks accurate and represents a battered but powerful off-road behemoth beautifully. The physics for the vehicles on display are impressive. They bob over uneven ground, switch to all-wheel drive, plough through water, and tilt dangerously, adding to the realism.
This is further supported by the level of detail in each environment. It is superb from the trees, rocks, and rivers down to the scrubby undergrowth and dead leaves on the ground. Your vehicle will interact with the environment in many ways, whether you bend tree trunks with your winch, knock small saplings over as you slide off the path, or gather foliage and mud around the wheels. The lighting also looks fantastic. Sunlight shimmers and sparkles on the water, and the transitions from day to night and back again are as good as I have seen. Within my first hour of play, I had already taken several screenshots to capture the look of the game.
The immersive environment is rounded off by the sound effects. The splutters, clunks, and roars of the engine mirror the power needed to push through obstacles. Tree branches and twigs crack under your tyres. Water sloshes off the sides of the truck. And the mud, that glorious mud – it squeezes under your vehicle with a satisfying squelch.
And this detailed landscape is fully explorable. You can take your vehicle pretty much anywhere that is physically possible. Don’t fancy taking the long route round? Well, you can cut through the tall grass and plough through the muddy river banks to get to your destination quicker. Be warned though, you may find yourself quite literally bogged down and wishing you had stuck to the established path after all. This is one of the key features of the game – you have the choice to take your vehicle wherever you think it can go. This will inevitably lead to some mishaps, like when I tipped my truck laden with logs over as I exited a river, but this only adds to the challenge aspect of the game.
The camera that shows all the features of the vehicles and the landscape off takes some getting used to. You can swing it around to view your progress, which is incredibly useful when identifying where your vehicle is stuck (and you will get stuck) and where you can attach the winch to best pull yourself back to the right track. In terms of a good angle for driving, it could be difficult to find one, especially when at the helm of one of the larger vehicles. However, I found I soon got used to it (drawing on all that old experience of top-down racers to keep my bearings straight).
You can also take a first-person viewpoint, and unlike most other driving games, you get to see hands on the steering wheel! You can also see your driver when moving the camera around outside the truck (you might even catch him scratching his nose when you leave him sitting there for a while). This is a nice touch, but it would be better if there were some sort of avatar creation instead of a standard skinny white guy. The interior of the vehicles does not quite match up to the detail of the exterior due to the simplistic dashboard. The mirrors also do not function. The only one visible is caked in mud, and there is no rearview. These are sorely missed when you are trying to get out of a tight spot.
The whole point of the game, of course, is that the vehicles are difficult to control on the rough terrain. The controls themselves are well-designed though. I got my mud flaps dirty on a PC with the Steam Controller, and for the first time, I found the default controls easy to get to grips with. A lot of functions are packed into those buttons, analogue sticks, and trackpads, but I never found myself switching view modes when I wanted to use the winch or reversing when I wanted to stop (believe me, this troubles me a lot in other games).
The only issue with the controller was the vibration effect, which I felt was overstated. Sure, these vehicles exert a huge amount of power when off-road, but the controller feedback was making my bones ache, and the noise even woke my son up one night. The menu only offers the option to switch vibration on or off. Some grading, or just a less severe setting to begin with, would be appreciated.
There are three core game modes: single-player maps, challenges, and online multiplayer. The maps and challenges build effectively on the tutorial to guide you through some of the finer points of getting to grips with your all-terrain monsters. As you drive through the maps, you can unlock new vehicles and uncover new areas to help you meet your lumber quotas. Progress is saved automatically so you can easily drop in and out. The same is not true of the challenges, which you have to complete in full before you can save. This proved to be a headache on the first one, which requires picking up a trailer, taking it to a new location and then reverse parking it. Any Euro Truck Simulator fans out there will know what a challenge that can be. Now, imagine doing it through squelching knee-deep mud. To make matters worse, mess it up too many times and the mud will become impassable. With no save option and no checkpoints, I had to restart this challenge several times, which got very frustrating.
On the general maps, however, you are less likely to get completely stuck, and there is almost always a way out through your driving skills, winch, or a combination of both. When you do tip your truck or roll sideways down a rocky slope, you can always head back to the nearest garage and take out a new vehicle. Precise positioning does come into play at times when picking up logs, especially with a trailer as in-game feedback will constantly tell you to get in the right position. That can be a frustration at times, but at least there is more margin for error than in the challenges.
Spintires: MudRunner is an interesting game, a unique take on transport simulators that takes the conventions of most vehicle-based gaming experiences and squishes them under its extra thick tyres. It looks great and really immerses the player in well-designed off-road environments. Gameplay-wise, it pushes the boundary at times between being a fun way to relax for a couple of hours and being a trudge through the quagmire (two trips to collect logs can take a few hours of real time). That means it all depends on your preferences – if you like slick rides on speedy circuits, you may want to look elsewhere, but if traversing rocky ravines, powering through muddy pools, and gaining inches with your winches sounds appealing, you will find a lot to like about MudRunner, as I have.
Developer: Saber Interactive
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Platforms: PC, PS4, X-box One
Release Date: 31st October 2017