15 minutes. That should be plenty of time to make progress in a driving game. Maybe a handful of laps of a classic racing circuit, or a chance to travel between distant checkpoints on a vast open-world map, stopping off to do a side quest on the way? In a conventional driving game, sure.
In the world of Spintires, though, quarter-of-an-hour might just offer you a window in which to cover a couple of 100 meters of forward movement. That’s because Saber Interactive’s beguilingly atypical automotive game isn’t concerned with how quickly tarmac is passing under the wheels of its vehicles. Instead, it’s a series staunchly devoted to traversing very unfriendly terrain, very slowly indeed, through deep mud. There’s even a case to argue that as much as it is a driving game, Spintires is also a strategy title with puzzle elements that just happens to be played using gigantic trucks.
But before we get around to all that, a clarification: this review is for the American Wild’s Edition of Spintires: MudRunner. That means you get the 2017 Spintires: MudRunner, plus all the DLC released to date, as well as the sizable new American Wilds expansion. Last year’s version was itself a hybrid sequel-remake of the cult 2014 PC hit Spintires. Existing Spintires: MudRunner players can, of course, simply upgrade their version by grabbing the American Wild expansion in isolation.
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This is Spintires revisited, meaning you get the gameplay that has always defined the series. Spintires: MudRunner presents itself as a simulator, but in terms of vehicle handling and interaction it certainly has some arcade leanings. There’s none of the fastidious realism of the likes of Train Sim World, where you had to familiarise yourself with all kinds of jargon and memorise elaborate switch sequences simply to move forward. But Saber’s creation is going to demand you do a lot more than accelerate and brake to make progress.
The game is built around the rather pedestrian task of picking up logs and driving them to lumber mills. But in Spintires: MudRunner, it really is about the journey more than the destination. Simply put, getting to a mill will take crossing some extremely bumpy, gloopy terrain through vast rural sandboxes. Most of the time driving will be spent inching forward, while you focus on how you might overcome a rocky protrusion that has one front wheel hooked up and an array of back wheels stuck wildly spinning as they nearly disappear beneath a pool of mud.
That sounds quite the opposite of fun. After all, out here in reality, there are few things as frustrating as getting a vehicle stuck in mud, burning your clutch out as spinning tires greedily carve an increasingly deep groove in the ground below them, asserting their commitment to staying put with spiraling devotion.
The core gameplay in Spintires: Mudrunner, though, is surprisingly relaxing, rewarding and pleasurable. It turns out that progress in a driving game doesn’t have to be fused to speed. It is remarkable what a victory it can feel to finally push the front wheels of a huge truck over a hump, and have them find traction on solid ground, releasing you from what felt like an impossible struggle with an unforgiving mire.
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Saber has created another example of ‘slow gaming’, where the lack of furious action and pace provides a welcome respite from a hectic reality. It’s a testament to the game’s unhurried pace that it really is possible to drive capably while simultaneously moving a free-camera around to analyse terrain and progress. And on occasion, you really will spend decent amounts of time just slowly plodding forward.
Another reason it all feels so rewarding is because of the tools you have at your disposal in carving a path towards your destination. If Spintires: MudRunner were only about accelerating hard and jiggling steering wheels it would quickly become tedious. Here, though, you are armed with various extra abilities; starting with a motorised winch. Just as in many real off-road competitive disciplines – and the forestry industry itself – attaching a winch to a nearby tree or another anchor point can prove vital to maneuvering a vehicle. Once hooked up, reeling in the winch line while accelerating can pull you out of the stickiest spots. And that’s just the start of the role it can play.
There’s also plenty to tinker with in terms of the function of your vehicles. You can switch in and out of four-wheel drive as terrain changes, and lock and unlock differentials. Fortunately, you won’t need to be a devotee of mechanical engineering to understand how best to deploy these systems. Flicking the diff lock on has an immediate and obvious impact on handling, speed and traction – as it does in reality – and in no time the newcomer should find jumping between modes plentifully intuitive.
Equally, limitations on the player’s abilities greatly improve the broader experience. Fuel comes in short supply, and vehicle damage can readily disable a vehicle. Fortunately, unlocking or customising trucks grants use of repair and refueling vehicles. So when you run out and gas and find yourself stranded after a long slog into thick marshland, you can switch vehicles and come to your own rescue.
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The moment more vehicles become available, it becomes clear that Spintires: MudRunner isn’t really about driving from point-A to point-B. It’s about using a fleet to overcome a puzzle delivered as a savage wilderness. For example, initially a rugged 4×4 of the SUV type appears to only be useful for quickly scoping out new areas before you send in a less agile vehicle. But then it dawns on you.
You can hook your SUV’s winch to one of your other trucks, and haul it out of a troublesome spot, reversing while carefully winching and adjusting the steering. And you might want to keep a refueling truck nearby too, moving together as a unit towards a stash of logs. Who would have guessed it? Spintires: MudRunner was a deep strategy game all along. It’s tempting to make the chess analogy, but if this unusual driving game has a tabletop parallel, it might just be military miniatures wargaming.
As for the structuring of the game, the main campaign is provided by the Sandbox Maps, which give you a scattering of objectives over large areas. The relatively low number of goals, however, doesn’t mean you won’t get hours from each. Delivering a handful of logs to a pair of mills? That might require a sizable chunk of your time, just as it would in real life. Fortunately, the checkpointing here is generous, meaning you can digest each Sandbox in shorter session.
It is the additional Challenges mode, however, that actually plays like a more directed campaign. Each Challenge offers a specific goal, and effectively serves as an extended tutorial, taking you through the various abilities, vehicles and likely scenarios, developing your play-style and understanding of the game’s systems. If anything, it would have been nice to see even more challenges; though there’s a good spread to keep you occupied.
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Overall the American Wilds Edition of Spintires: MudRunner includes 10 Sandbox Maps, 11 Challenge Maps and 30 vehicles, along with 60 vehicle add-ons. Two of those Sandbox Maps and nine of the vehicles are part of the American Wild’s content, which shift’s the series’ traditional focus on Russia’s wilderness and iconic off-road vehicles to locales inspired by Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota. There’s also a fascinating online co-op mode, where you can work with others to overcome missions together.
The handling and environment physics are robust enough to connect you well with the terrain that is your constant foe, which is hugely important. As mentioned previously, this is not a strict simulator. But the interplay of steering, suspension and tire tread with different surfaces. That is where the actual gameplay exists, so it’s fantastic to be able to feel differences in traction and depth as you power through the mud. However, when you do get to drive on actual laid, smooth road, things can feel a little floaty. And there are plenty of roads in the American Wilds content.
Then there are the controls. While entirely workable, they are somewhat strange. Playing on console, you’ll use familiar fascia and shoulder buttons to accelerate, brake and switch engine modes. But a number of functions are curiously assigned to menus. Attaching a winch? Stab the PS4’s triangle button once you’ve selected a connecting point. Detaching a winch? You’ll need to open a menu and select ‘release’. Switching to use a log grabber’s crane? You’ll want to open a menu, then go back to button controls. Oh; and you use left and right on a stick to move a crane up and down. Got that?
It all works, and it is entirely fair that so many functions need more than a handful of buttons. But there’s just something a little eccentric about the logic behind the controls, and it can take some getting used to.
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In terms of visuals and audio, things are very mixed. The engine sounds have a satisfying depth, and really do communicate to you as you push vehicles to the limit. Other than that, the game worlds feel a little empty and flat sonically. Things look good enough at times, but suddenly movement will hang for a split second, or a piece of shrubbery will become stuck in a passing vehicle, and pass through bodywork in all kinds of impossible ways. Some of the textures on show are rather impressive, and others have a ‘last generation’ quality it can be hard to ignore.
None of these sins are game breaking, but there’s just a chunkiness to the user experience when you’re not actually driving. The tutorial slaps you in the face with a tirade of information before you’ve had much context at all, and then leaves you alone feeling rather under supported. A minuscule cursor makes placing waypoints on the map infuriating, and the in-game menus aren’t always clear. There could also, perhaps, be a little more variety in terms of the Sandbox Map’s objectives; but that might be like criticising a football game for focusing on scoring goals. Spintires: MudRunner is through-and-through a game about traversing terrain and reaching waypoints.
If it weren’t for how inexplicably engrossing the main gameplay is, it might be easy to savage Spintires: MudRunner for its various imperfections. And there are plenty of them, especially with regards to polish, visuals and those clunky menu systems. But everything great about the game works because it is so distinct; mso different. As such, the fact that the controls and other systems of interaction pay little mind to conventional, proven game design almost adds to the charm. It’s easy to forgive Spintires: MudRunner exactly because it has such an eccentric charisma. It should be dull. It should be frustrating. It should be prettier. But it has its own strange beauty and offers something refreshingly unconventional in the driving genre.
The fact remains that its appeal is extremely narrow. If you know what you like and like what you know, Spintires: MudRunner probably won’t be for you. If you want to show off the visual muscle of your latest screen Saber’s latest work won’t blow your guests away. And if you want narrative nuance and a bounty of action, you’re looking in entirely the wrong place.
But if you can embrace a release warts-and-all, and find the idea of a strategy game delivered as a meticulously slow driving game curiously alluring, you might join the select group that has fallen for the Spintires series’ unconventional allure. Because behind all the oddity and eccentricity, Spintires: MudRunner is just a really good game.
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