One of the things that parents with young children learn very quickly is rhyming story books. Lots of them. Whether it’s a scarf for a giraffe, a cat in a hat or a goat in a boat, there’s apparently an unwritten rule that all children’s stories must rhyme.
But what’s that got to do with a review of an off-road driving game? Well the answer to that is simple. The following is a quote from one of our kids’ favourite stories;
This is a sheep driving home in a jeep. “Get out of the way”, he yells, with a beep. This is the quack of an angry duck. “I can’t,” he snaps, “my truck is stuck”.
And that, put simply, sums up Spintires. A story about a Duck in a Truck that’s Stuck In The Muck. Except that we’re lacking the waterfowl. It sometimes makes up for that in generating ‘fowl’ language, instead, though.
Oovee, the developers of Spintires, aren’t particularly well known in the flight sim world, but are much more recognised amongst those who use train simulation software, for whom Oovee have released or been involved with a number of add-ons over the years. Spintires is their first ‘home grown’ software title, though, funded through Kickstarter, and now available for anyone to drive as a full release version.
It is, at its heart, very simple. Drive to point A, pick up logs, drive to point B, deliver logs. Kind of like the various other truck sims on the market, but this time it comes with menaces. Lots of menaces. More of which you’ll learn as you read through this review, I hope.
Regardless of where you purchase your license key for Spintires, you will have to install the title through Valve’s Steam system, which, depending on your view of Steam, can result in feeling that this is brilliant, through to being an utter disaster that rules out buying the software altogether.
I won’t go through the pros and cons of Steam here, that’s an entirely different topic, but it does mean that installation is as easy as clicking on ‘install’ if you purchased your key directly from Steam, or adding the key to your Steam account if you purchased it elsewhere.
At the time of writing, Spintires uses 594MB of disk space, which is hardly the largest game in history and it can be found in the ..\Steam\steamapps\common\Spintires directory of your computer, where “..” relates to your chosen path when installing the Steam client.
As with all Steam titles, uninstallation comprises right clicking on the Spintires entry of your software list and selecting the option “Delete Local Content…”
This is one of the nice features of Steam. It’s simple, uncomplicated and effective.
Because it is delivered through the Steam platform, there is no obvious manual that comes with Spintires, which would otherwise usually be found by opening your Start menu and going to “Oovee” or “Spintires” or whatever. Nor can it be opened from within the game itself.
There is, however, a 16-page PDF reproduction of the boxed game’s manual which can be found by going to Spintires in your Steam games list and selecting “Manual” from the “LINKS” list to the right of the screen. Because of the way Steam works, the PDF will be opened in your default browser window, using the PDF plug-in, rather than in Adobe PDF reader itself.
The manual is very professionally presented and covers pretty much everything you’ll need to know – apart from hints and tips on how to drive and operate the machinery, perhaps. When you consider that just under five and a half pages of the 16 are taken up with a list of Kickstarter backers, however, it won’t take you long to read the rest. It is definitely worth doing though, because it explains a number of differences between the game modes and options, plus gives introductions to the various vehicles and what they are suitable for, plus what equipment can be used with them.
World and Gameplay
The world of Spintires forms a large part of its initial appeal; a North European or Asian cool temperate climate, with primarily coniferous trees, smaller undergrowth plants, a mixture of grass, soil and hard surfaces, plus both standing and running water. Mix those soil surfaces and water together and what do you get? Mud. Lots and lots of glorious, sticky, slimy, mud. It’s that mud which creates the primary challenge in Spintires.
There are five maps provided with the game, each named after a primary feature that defines them; Hill, River, Volcano, Coast and Plain. While they do all have different primary features, though, they are all pretty the same underneath, with identically tricky sections to traverse, balancing between mud and trees on a line of boulders that wish to both damage your truck and bounce it into one or the other types of terrain.
When each map is loaded, the majority of it is hidden behind large black areas, which can be unlocked by driving into a circle around the ‘black tornado’ at the centre of them. Once areas of the map are explored in this way, the obscuring circle is removed and you can see the underlying terrain, which shows water, trees, buildings and even, in some cases, that all-encompassing mud. Regardless of whether they are in obscured or explored areas of the map, discovered locations such as fuel points, objectives and garages, as well as any vehicles you have found or were given by the scenario, can be seen.
To get yourself through the mud, and across the more forgiving plains or roads, you get a number of vehicles, all of which have two things in common:
1) They’re Soviet and
2) They’re old.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. There is a comparatively modern Ural truck to compliment the set, but all the vehicles date from the Cold War era and will be familiar to anyone who paid attention to particularly military vehicles during that period of time.
The trucks range in size from the little “A-469” (UAZ-469) staff car/utility vehicle through to the massive “E-7310” (MAZ-7310), which many people will take one look at and say “Scud Launcher” – quite correctly, as the MAZ-543, an earlier version of the vehicle, does form the Transporter-Erector-Launcher platform for the ballistic missile made famous during the Middle Eastern conflicts of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. Likewise, the D-537 (MAZ-537) is most recognisable as the tractor which towed SS-11 ICBMs through Moscow on many a Soviet military parade.
Here, though, they’re not carrying or towing missiles, they’re carrying logs and towing trailers or, quite often, each other. They do, however, mainly maintain a nice all-over olive drab paint scheme, just with little trees on the sides, instead of red stars.
That said, however, the truck types would also be familiar to any Westerner as well. Class A is a jeep. Class B a light farmyard pickup, Class C is a ‘standard’ military truck (think of the Deuce and a Half), Class D is a heavy military truck and Class E… Well, okay, apart maybe from the HEMMT, Western militaries don’t really have an equivalent of the MAZ-7310.
Depending on the class and exact model of truck you have selected, you have a variety of types of equipment that can be fitted to them. These can basically be split down into three categories; transport, support and towing.
The transport equipment allows logs to be carried in three lengths, fittingly called “Short”, “Medium” and “Long”. Short logs can be carried by vehicles with a standard flat-bed type fitting, while Medium logs require a ‘log carriage’ with a ‘medium log trailer’ and “Long” logs require a full length semi-trailer. The other type of cargo that can be carried is “Garage parts”, used for opening additional garages which can be found around the maps. These come in the form of a rigid cargo body, which provides 2 ‘Garage points’, while the articulated semi-trailer provides the full 4 ‘Garage points’ required to unlock a new site.
Support equipment comes in the form of fuel or repair points, which allow vehicles to be resupplied away from garages. As with the garage parts, fuel and repair loads can be carried either on the back of a rigid body truck, or as a semi-trailer with more points available.
Finally, the towing category is pretty self explanatory – fifth wheels can be fitted to most Class B to D vehicles, allowing semi-trailers to be towed. The E-7310 can also be fitted with a fifth wheel, but as I have yet to find a trailer that can be connected to it, I’m not entirely sure why.
In addition to these selections, other equipment can be fitted to vehicles such as off-road or balloon tyres (…tires…), cranes, log grabs, wheel chains and more. All of the vehicles are fitted with multiple winch points, normally two on the front and one on the back, that can be used to hook onto nearby solid features or other vehicles and haul yourself or them out of difficulty.
None of the equipment has a cost and it can be interchanged at will, provided you are at a garage and the truck you are in can use the type of equipment you want. There is, however, a Steam achievement for completing a scenario without changing any equipment.
All scenarios start with between one and three vehicles unlocked, but other vehicles can be found while exploring. These will be in varying states of repair, but almost invariably will have no fuel left and have road wheels fitted, so the first order of the day is usually to recover them, either by clicking on a garage if in Casual mode, or towing/resupplying them using another vehicle that can do so. You can switch between vehicles at any time you like, by simply selecting them on the map with a mouse click.
Finally for this section, the game has both single- and multi-player modes. In single player mode, as you would expect, you are expected to do everything yourself. In multiplayer mode, you operate co-operatively to achieve the scenario goals, so can load each other, rescue each other or resupply each other in any way you like.
One of the first things that struck me when starting a new scenario for the first time is that Spintires has an interesting clash in its graphics, as you will see in pretty much all the screenshots.
The game graphics use the Havok engine, which will be familiar to many gamers and delivers a fantastically realistic environment. While there are some slightly incongruous features, such as the fact that the rest of the world gets darker as soon as you turn truck headlights on, for the most part the graphics are extremely good. Water looks like water (although you cannot see through it – I’ll come back to that shortly), trees move, especially when you hit them with a large vehicle and, most importantly, the ground itself moves out of your way, too.
The deformable ground is probably the most important part of the game. It is certainly the most challenging part of the game. Unlike most ‘offroad’ games, where you can bounce along dirt surfaces, maybe leaving a tyre (tire) track behind you at most, or splash through water with what appears to be concrete below it, if you put a heavy load into mud or soft ground on Spitires, it will sink.
When I say that your vehicle will sink, I’m not just talking about the wheels slowly disappearing into the ground, but rather that the ground moves out of the way to accommodate your truck’s wheels. Ridges will form either side of your path and a trench will form as your wheels dig into the ground. Over time, or by design in some places, these sunken trenches and ridges will become of sufficient depth to prevent your vehicle going any further, which is where the game’s title – and usually a winch rope – come into play.
As I said, though, the excellent primary graphics of the game, with reflections and shadows and some phenomenal water effects, clash significantly with the UI, which looks like it is created from an early 1990s 320×240 VGA font. The text is plain white, large and jagged edged. It cannot be moved, cannot be turned off and in general just looks really quite out of place compared to the rest of the game. I have no doubt at all that this was intentional, possibly to fit in with the era that the vehicles are from, but I cannot say I am that fond of it, really, and I wish there was a higher-res alternative.
The only additional information provided on the in-game UI, other than the text at the bottom left, is a compass at top left. You need to be careful when using this and the map, though, as the map can be freely rotated, moved and zoomed. North is not always ‘up’ on the map!
I said that I’d mention the water’s lack of transparency again and that’s because, when it comes to fording water in Spintires, where you do so is really quite important. As the graphics engine shows water damming against your vehicle as it tries to flow around you, the physics engine is desperately trying to wash you away (I’ve drowned a large number of UAZs…) and the terrain under the water is trying to damage you or get you stuck again.
Shallower areas are indicated by lighter coloured water, but this isn’t always clear and easy to see, nor does it always seem entirely accurate, as many times I have been fording water quite happily, then disappeared up to my door windows into a huge dip. The best way of crossing water in Spintires is carefully, slowly and preferably not in the UAZ!
The other area which I feel lets Spintires down is that the controls are… esoteric. I think that’s the best word to use.
Unlike almost all other modern driving games, you cannot use a wheel to control your trucks in this, or even an X-box style hand-held controller. You have to use the keyboard and mouse, with pretty much an even split between the two, in order to achieve anything.
The basic vehicle controls are the very familiar WASD, where W goes forward or faster, S slower or backwards and A/D turn your vehicle’s wheels. In addition to this, E, Q and R have drive control functions, F operates the winch, H turns on your headlights, V accesses the Advanced mode, F1 brings up the map, 1 and 2 switch between views (more on that in a second), space activates the parking brake and escape accesses the menu. Oh, and you can sometimes press other keys in the “Advanced” menu in-game, but that’s basically all the controls. If you don’t like WASD, the arrow keys can be used as an alternative.
OK so far, but you also need the mouse. Which is also used to control the equally esoteric views. This apparent clash is dealt with by clicking the left mouse button, which simply hides the cursor, allowing the mouse to control the view, or reveals the cursor, allowing the in-game UI menu to be accessed.
When I say the mouse controls the view, that’s possibly a little bit of an erroneous description, because if you want an in-cab view, or a fully controllable full freedom external view, you’re going to be disappointed with Spintires. There are a whole three viewpoints provided, all third person, one located high and forward of the vehicle, one high and rear of your truck and the third high and rear of the trailer, if fitted. While you can use the mousewheel to zoom in and out slightly, plus use the mouse to move around, these views are actually extremely restrictive, especially in close terrain, like when you are trying to sneak the UAZ, sorry, A-469, through a forest without running into too many trees. The camera keeps moving to avoid object collisions and the end result is that your vehicle has a collision instead; then usually gets Stuck In The Muck when you try and reverse.
There are mods to alter the cameras available, including a user-created in-cab view which is improving with each iteration, but if I had to pick one area that Oovee should concentrate on to improve the game, it’s the controls. Particularly the view positions and functionality.
With all that nice squelchy muck to play with, you might hope that there would be a lot of environmental sounds in Spintires but, with anything up to almost 40 litres of engine capacity to play with, it’s no surprise to find that engine noise is the primary thing you’ll hear.
Even then, though, they sometimes seem a little lacking, as though someone muted them a little, fitting a modern silencer to Uncle Piotr’s ancient farm pickup. The enormous 38.9 litre, 525hp, D12A-525 diesel that powers the MAZ-7310 in particular seems decidedly underwhelming. Although the general sound is very good, with a lot of mechnical squeaks and creaks to accompany movement, thumps and bangs when large objects meet and the winch cable stretching sound is very realistic, if slightly worrying, I can’t help but wonder what the engine sounds were made from. They seem more reminiscent of a Ford Transit diesel van than a massive 1970s Soviet prime mover.
The engines aren’t all there is though. There are wildlife sounds present in the form of bird song, woodpeckers and other environmental sounds. The sound of running water is also very well done, but you don’t really hear much splashing when driving vehicles into or through it. I was also a little miffed to not hear sticky squelching sounds when pushing my way through the deeper mucky goo.
Another one of the nice features of Spintires is that it is completely open to modding, with most of the mods available being hosted by the developers themselves, on their forums.
Unfortunately, the number of mods for the release version is nowhere near the number available for the beta/demo versions, which is a bit odd, and all of the add-on vehicles currently available replace, rather than expand, the default selections. That said, though, there are still a wide selection to choose from, from A class UAZs with C class and even E class wheels fitted, through Jeep Cherokees and BTR-70 Armoured Personnel Carriers to Renault articulated trucks and the Dukes of Hazzard’s “General Lee” Dodge Charger. My personal favourite, as it is the only true offroad vehicle I have ever driven, is a Series III Land Rover 109, which even comes with a mini log trailer, so you can use it as both a scout and a delivery vehicle.
There are also repaints, default vehicle mods, sound mods, repaints, all the things you would expect but, for some reason, no additional maps available for the full game. This is a little worrying, as they were created for the demo/pre-release versions, but not for final, which makes me wonder what has been done and/or changed in the game to stop those working and why the modders haven’t updated or remade them for the released title.
At the time of writing, the Oovee forum hosts 144 mods for the Full game, but 494 for the Demo. That’s a big disparity and the opposite way around than I would expect. All I can say to that is “Hmm”.
There is also one critical thing to note, which is that using most mods disables the ability to unlock Steam achievements or use Multiplayer. This is intentional, although according to posts and comments made, plans exist to allow a multiplayer game host to allow certain specific mods to be used. No mention has been made of whether this will definitely be implemented or, if so, when.
Spintires is one of those games that you’ll either get into and really like, or bore of very quickly and abandon. Because the scope of the title is, at present, quite limited and the terrain very similar, regardless of the map chosen, the only real draws to keep coming back are the simple challenge of achieving the task, Steam Achievements and maybe mods, depending on how these develop.
Having made it sound like a flash in the pan title, though, a side effect of the deformable terrain is that every game is slightly different, even on the same map. On one game that I played while writing this review, on the “Plains” map, I successfully drove through one particular patch of mud no fewer than eight times, doing various tasks. On the ninth and final run to deliver the last set of logs, my truck got (you guessed it…) Stuck In The Muck. So did the first rescue vehicle, so did the second. Both of these were C-Class 6x6s with all wheel drive. I ended up bringing my ‘Big Bertha’ E-7310 (occasionally also referred to as ‘Thundermud 4‘, or ‘Swampy‘, after the REME Museum’s Scammell 6×4 recovery vehicle) all the way across the map, to drag them all out, free the log-carrying truck and finish the scenario.
Considering how little apparent content there is, there’s actually quite a lot of different ways to use it and to achieve the goals. This keeps dragging me back in and Spintires has almost completely taken over as my game of choice when I don’t want to do anything too drawn out or brain/reflex intensive. The fact that the current scenario is automatically saved on exit means that you can play for a few minutes at a time or multiple hours, it’s up to you.
Spintires is a fun game. I really like it, but it’s far from perfect and some of its flaws are really quite glaring. I hope it gets expanded more to cover different terrain types such as sand, or snow and ice, rather than just being left like the UAZ trapped in the middle of the river, pictured earlier. Even without that, though, if you’re after a challenge that doesn’t involve shooting things, or just want to trundle around the woods in a truck, occasionally getting stuck and having to rescue yourself, then it’s definitely worth a good look.
The quote in the opening paragraph is from Jez Alborough’s “Duck in the Truck“, published by Collins. The “fowl” language mentioned tends to be me shouting “Oh, for duck’s sake!” at the screen when wheelspinning fails and no trees are within winch range. This is, of course, a reference to the book and nothing else. Honest!