Wot I Think: Spintires

By Adam Smith on June 17th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

I’m stuck in a puddle and I can’t get out. Every attempt to move forward only serves to send me deeper into the hole I’ve made for myself, and every attempt to reverse causes my vehicle to scream, splutter and stall. It all ends in tears and treadmarks, tires bald and fuel gauge needling toward oblivion. The track has become a battlefield and I’m desperately in need of assistance. Time to call in the big guns and tow my brokedown truck back to base. I’m battered, bruised and covered in filth. In Spintires, my earnest efforts cause me to dig my own grave, down in the dirt and the filth. Here’s wot I think.

Spintires has one superb trick in its trunk and it pulls it off exceptionally well. Is that enough?

That one trick is exploring the complexity of mud. No game has ever modelled the slippery, unctuous material so expertly. Driving the industrial vehicles on the game’s five maps is an astounding exercise in the importance of surfaces. That’s the key word – ‘surfaces’. Spintires may be an amusing and occasionally frustrating game about machinery and mud, but from a design perspective, it’s the treatment of surfaces that deserves attention.

For those desperate to roll in the morning mud, I’ll cut to the chase. The extremely laborious chase in which every vehicle stalls repeatedly while digging its own grave. Spintires has the best malleable terrain that I’ve ever seen in a driving game. It chops up, tires carve it and the weight of every part of a vehicle leave imprints on the world. The engine is glorious but the chassis is functional at best. There’s enough content to eat up many hours but it’s all of the same type – go here, fetch that, bring it to another place. If you’re capable of making your own stories within the framework of an industrial vehicular traction adventure, then Spintires will satisfy your soul.

It’s a frustrating game to write about because I keep jotting down paragraphs that fall into the ‘I wish this game was…’ trap. That’s because the technical achievement lends itself to flights of fancy rather than because the design is flawed or particularly hollow. Imagine this level of deformation applied to trench warfare. Imagine rally cars chewing up tracks as they scrambled and slid. Add Spintires’ deformation to the already impressive Next Car Game and you’d have the greatest combat racing game ever made.

How’s about a Panzer simulator or a gravity-bound three dimensional Scorched Earth?

To understand how satisfying and radical the attention to what happens at the point of contact between wheel and ground is, it’s important to understand how surfaces have been treated over the decades of game design. This, courtesy of your thrill-a-minute RPS periodical, is a non-chronological analysis. Of surfaces. In games. Hold onto your hats.

We begin with platformers. Platforms are surfaces in a roundabout sort of way, so it’d be reasonable to expect contact between the player and the floor to be of utmost importance. More often than not, platforms are simply structures to support characters though – they’re ledges and their specifics only tend to matter in regards to placement.

There are complications from time to time. Everyone who has ever played a platform game will have come across a patch of ice, causing characters to slip and slide, and there are often tell-tale cracks and clouds of dust to signify platforms that will crumble after a touch. These are binary switches though. A platform, or area of a platform, is of one type or another and its behaviour is entirely predictable. The earliest and strongest entries in the Sonic series played with gradients and momentum in a way that has proved tricky to replicate, at least with the same degree of tight control and credible friction.

If Spintires were a platform game, surfaces would bleed into one another. Collapsible platforms would crumble and collapse inch by inch, and the debris would clutter the spaces below. Ice would crack given the application of enough force and it would be possible to prevent completion of a level by applying pressure in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mass would matter and every jump would have the potential to alter the playfield.

In Spintires’ world, feats are measured by inches of control rather than miles per hour, and the terrain churns and deforms as vehicles traverse it. It’s a game in which overapplication of the throttle can doom the driver. It’s verbs are not overtake, drift and vroom, but churn, grind and calculate. The latter is perhaps the most important. For all of that it is made of mess and mud, Spintires is a game of precision and care. To traverse the changing angles of the roughest terrain, every nudge of wheel and pedal must be perfectly timed and measured.

One of the biggest advances that I remember in the surface world came with the destructible scenery of Red Faction. Guerrilla built on the idea, with its collapsible buildings, but the principle remains the same. The ground is divided into types of material – the primary foes being mud and gravel – but they’re not as cleanly defined as history leads us to expect. Take stealth games, where some areas are marked with vines for climbing and some are visibly noisier underfoot.

Spintires muddies the boundaries. Certain elements of the world are reactive, altering on impact. It’s similar to Guerilla in that the deformable maps behave credibly, reacting to input unpredictably and forcing the player to think about the effects of their actions.

Spintires has a very silly trailer but it’s a serious game. It’s probable that the game reached the top of the Steam charts on the day of release because people found the notion of a lumber collection simulator starring off-road Soviet vehicles amusing. The game certainly facilitates farce but it isn’t designed around comedy set pieces. If you have any intention of exploring the maps, and unlocking vehicles and locations in order to carry out major logging operations, you’ll need to be as focused as an aircraft pilot attempting a landing on a carrier.

I’ve allowed my imagination to carry me through the eventual tedium of logging, as I often do when playing this sort of sim. I set myself challenges – heading from point A to point B within a self-imposed time limit, pretending that my enemies are hunting for me in the wilds, or attempting to recreate The Wages Of Fear while praying for explosive mods. I’m back to those fanciful imaginings I swore I’d try to avoid.

Spintires is as rugged and (in)efficient as the vehicles that struggle across its harsh landscapes. It’s drama and tension are found in puddles rather than lakes, and its beauty is in the dimples at a roadside rather than a majestic mountain. The controls are precise and tight, and the speed is slow and gruelling. Many driving games bring back memories of Scalextric or playground Micro Machines tournaments, but Spintires is more like driving a Tonka Truck or Big Action Dig ‘n’ Ride through a flooded sandpit.

Within the apparent simplicity of its fetch quest structure there is space for navigation, exploration and nail-biting rescues. Patience is required but the pay-off is often amusing and occasionally thrilling. Thanks to the detailed deterioration provided by the engine, it’s unlike anything else. Despite the apparent complexity of its vehicles, it’s also an accessible game, easily controlled with mouse and keyboard or joypad (haven’t tried a wheel). Where the controls are a struggle, they’re intended to be and the fight is with the terrain rather than the interface.

It’s a game capable of sublime nonsense, as vehicles attempt to entomb themselves on lonely hillsides, but Spintires is also a fine simulator. There are a great many games with that word, ‘simulator’, in some way attempting to justify their drab activities and the mundane implementation of those activities. Spintires will have you spending an evening trying to edge a busted up old vehicle out of a watery ditch, but it does so with a fair amount of style and a truckload of savvy. The camera is a bit shite though.

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66 Comments »

  1. Lanfranc says:

    So, uh, what do you actually do in this game? Is it like Euro Truck Sim with Ural trucks and mud?

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      Luringen says:

      You spawn at A, and are tasked to bring logs from B to C, sometimes also to D.

      More detailed:
      You need to explore the hidden parts of the map (80% of it), and go to spots that uncover the world map.
      You get small cars that get easily stuck in the mud, but are great for sneaking in between trees, three sizes that can carry logs of different sizes, as well as repair tools, fuel, “garage points” (for unlocking additional garages on the map), and cranes. The biggest truck is for dragging heavy vehicles back on the road with a huge winch.

      That’s about it, the fun is in fighting for every inch of mud while the trucks slowly sinks down, takes damage from the pond you are halfways in, and is almost out of fuel.

      • Perjoss says:

        Yep, nice explanation. One other key thing is that you do not start off with all of the trucks for a particular map, they are hidden around and need to be approached to be unlocked and then driven back to a garage.

        Some of the hidden vehicles might be damaged beyond functioning or totally out of fuel so not only do you need to locate them but also bring the required stuff to get them working again. Can require multiple trips to get 1 truck working, which I actually really like as you kind of feel like you’ve earned it.

        On certain areas of the maps you will move super, super slow but its almost hypnotising just watching all the suspension do its thing as the physics are fantastic. The body of the trucks bend and flex very convincingly as they pass over the rocks and mud, there is a great sense of weight and power.

    • eroticfishcake says:

      Luringen explains it pretty well but there’s a good video here if you want to see it in action. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_OjBylleA8

    • Christo4 says:

      You turn into a werewolf at the dawn of night and hunt down werebeavers, your mortal enemies.
      Until then you play as a lumberjack riding a kangaroo through the forest, making trails for tourists.

      • DanMan says:

        That’s not what it read on the backside. I demand a refund!

      • SillyWizard says:

        I think the word you’re looking for is “dusk.”

      • Doganpc says:

        I went looking all about kickstarter for this but yet to find Kangaroo Lumberer Sim 2015…

      • Unclepauly says:

        Most accurate description of the game I’ve seen. Next to the WiT of course.

  2. danijami23 says:

    I’m tyred of games not being complete experiences these days. It really muddies my opinion of the games industry.

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      Luringen says:

      I don’t know, I think I’ll take it for a spin. It wheely can’t be that bad.

    • trooperwally says:

      I think you’re all getting too bogged down in the detail. URAL-ee should open your minds a little. But hey, if you don’t like it So-vi-et.

      (my sincere apologies)

    • Silverchain says:

      If you get bogged down you can always ditch it.

    • mr.black says:

      UAZ it been just a year since the Kickstarter?

    • His Divine Shadow says:

      surely, things are not *quite* as bad as [pun]you assess, are[/pun] they?

  3. GameCat says:

    I badly want this mud mechanics to be incorporated into EVERYTHING. Muddy trenches, muddy race tracks, Muddy Waters, muddy paths in survival games, muddy simulator of hiding away from Predator in mud, muddy sim’s shoes that will bring mud into their pretty celan houses, muddy…

    • gschmidl says:

      The Elder Scrolls VI: Mudflap

      • The Random One says:

        Mudcrabs actually hide in mud. They flop up when you approach. You try to fight them but your sandals slip in the mud. You try to run away and fall in the water. A dragon flies overhead, completely unconcerned.

        • GameCat says:

          I’m casting my new spell: Mudball. It gathers the nearby mud and makes a huge ball out of it, then it rolls toward mudcrab, Katamari style.

    • DanMan says:

      Seriously though. I want this in every rally game from this day on.

      • GameCat says:

        I am serious. I didn’t even realised how much I’ve wanted things like this mud in games. I want also realistic sand and water, that would be awesome. You could mock some enemies with sand in Spec Ops: The Line, but all these moment were scripted, meh.

      • drinniol says:

        It was in the remake of Sega Rally a few years ago, dunno if it made it to PC though.

        • neems says:

          It did, and it was awesome. There wasn’t much activity online though.

    • P.Funk says:

      I can imagine Arma4 now.

      “Hey, get the Stryker over here!”
      *Stryker reverses over position, pushes hard on the accelerator, mud flies*
      “Alright, get the M240 set up in that hole please, and get the Repair vehicle to pull down some of those trees, its ruining my sight line”

      Yup. I’m in.

    • sansenoy says:

      Remember Tread Marks??? I’ve never had more fun playing bog standard deathmatch, in any game…

  4. kwyjibo says:

    Interesting thoughts about where mud-physics can go, I hope they can license the tech out to third parties.

    • GameCat says:

      It’s Citizen Kane of mud simulators.

    • Keyrock says:

      It’s these types of realistic mud physics that have been sorely missing Japanese dating simulators.

    • DelrueOfDetroit says:

      The next Zelda game will certainly have a mud-temple now.

  5. Blaaaaaaag says:

    Just a couple corrections:

    You haven’t tried a wheel yet at least partly because it won’t work, wheel support is supposedly coming, as is a cockpit view, but they aren’t there yet, and personally, I don’t feel like they’re going to be necessary or even worthwhile additions myself.

    Also, there are 5 maps in the full release.

    • Adam Smith says:

      Oops! Correcting the map number. That sentence is a hangover from the pre-release code I’d been using!

      • SillyWizard says:

        Hangover indeed. I can’t say any of us are particularly surprised.

    • spamenigma says:

      Imagine cockpit view working with VR though?… leaning out of the window looking at the wheels in the mud! Did I just say this and actually want this feature? What’s happened to me!?

  6. S_S says:

    Nice one on the Wages of Fear nod. Spintires is the closest you’ll get to experiencing the misery of William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” in videogame form. And I mean ‘misery’ in the best sense of the word.

    Also, how about that night-time atmosphere? Nothing like being lost in a darked-out part of the map, headlights barely illuminating the trough of muck you’ll soon find yourself marooned in.

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    Henke says:

    I’d recommend everyone play this on the Hardcore difficulty. Casual is fine the first couple maps to get the hang of it, but Hardcore really is where the game shines. It removes the “vechicle recovery” option, so you’re forced to really think before you act, and to actually use most, if not all, of the trucks in any given map.

    I’ve been looking forward to this game since reading about it in the Flare Path column in 2012, and it’s totally been worth the wait. I’m 15 hours in and LOVING this game. :D Currently I’m making a Let’s Play for the Coast level, check out the first episode here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQodGknl8V4&list=PLPIuNtUI6OAU2Ba-CVHJGRAatf6fBS6kM&index=2

    • LionsPhil says:

      Yeesh, that camera.

      I loved the first tech demo, but they’re going to have to fix that if then want £20 out of me. Especially with it still showing so many rough edges, like that E-7310 spawning slightly inside the ground and immediately taking damage. :/

      • PAK-9 says:

        The camera is game-breakingly terrible, they desperately need to fix it and I would not recommend the game to anyone until they do.

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      drewski says:

      This looks like the kind of game that’s amazing to watch someone who has an idea what they’re doing, like you, play, rather than actually play personally.

  8. Michael Fogg says:

    Somehow I keep misreading the title “Sphincters”. I kinda wonder if the popularity of the game is due to Russians who like to reminisce their army service days trying to get trucks across muddy proving grounds.

  9. jonahcutter says:

    Interesting comparison to Red Faction Guerilla. Both games are primarily about how your relationship to a highly malleable environment. Sure guerrilla had shooting and story, but the destruction was the star.

    One of the keys to its success, and where the sequel Armageddon, went wrong was the irreversible nature of the changes. You could bone yourself on some missions if you blew up too indiscriminately. There were hostage rescue missions where you might not be able to reach the hostage if you destroyed all the ladders. Or flat out destruction missions where careful placement of limited ammo (and some luck) was necessary for success.

    Armageddon had that stupid reconstruction tool that reversed any damage, removing any need for thoughtful destruction.

    Spintires is similar in spirit. Its soft mud is probably a bit overdone done honestly. Or at least more prevelant than you’d find in reality. But it works for the gameplay. It amps the difficulty up. It’s now not just playing in the mud without consequence. It’s thinking in the mud with huge consequence. It’s easy to get stuck if you just bull ahead. To succeed requires observation, thought, technical driving, and a bit of luck.

    Nice review. Great game. And yes, the camera is terrible. They tried to reinvent the wheel of video game cameras. And they did. Unfortunately their solution was to make a hexagonal wheel. If sort of works in particular, advantageous conditions. If works great when you’re standing still. Bug in general it just sucks.

    • drinniol says:

      Well, once you destroyed everything in Guerrila you had nothing to do at the end of the game. And Armageddon had Mr Toots.

    • BlackAlpha says:

      The mud is overdone? It’s actually like that in some remote parts of Russia. Here are some examples:

  10. cannonballsimp says:

    Adam Smith, I think you should expand your brief history of video game surfaces into a standalone article.

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    OctoStepdad says:

    I just played the tech demo off their site and I am sold but i don’t know about the $30 price tag..

  12. Bashmet says:

    The game fails in one major aspect concerning realism.

    The moment you get stuck and you should glance a person standing there watching you. The more you struggle to get out of the mud, more people will gather around that person and they’ll be talking among themselves and pointing at how they think you should do it. The longer you’re stuck, the more people gather.

    The more people that gather, the redder the screen gets signifying rage.

    • LionsPhil says:

      If you manage to roll it while attempting to extricate yourself, they all cheer and applaud sarcastically.

  13. BlackAlpha says:

    I would highly recommend to play this game in coop on the hardcore difficulty level, by the way. It can get quite funny when you get yourself stuck and your buddy needs to rescue you. And it’s great teamwork when you form a small convoy trying to reach the destination.

  14. Shadrach says:

    As a kickstarter backer I was happy and kind of surprise to see it get to the top of Steam sales. That must mean a lot to the devs, good on them.

    There are definitely things that need improving, and a lot of the controls are strange and hard to figure out. I know they are working on un-shittifying the camera.

    To be honest I didn’t expect to play it a lot, mostly it looked like some very cool tech and an original concept. But I find myself drawn to spin around in the mud a lot these days, even when it always ends in disaster…

  15. PAK-9 says:

    I really wanted to like the game having played the tech demo, unfortunately the full release still feels a lot like a tech demo with minimal gameplay elements tacked onto it. There is no effort to guide you through the game or attach any sort of narrative to what you are doing, and the open world exploration isn’t rich enough to be a substitute for that.

    The tech is really, really good, and pretty much carries the whole experience, however I don’t think that is enough for me.

  16. Mud says:

    20 hours in this game ‘cos it has Mud, yeah Mud
    I like Mud.