A lot of people who aren’t familiar with 2014’s PC hit Spintires will look at the branding for Spintires: MudRunner and think that they’re in for a high-octane truck racing experience featuring lots of mud. Only one part of that expectation will be fulfilled. Indeed, MudRunner is a game about driving trucks, and yes, it takes place almost exclusively in oodles and oodles of mud. However, it’s a million miles away from your usual driving game experience.
Put simply, your job is to drive trucks across the various landscapes to pick up and deliver loads of logs to the different lumber mills. Planning clearly wasn’t a strongpoint for the lumber company, since they’ve built the mills a mile away from the logging camps and forgot all about building roads connecting the two. So it’s down to you to traverse the landscape to keep the mill stocked with lumber, so it can be turned into, well, certainly not anything that will make your future journeys easier. Thick mud, rivers, hills, trees, swamps, and even simple puddles all need to be dealt with if you’re to get to your destination safely with your cargo and truck intact. It sounds easy enough, but the fact of the matter is that MudRunner is a complex and punishing game where one false move can do away with an hour or more of work.
The reason for this is that all those things I mentioned just now are genuine obstacles. A puddle should be easy for a truck to barrel through, right? Usually, yes. But when it’s a deep puddle in a muddy road (that can barely even be called a road), and your truck is slightly off-kilter, causing one wheel to dig in and carve out a deep rut that you can’t get out of, it isn’t so simple. And that’s just a puddle. When you start getting toward more significant obstacles and are having to work out if your vehicle has enough power to drag its way across a fast-flowing river while keeping the engine out of the drink, you’ve got a task on your hands.
If it all sounds a little daunting, that’s because it is. A somewhat limited tutorial takes you through the very basics of the control schemes and then you’re advised to head into a series of nine more challenging tasks to further your education. These tests take you through things that will be essential to your success, such as crawling up a steep gradient using a low gear, or using cranes to pick up logs and pack them onto the back of your truck. Optional objectives can be ticked off across multiple runs, so there’s a good chance that you’ll play through each stage a couple of times.
This is all preparation for the main game though, which drops you onto a seemingly colossal map, across which you must carry out your deliveries. Speed is not of the essence, however, since rushing things will lead to you wasting a whole lot of time when you roll your vehicle or get it stuck in a desperate patch of mud because you weren’t paying attention to what was ahead. When these things happen, you might be able to use your winch to right yourself or to get some traction. In worse scenarios, you’ll need to switch to another vehicle and drive all the way across the map to your stricken truck, attach your winching cable, and try to pull it to safety. While all of this is going on, you’ve got to keep an eye on fuel levels (running dry will require you to drive a fuel truck out to refuel your delivery vehicle) and make sure you’re not taking too much damage that you destroy the engine. If that wasn’t enough, only parts of the map are initially displayed, so you’ll need to drive to watchpoints (which are situated in the dark areas of the map) to pencil in the rest. Driving without a clue what’s coming up, even at only 5 mp/h, is a lot more thrilling than you’d imagine it would be.
That, in all fairness, could explain the entirety of MudRunner. It’s a game that shouldn’t be all that much fun. You’re basically doing a job in exchange for trophies rather than money. But the sheer level of detail in the physics of the ground and the effect it has on your traversal of the game world are enough to make it a compelling experience. With some campaign levels taking well over an hour (and then some) to complete, it’s surprising how much time you can spend enjoying yourself while never even daring to dream of hitting double figures on the speedometer. Taking things online allows you and up to three cohorts to form a truck fleet of sorts, working together to beat the same goals you’d find on the single player map while helping your new buddies out of the mud if one of them comes to grief. It can be unexplainably compelling and when you get things wrong during a long shift, unendingly frustrating. Usually, it’s the good kind of frustration where you knew what you were doing wrong and were idiotic enough to do it anyway, as opposed to the bad kind where the game trips you up for no good reason.
There are times when that bad frustration rears its head, though. Firstly, the utility vehicles (such as cranes and loaders) are a nightmare to operate. If you’re playing in “casual” mode, you won’t need to deal with this, as your cargo is loaded for you. But, in “hardcore” mode, you must load the trucks yourself. Picking up individual logs from an oddly-shaped basket and placing them delicately in the back of a truck so they don’t go careening over the side is infuriating, mainly because of the second fly in the ointment: the camera.
MudRunner allows you to switch between the standard-style cockpit camera and an alternate external one. This secondary view is initially set behind and to the side of your vehicle, but you can freely rotate it around using the right stick. You need this kind of freedom because, at any time, you might need to check on any of your four wheels, see where you’re reversing, or make sure your cargo hasn’t started bouncing around as you go over some bumpier ground. The problem is that no matter what the situation, you’re in a constant battle to get a decent view of things. You can spin the camera around at will, but it’s anchored to a central point, and that point often isn’t optimal. There will be many times where your truck will be stuck on something. And it’ll take far longer than it should to be able to see what’s causing the holdup if you can see it at all.
A less urgent (but nonetheless annoying) issue is the lack of an on-screen mini-map. At any point, you can jump out of the action to view an overhead map, but with the potential pitfalls of driving into parts unknown being so, erm, pitfall-like, it would be handy to not have to continually skip back and forth. As I say, it’s a small bugaboo, but it can test the patience at times.
The camera problems do threaten to take this off-road game into a ditch, but you’ll likely come back and persevere with MudRunner far more generously and readily than you would expect. Providing a reason why driving at a glacial pace through the game’s muddy tracks is so gloriously satisfying is as tricky as trying to explain why another episode of Ice Road Truckers always seems like a good idea. There’s absolutely no doubt that it isn’t perfect, and that more patient players will get more out of this than those with a shorter fuse, but it’s impressive how such a relatively simple concept can provide so many hours of entertainment.
Spintires MudRunner review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.