Most driving games are about speed. The idea is that if you’re not going fast, you’re not having fun. Fair enough. That’s a pretty safe approach. So speed is the basic currency in a driving game.
But what Spintires presupposes is, what if it’s not? The foundation for Spintires, literally and figuratively, is mud. The developers at Oovee have built an offroad diving game around the physics of sucking squelching goddamnable tire-drinking mud. At first, I thought the name Spintires was dumb. I kept wanting to write it “Sprintires”, but that makes even less sense in the context of this game. In this game, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself on a patch of paved road. Spintires is about roads that sometimes aren’t even roads. Oh, wait, I’ve been driving along some sort of wash or gully and someplace where there aren’t any trees for whatever reason. Let’s see, on the map, it looks like this leads to, uh, someplace I haven’t explored, so I have no idea. Let’s see what’s up there.
After the jump, where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
Superlative exploration aside, what makes this game work is the basic interaction of tires with the ground. Deformable terrain, traction physics, truck weight, torque, yadda yadda yadda. I don’t pretend to understand much of the underlying math and science, but I intuitively know the peril of driving certain kinds of trucks over certain patches of road.
You learn that the big trucks can often brute force across anything with a head of steam, but the smaller trucks should carefully pick their way around the boggiest bits. You’re reading, intuitively, the interaction of terrain and tires, weight and torque, mostly by the seat of your pants because that’s what a good driving game does: it recreates the sensations you experience when you’re driving in the real world, but at an excitingly dangerous threshold. Whether it’s the speed in Need for Speed: Most Wanted, the traffic in Midnight Club: Los Angeles, or the wet mud in Spintires, it’s something you can relate to, but at a heightened level.
In Arkansas, I used to have a Toyota Landcruiser and I did my share of stupid things with it because it had four-wheel drive and because I was stupid and in Arkansas. I once assayed a rice paddy. I had to hitchhike back into town and get my buddy with the winch on the front of his pickup to pull me out. That’s Spintires for you. Can you get across this patch of wilderness? No? Well, now what?
In four-wheel drive, with the differential gears unlocked so all the tires spin no matter what, you can power through most situations. The trick is that you’re going to burn more fuel. This is ultimately a resource management game, and one of the resources is traction. That’s a pretty ballsy way to make a game, but the title sure is appropriate.
The overarching resource management is to get eight points of lumber from the lumberyard to the objective. You start at a garage with a few trucks and much of the map unexplored. As you explore, usually by driving your little A-249 jeep deep into hearty darknesses, you might find more trucks, fueling stops, and additional garages. But your overall objective is always getting those eight points of lumber to that objective. Once you’ve scouted out the terrain, the logistics are up to you. Do you take the longer less treacherous route, with fuel stops and repair trucks parked along the way? Do you take one huge load or multiple smaller loads? Do you dare try the shorter route around this bog? Should you first transport the supplies to unlock this extra garage for repairs along the way? Spintires includes five maps and each is basically a 10-hour epic caRPG about the seemingly simple act of transporting lumber. But it’s never that simple and that’s why Spintires is so good.
A friend of mine called Spintires “survival horror for trucks”, and that gets at the caRPG element perfectly. This mostly comes through in hardcore mode, where you can’t extricate yourself from a tricky situation by just teleporting back to the garage. The casual mode will get you used to the driving physics without any dead-ends; it’s just a matter of time before you win. But the real gameplay, the real survival horror, comes from having to send a fuel truck to rescue a load of logs that ran out of gas, and then having to send an 8×8 to rescue the fuel truck when it gets stuck without a tree in range of its winch, and then losing half your trucks into an irretrievable black hole of mud and despair. Fuck me. Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me. Now I have to start the map all over again. IlovethisgameIhatethisgame.
And it’s not survival horror with trucks. It’s survival horror for trucks. You as a driver, as a person, as a foot on a gas pedal and a pair of hands, don’t exist. Whether it’s because Oovee didn’t want to fuss with character models or because it’s an intentional effort to focus on the element of machines vs nature without mere humanity in the middle to muck it all up, the world of Spintires is like Maximum Overdrive, that dopey horror movie where trucks come alive and drive themselves around. Not for the cheese factor, of course. You won’t find Emilio Estevez servicing a semi with a carnival mask on its grill. It’s Maximum Overdrive for the basic vibe of trucks having to rely on themselves. These trucks are on their own. They have no drivers. You cannot angle the camera to look into the cab and see an expressionless character model with his hands perched fingerlessly on the wheel. You will never see a person in this game. People simply don’t exist anymore, or they’ve gone far away. These wildernesses are as empty and still as a crashed server. You won’t see a plane flying overhead. Another car won’t pass you on the road.
In fact, it’s a little unsettling to come around a bend and — holy cats, it’s another truck up there! Oh, right, that’s my light truck I left here a while ago. These buildings, these fuel stops, these lumber yards, these rundown patchwork asphalt roads, they’re the vestiges of human habitation that has long since fled or died. It’s just us trucks now. And our little buddy A-249 jeep. Brute machines, driven by some vaguely remembered purpose to move lumber across a swathe of wet sucking nature. I mean, couldn’t you just cut down some of those trees near the objective? That’s what the world would be like with people in it. Spintires is a world where trucks do what they’re supposed to do, or they die trying.