Spintires' D-537 truck has such a sad face. It's flat and it's somehow clenched, with those two oblong window panes providing sombre stand-ins for huge, brimming eyes. If it was possible for a truck to look bullied, the D-537 has it nailed; I've been messing around on Google for the last 10 minutes trying to find the Soviet beast that inspired it, just so that I can track one down to a garage somewhere unlikely and give it a hug. I doubt that will do any good, though: the D-537 seems world-weary and downtrodden. The thing that might not happen already has.
That thing was probably me, in fact. Over the course of my first morning with Spintires, I've taken a real shine to the D-537, and in this case taking a shine means I've driven it into many trees, bogged it down in much mud, and repeatedly flipped it over on its side, generally while navigating a pool of shallow water. You'll rarely find a driving game where the pace is as slow, as deliberate as Spintires. You'll rarely find one where a simple incline, covered with thick ruts in the earth, will give you so many reasons to fear for your life. Spintires is arduous, uncompromising, and bare-bones. Inevitably, it's also brilliant.
Well, the core of it is brilliant anyway. Let other driving games revel in sheer speed or - increasingly - the size of the map and the number of other players. Oovee Game Studios has other plans, and they revolve around battered old Soviet technology working its way through some of the least hospitable terrain known to gearheads. Spawn in a truck - spawn as a truck - then set off down the road. Chances are you'll be stuck in mud before your first minute is out. This is where Spintires gets its name, of course - and it's also where it finds its heart.
In essence, this is a game about trying to shift a refrigerator through a deep puddle of tapioca pudding, and it turns out that I'm fine with that. The trucks you get to drive are wonderfully heavy and characterful, and the mud they churn through is a real marvel - grainy and thick as it gets mashed around your axles, deformable enough to send the character of the map into flux as the landscape takes a shoeing. Every good car game has that one special moment within which its soul resides - the slow-mo takedown connection of Burnout 3, the first dreamy drift of Ridge Racer. Spintires' is that little rumble of connection you feel somewhere in your mind when your wheels finally get purchase, and you start to move out of a bog that's held you captive for five minutes. This is survival trucking, the diesel-powered equivalent of something like DayZ: conditions are unpromising, but even the smallest of victories is elevated as a result.
As oddball PC games often are, it's all pretty basic at the moment, mind. The tutorial screen resembles a PowerPoint presentation put together hastily by a development team who are laudably unattached to the basics of graphic design, while the front end is a bit of a mess, with options that look like they've been turned off when they've actually been turned on and little to guide you through the game's intricacies. None of this really matters, thankfully: I haven't been able to work out how to select a specific truck to start in yet, for example, but I have dropped into both single- and multiplayer games and found myself having fun in seconds. The camera could behave better when it's operating in close quarters, but for the time being this still feels like a work in progress, and I'm happy the developers spent their energy on the things they've clearly lavished with love and attention - the jouncy suspension that gives even the ugliest vehicle a kind of can-do chirpiness, and smaller stuff, like the way the UI shakes around as you chug back and forth.
If there's a potential problem, it probably lies with the structure that, after a morning's play, is just starting to reveal itself. Spintires is a game where the journey is king, even when the journey merely leads you up a dirt track and around a corner. To provide a little more direction, though, Spintires has some basic objectives attached. You can work around a series of rugged locations, unlocking overhead map views and collecting new vehicles, which is all fine, but there also seems to be some kind of simple fetch quest system in place - go over there and gather lumber already!
It's not hard to understand the thinking behind this - and the right quest system, for want of a better word, might tally quite nicely with the moment-to-moment trade-offs that drive the game - trade-offs that see you sacrificing fuel to use diff lock or all-wheel drive capabilities, and which monitor the damage you've caused to your chassis by barging all those trees out of the way. Taking lumber back and forth is too easy to ignore, however, in favour of the simple pleasures of hitting the open road, and reacting when the open road hits you back. Other ideas I've seen suggested on forums, like hill-climb races and demolition derbies, seem a bit more promising, but I can't entirely shake the suspicion that Spintires is one of those games that seems destined to reject most of the extrinsic motivation systems clamped on top of it.
That's often the way with material physics simulations, particularly when the simulations are this playful, this fraught with hazard and the ready prospect of hilarious disaster. The best set-piece I've encountered in Spintires so far is mud with a couple of boulders sunk into it, for example. My D-537 didn't know what it was up against, but then together we switched on the diff lock, executed a 32-point turn, and just about made the best of things. The D-537 looked crestfallen, of course, but there was a hint of victory lurking behind those sad oblong eyes.
Ian Higton's streaming Spintires from 5pm BST - check it out in the box below.