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Games of 2014: Spintires

Suspension of disbelief.

I can't drive, and I will probably never learn, but still: I hear very good things about the shift from third to fourth gear. I can imagine it, actually. I can imagine the moment. For the car, it's all like, "Oh, we're doing this are we? I guess you really want to get to that Mexican restaurant." But for the driver, it's more of an anticipatory thrill, a twitch of everyday nihilism. Ask an ordinary person if they're willing to rob a bank with you, and the moment they're most likely to say yes is the moment when they move from third to fourth. The future seems panoramic. The brain disengages. This is the body's territory. You reach forward for the gear stick or whatever it's called, you push - or you pull or whatever you do - and there's a sort of sinewy catch. A catch! Something fast trades with something faster: you're hooked and then you're off. You were off before, of course, but now you're off. Really off. Unstoppably off. Did-I-just-hit-that-badger? off.

And beyond fourth? I hear good things about fifth gear, too.

Spintires has a moment a bit like this. It's the best moment in the game. But testify! It takes place at a speed of roughly no miles per hour - the speed at which almost all of this astonishing and rackety confection plays out. You're stuck deep in the mud and you've been churning up spray for minutes. But something far beneath you has shifted imperceptibly, putting you fleetingly in contact with solid matter. It catches - or rather you catch on it - and then there's this tantalising moment of pre-lurch. Metal starts to move and then it all rocks forward at once - forward, forward, forward, over a tiny, invisible hill. And then you're stuck again. But you're not stuck where you used to be stuck. Now you're stuck somewhere else.

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The UI bounces around wonderfully as you rattle over the terrain.

Somewhere else is Spintires' home turf, in fact. This isn't a racing game, and it's barely a driving game. It's a car game, in that it's a game in which you play a car. You inhabit that car. You become that car. This matters, because a sense of transformation, of becoming somebody else, is one of the first things so many games squander, isn't it? The moment you mantle and you don't feel the creaking in your arms, the moment you look down and you don't see your legs. Spintires squanders nothing. You are the car. Don't peer in through the mud-splattered windshield, because you know for a fact that there's nobody in there. You are the chassis. You are the axles and the juddering gears. Most of all, you are the wheels, the tires, the roots that clutch. (T.S. Eliot was fond of the shift from third to fourth too.)

Actually, you're more of a Jeep. Or a van. Or a truck of some sort. All of Spintires' vehicles are culled from the spirit of the old Soviet Union, and they have a wonderful blunt ruggedness. My favourite character is a clanking snout-nosed rust-heap called the C-4320. From the back, it's just a box, and there's something of a stoner van to its outline. This is what the Mystery Machine might look like, I reckon, if Scooby and Shaggy and the gang had all been Stakhanovites. Still, when it moves, it's like a glorious symphony orchestra of cobbled-together shoddiness, all playing slightly different tunes with the same cheery enthusiasm. The wheels turn. The axels wobble. The frame buckles. It's a waltz, really - a waltz off a cliff.

The genius of building a game around aging Soviet tech is that, for the Western audience, there's a freshness to the whole thing, a kind of rust-dappled exotica. The C-4320 burps pollution out of its side when you step on the gas in a way that you're possibly not expecting the first time you fire it up; the D-537 has a forlorn pane of glass for a front screen that makes it look like it's trying not to cry. There's a hard-truckin' honesty to the vehicles in Spintires that prepares you for the austerity of the rest of the game: a pixelated start screen, a help page that may have taken all of two minutes to construct, a front-end that looks like I made it.

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You trade gas for traction for the most part - a clever mechanic.

This is clearly a product of zealotry, in other words: a product made by people who cared about one thing, and one thing only. Spintires' in-game objectives are truly mindless, and its controls are filled with phrases that will make newcomers run for their lives. All it really cares about is getting these aging freaks of automotive wonder in and out of the mud.

Man, the mud in Spintires is just incredible. The vistas you travel through - the rivers you ford, the trees you bully aside with your Soviet grills - aren't bad to look at, but the mud belongs to that special category of things that you feel. The top of the road is just the top of the road here, there's a world of gameplay beneath it, grainy, silted, pancakey and thick. For the last few months, I've been stuck in a ditch, in fact: bogged down in splatter by the side of a loping track in one of the game's wider, more expansive maps. I've been fender deep, inching forward and inching back, trying to get unstuck. I've thrown on four-wheel drive, I've engaged Diff Lock. I've even phoned up my dad to ask what Diff Lock actually is. (He wants a child who cares about cars more than anything; that day was the best day of his life.) I've quit in a rage and then I've reloaded minutes later. I've knocked it on the head for the night, had weeks away from it, and then I've come back with a new plan - a new plan to get out of the ditch.

All of this time, I've been waiting for Spintires to disappoint me. It hasn't. It hasn't given me any assists. It hasn't fudged the physics as they churned beneath me. At times, were it nor for the occasional sprays of mud, you might have thought my PC had frozen, but I knew it hadn't, and Spintires knew it hadn't. Progress: I feel it in the deep heart's core. Spintires can make a set-piece out of a puddle. Spintires can make precisely zero mph feel like knuckle-splintering stuff. Spintires is a roguelike in which you load the game up, roll a wheeled character, and see how far you can get on a single tank of gas.

I eventually got out, too. My front wheels left sharp canyons in the game's geometry, prettier than anything I had ever seen in a game before. That's Spintires: ugly but beautiful, and fixated with the beauty of ugliness.

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