Version tested: Wii
All sports are rubbish. Football? That's crap. Once you've kicked the ball in the goal once, what's the point? Golf's even worse. You're allowed as many shots as you like. Don't even get me started on snooker. It's not just sports either. All board games ever are pointless. Babies are a waste of time. Self-betterment is an act of folly. The universe will stop expanding eventually and begin falling back in on itself, rendering all human endeavour meaningless, so why bother doing anything at all? There certainly isn't any point playing Excite Truck after you finish it. It's only incredible fun. Might as well throw it in the bin. You've finished it, after all.
Oh well, might as well explain it a bit. It's about maintaining ridiculous speed through hazard-strewn environments, skimming through the undergrowth, leaping miles into the air, and trying not to crash violently into trees. It's a bit like Burnout, really - designed to respond best to minor control adjustments, unhappy when it's thrown into wide, raging turns, but genuinely keen to give you a massive boost of speed every time you look like you could do with one. Unlike Burnout, however, Excite Truck is controlled by holding the Wiimote like the edge of a plate with a potato rolling around on top of it.
Yes readers, he's on about potatoes again, but then some of the Wii's best control schemes owe their quality to the stability of a horizontal grip and the fine, multidirectional adjustment this allows, and so I will cling onto my potato analogy until I can think of a superior vegetable. As to its bearing here, these excitable trucks may not behave the same way as Mercury's blobs, but they are best directed with the same delicacy, and noticeably similar in terms of their behaviour.
The critical thing to grasp is that these trucks aren't for turning - at least not beyond a certain, surprisingly slight angle. Not realising this on the first, second and seventeenth occasion you smash into a tree because you didn't seem to turn far enough, you mistakenly assume that you're getting the wacky gesture bit wrong and start twisting your arms round in circles like a drunken washing machine. The trick, it turns out, is to limit your movements to small, guiding tweaks. A few minutes after that clicks, the game comes into its own, which is silly really, because better-written instructions would have cleared it up before the disc was even out of the box.
With the underlying logic properly installed, you're more able to enjoy the frantic pace. Excite Truck moves at ridiculous, F-Zero-like speeds, with your right thumb clamped to the accelerator almost the entire time. Meanwhile, your left thumb's busy operating the turbo boost, which is activated with the d-pad and which is in use more or less constantly. The boost needs a second or two to cool down in between bursts, and while managing it constantly is initially awkward, it soon becomes second nature. As do the actions of timing a little stab of the button to coincide with your wheels leaving the ground, in order to gain an aerial boost, or angling your car so that it lands on all four wheels to gain another dose of speed. It's all designed to keep up the pace, and for once in a racing game you'll want to aim for the water when you see it, because it's cool enough to allow for constant turbo.
And if it wasn't clear from all that, Excite Truck is the kind of racing game that never settles for autopilot. Tracks are designed to constantly bank and swing amongst trees, walls and rocks that crush your ride on impact. Jumps are huge, and need to be managed carefully to avoid landing on a speed-whacking upward incline, while shortcuts can be found all over the place - and will need to be found if you want to secure the best possible route and keep up your momentum. You need to be on your guard at all times, watching out for POW blocks that allow you to mow down trees, AI cars trying to bash into you, and terraform icons that reshape the environment. The latter change the shape of the course ahead of you, turning a hill into a flat, water-covered plain, or morphing gentle undulations into massive ramps that send you flying over castles. Terraforming is quite strategic when you're alone, but it's most satisfying with another player, allowing you to toss them into the air by activating a mountain beneath them. The computer-controlled racers don't make use of this stuff, but that shouldn't lead you to conclude they're a soft touch - in fact they're quite capable of leaving error-prone players for dust in the later of the four tiers of races.
Excite Truck's also the sort of game where second place is often good enough to advance, albeit never to perfect. It may look like a racing game, but there's a high-scores mentality lurking behind its main championship mode, where instead of simply gunning for first place, your goal is to reach or exceed a required number of "stars". These, a running total of which is maintained at the top of the screen, are amassed through cunning drifts, big jumps, close shaves and other noteworthy manoeuvres in increments of one to five - depending on how cunning, big, close or noteworthy your actions were. Maintaining speed while you perform is important though, because you get an extra burst of potentially pivotal stars if you finish close to the front of the pack. Achieving S-ranks, the ultimate accolade, will certainly be hard to do if you don't finish in first.
Making progress involves styling your performance, then, as well as stunning the opposition, but missing out is also of some value. Fall short of the goal, or short of your S-rank attempt, and you still get to enjoy the benefits of the stars, which go toward trophies in individual categories (the amount of trees you skimmed without hitting, the amount of enemy cars you smashed up, the number of times you piloted your airborne truck through five rings in a row), and unlock things like new skins for your cars. Your overall ranks per track also help unlock the harder difficulty mode. Logically, with this sort of emphasis on stars, the game ensures you don't just sit back and harvest them by enforcing a time limit during races, too.
Anyway, by the time you're shooting for the higher ranks, you'll also be about ready for Challenge mode, which is almost cruelly exacting. Here you try and navigate tracks by heading through coloured gates, hitting rings suspended in the air, or crushing other vehicles, with more examples of the same tasks to unlock if you can beat the tricky targets. Like the championship races, it's all very moreish, and the sort of thing that you could happily peck away at over the course of several days, or enjoy hotseating with a friend.
You can both afford to sit back from the TV, too, because accusations of blandness and fuzzy graphics carry about as much water as a witch in Oz. It doesn't look like Gears of War, obviously, but there are some very nice spray effects, the cars are good and shiny, the draw distances are smashing and it's all being articulated by the Wii's supposedly rubbish hardware with enough room left to ensure a solid frame rate - something critically important to a game that has you operating under such frantic conditions. Arguably more significant than the graphics though is the collision detection, which is almost perfect - you never feel as though you crashed because of the game's fuzzy logic; more because you drove into a tree. Numpty.
Why then, you're probably starting to wonder, has Excite Truck been so much maligned? It's been out in the US since November, and you would have noticed if it was catching everyone's attention. You're observant, after all. And it can't just be because of the horrible looping guitar music, because you can replace that with MP3s off an SD Card. Nor can it be on account of the button-mashing you have to do every time you crash, because it's a little tedious but your thumbs are pretty sprightly, and if the whole thing was a car crash on account of car crashes, I would certainly have made fun of that in the intro.
Apparently it's because it's not very big. It's the sort of game where you can unlock everything you're likely to access within a couple of days. What a shame, eh? I mean, you could go back to some of the earlier tracks and try and get S-ranks but... actually, that's top fun. Hrm. And I bet I could get another 15 or 20 stars if I didn't screw that bit up on lap two. Yep. Right, one more go at getting this over 160, then I'll try the next one. Alright, two goes. Three. Seven. YES. And every failure adds stars to the total, building towards trophies, so it's worth completing each race. Can't be bothered? There's an instant restart button on the pause menu. It's as if they knew.
And so on and on and on. Compete with yourself, compete with your friends (perhaps you can email each other scores, or use the Wii's messaging system - just because Xbox Live's made everyone lazy doesn't mean the old methods stopped working). But, amazingly, despite the fact you might have to cross the same polygon more than once to do it, the game's a source of surprisingly inexhaustible enthusiasm. Built on a moreish achievement system, around mechanics that satisfy more and more with each passing day, it's a game maligned for the usual reason: reviewers wanted to move on, and weren't being offered any incentive to redo things beyond simply enjoying the activity. If you can reconcile yourself with that, and like the sound of the game, this is 35 pounds well spent.
8 / 10