Have you ever dreamed of driving an old truck through a rugged Russian wilderness? Then dream no more, because Spintires is here. It could only exist on PC—a simulator so niche it makes Munich Bus Simulator look mainstream—and sees you guiding an array of Soviet off-road vehicles across large stretches of unforgiving countryside. It's a grueling battle against the elements as you navigate your lump of rusty metal around rickety wooden bridges, dense forests, and swollen rivers.
But the real star of the game is the mud. It is, without a doubt, the best virtual sludge in games. The way your tires dig into it, and the way it deforms realistically as you move through it, is really impressive. The heavier your vehicle is, the more it sinks into it, and the more likely you are to get stuck. Clumps gather on your wheels as you drive, and some areas are so caked in the stuff that you'll be forced to find another route. It's a game of feet, not miles—of dragging your bouncy flatbed through just one more exhausting mire of mud and rocks to reach the safety of a garage or refueling station.
But you will get stuck, eventually, and that's where vehicle-switching comes into play. There are simple objectives, like picking up and delivering lumber, but it's the journey itself where the real challenge lies, and you'll need some help to heave your oversized load across the uncompromising landscape. After accidentally burying my lumber truck in a thick slurry, I pulled the map up with F1, switched to a nearby truck with a winch and yanked myself out. You can jump freely between vehicles on your own if you're playing solo, or team up with up to three other people in multiplayer.
Your garage is filled with an array of vehicles to plough through the mud in, including nimble jeeps that are good for scouting the area ahead. They can cut through forests and wave between trees, allowing them to uncover the 'fog of war' that initially obscures the map and reveal wider roads and trails for your big haulers to squeeze through. There are trucks with articulated trailers, and big chunky ones that look like they've been rusting in the Chernobyl exclusion zone for the last thirty years. The muted colour palette, bleak overcast skies, and ageing Soviet machinery remind me of the STALKER games—as does the feeling of being constantly at war with your environment.
As you chew through the mud, the vehicles feel genuinely heavy and unwieldy. The physics are excellent, creating a nice distinction between the big rigs and the smaller trucks. You'll hear your engine heave and groan as you tackle a steep incline or muddy patch, its exhausts belching black smoke as it struggles to escape the sticky gunk. They all feel like real machines, with trailers that bounce and rattle as you trundle over uneven ground. Rocks are kicked into the air by your tires, saplings bend when you rumble over them, and water froths as you ford rivers and carve through puddles.
You can choose between casual and hardcore mode, although 'casual' will be hardcore enough for most people. Fuel consumption is increased in hardcore, and routes you chart on the map won't be displayed as a guide on the road as you drive. One of the most mystifying omissions is the lack of any kind of cockpit or in-car view. You're stuck with a weird over-the-shoulder (trucks don't have shoulders, but you know what I mean) view that's more Resident Evil 4 than truck simulator. You can move the camera around with the mouse, but in larger rigs your view is often obscured, making getting across narrow bridges and through tight trails a nightmare.
But here's my problem with Spintires. As amazing as the physics and deformable mud are, that's really all the game has going for it. Its scope is incredibly limited, to the point where it feels like an Early Access release. The missions, whether it's the lumber delivery I talked about earlier, unlocking new vehicles hidden around the world, or revealing the map by driving near 'cloaking' points, are uninspiring. How long you'll stick with the game depends on how compelling you find those ponderous, muddy drives between objective markers. It's an achingly slow, fiddly game, and you'll need a lot of patience to endure the hardships you'll encounter as you traverse the game's five maps.
Still, endurance is what Spintires is all about, and there's a lot of satisfaction to be had in besting the brutal Russian terrain in your hardy little Soviet truck—but not after a lot of rolling over, getting inescapably lodged in soggy riverbeds, and running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere. I love that games like this exist. It's why I love PC gaming. But as endearingly bizarre as I find Spintires, and as much as I admire the technology, I can't say I really ever enjoyed it. There are moments of what I could loosely call excitement—like almost rolling over and spilling my load just metres from the delivery point, or thinking I was crossing a shallow pond only to become totally submersed in a river—but they're few and far between. Mostly I just find myself swearing at mud.