Friday, June 22, 2007

Excite Truck Post-Mortem

Excite Truck is a racing game where you don’t have to worry about crashing, winning, or, for that matter, gravity. It throws all that rubbish out the window in order to get right down to making monster trucks fly through the air like poorly controlled rockets. It’s a formula that worked when I was five years old and it’s just as crazy-good today on the Wii.

The secret to Excite Truck’s success is twofold. Firstly, your success isn’t really decided by where you place at the end of a race – what’s more important is how crazy your trip through the course was. To “win” each race you have to finish within a fairly generous time limit, and you have to accumulate a certain amount of stars. You get a modicum of stars for placing first, second or third, but you’ll pick up the majority for maintaining high speeds, engaging in crazy drifts, ramming other trucks, and flying stupid distances through the air (preferably through a series of rings while turning multiple aerial 360s). If you crash or otherwise go badly off the track you’ll be placed right back on the road with your motor running, and if you screw up in a spectacular enough fashion you’ll even be awarded stars for your “mistake”.

The second aspect of Excite Truck’s awesomeness is the control scheme. You hold the wiimote sideways, like a pair of handlebars, and tilt left to go left and right to go right. Pressing on the D-pad engages your turbo (which is unlimited subject only to your truck overheating). Boosting just after you hit a jump will send you flying through the air; wiggling the handlebar left and right in mid-air will deliver some unlikely aerial doughnuts. You can also tilt forward or back in midair to control the length of your jumps and ensure that you hit the ground with all wheels squarely on the ground. That’s pretty much the extent of the controls, but they’re largely intuitive, they’re satisfying, and they tie right in to the sandbox sense of the fun that the game delivers.

The courses are simple but perfect for the action. You’ll be blasting through a rainbow of off-road terrain that ranges from the moors of Scotland and the fjords of Norway through to the mesas of Mexico and, if you’re very skilled, ultimately the eye-twisting surface of an alien planet. The basic format of each course offers a range of jumps, some straights to power down, and the occasional puddle or river to drive through (which cool down your truck and let you use more turbo). Trees commonly line the course, but if you want to go crazy and attempt to weave between them for a valuable shortcut then the game will reward you with stars based on exactly how crazy your tree-weaving turns out to be. Or you can just pick up one of the valuable boost power-ups hidden on the track which will let you just smash down any trees you hit. You can also set off a number of “geo-morphs” which have the effect of altering nearby terrain. Flat ground will deform into mammoth jump ramps, hills will turn into lakes, and valuable star-scoring air rings will appear tantalizingly overhead. Any trucks caught up in all this earthshaking will be appropriately tossed around in the air, which just makes all the existing aerial shenanigans even more insane.

The basic gameplay in Excite Truck is so good that you’ll be inclined to overlook that the graphics and audio were more than a little rushed in order to get the game out for the Wii launch window. The levels are easy on the eyes but nothing you’ll want to exclaim out loud about, and lots of motion blur is used to cover some of the lack of detail. The sound effects are very decent, including some that will be pumped out of the wiimote, but as with Twilight Princess it’s frustrating that you can’t set or mute the wiimote volume. The soundtrack is actually quite awful, consisting of a brutally short list of electric guitar tracks which would shame even Dynasty Warriors with their glaring inappropriateness. You can in theory make a custom soundtrack out of music stored on an SD card, but I confess that I haven’t ended up getting to try this – I just mute the music most of the time.

The game offers a split-screen two-player race mode which is absolutely as fun as you could possibly hope for. Unfortunately there’s no support for three or four players, and there’s no online play, all of which seem like disappointing omissions, particularly as it’s the sort of game where everyone who sees you play it will want to have a go.

Excite Truck is a racing game for people who don’t like racing games. It’s fun, it’s visceral, and it’s equally rewarding whether you’re a driving veteran or a first-time gamer. It’s something that could only have worked with the Wii control scheme, and given that quality titles on the Wii are still few and far between it’s something that all owners of the system owe it to themselves to try.

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