Spintires: MudRunner does an excellent job of simulating mud and water but feels very much like a tech demo looking for a game. There's fun to be had in its vast muddy expanses, but it requires a little bit of creativity to find it.
It helps to remember that MudRunner is a simulation and not an arcade game. Forget for a moment that the main aim of it is to deliver logs. That's fine for a time, and you'll need to come back to it in order to unlock more levels and vehicles, but the real point of this game is driving off road.
No other game I've played recreates this so well; each contour of the land, every rock, plant and puddle is a potential obstacle to overcome. Getting stuck in the middle of the wilderness while struggling through dense undergrowth is a real possibility, and it's here that the game begins to find its feet.
The recent Valley DLC seems to understand this. The included map is large and punishingly inhospitable, covered in thick forest and bisected by a wide and flowing river. There are multiple watchpoints, most of them buried deep in the woods, far from any roads, which are often muddy and waterlogged. The landscape is littered with rocks, fallen tree branches and sudden ditches.
The map begins with two new vehicles, a mighty 8 wheeler and a tiny open topped jeep. The jeep is lightweight and nimble, able to fit through the dense woodland but hindered by every bump and fallen branch. Attempting a direct route between each watchpoint is challenging and interesting, particularly as night begins to fall and the damage to your flimsy jalopy begins to mount.
The terrain that makes this kind of exploration interesting is present in other maps, but they must be unlocked first, which means we have to return to the task of log delivery. Strangely, the first map in the game is possibly the least interesting, but there are ways to make the chore of completing it easier. The Steam Workshop contains dozens of user created vehicles and trailers that can make log delivery a little less punishing.
In time, nuances in the game start to appear, which makes the game more interesting. Frequently used roads seem to become more rutted and difficult to negotiate, forcing you to plot alternative routes or attempt to go off road (not a simple task in a lorry laden with logs). Each vehicle has slightly different handling characteristics and using one to rescue another is often necessary. Fuel stations are far apart but a vehicle with a refuelling tank positioned in a strategic point can be extremely helpful.
Multiplayer in MudRunner offers further opportunities for enjoyment. Again, if you can ignore the chore of log delivery, a new world of possibilities opens up in this vast and muddy sandbox. Some opportunities are obvious; race to the other side of the map, try to push each other down a hill, mud wrestle in a bog, first to cross a river, or see who can roll, destroy or completely submerge their truck first.
You could also create your own Top Gear style adventure - make up a route and collaborate with friends to complete it. And like Top Gear, you can feel free to abandon your companions en route, or make their lives harder by running into them at critical moments. Cooperation is much more fun when it's not entirely genuine.
MudRunner has a lot of unrealised potential and it's a shame that players are left to find it themselves, but the early DLC has already shown that better things could be on the horizon. In addition to gameplay improvements, there's still more that could be done to improve the game engine. Rain, wind and storms would be a nice touch, particularly if they affected the terrain. The ultimate extra would of course be snow, which would add a whole new level of detail and challenge and open up a range of new vehicle possibilities.
MudRunner can be initially daunting, but there's enjoyment to be found if you dig deeper, and there's plenty of potential yet that the developers can capitalise on. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to get lost in the wilderness again.