For racers that claim to be realistic, it just takes a bit of experience to critique their worth. Realism is relatively easy to quantify, and you can always forgive a realistic race sim for not being very much fun. For racers that just claim to be fun, however, the reviewing can be a little harder. You can forgive a fun game for not being very realistic, but if it doesn’t make you smile while playing, it scores low. The problem is, different people smile at different things. Excite Truck, though, will make you smile whether you’re a serious gamer or a rookie. Unfortunately, its lack of content keep it from being much of a lasting thrill.
For those who have been playing Nintendo games for twenty-odd years, one thing becomes painfully obvious when playing Excite Truck: this game really has nothing to do with its supposed precursor, Excite Bike. Yes, it borrows some sound effects, has the same concept when it comes to managing “turbo” vs. engine temperature, and also has the same mechanic of rotating your vehicle in mid-air to land with maximum speed.
These all feel tacked on, though, like this was just some random high-flying off-roader that got the blessing of Nintendo’s licensing department…and I’m sure that’s more or less how it came to be. But, forgetting the game’s supposed pedigree for a moment, what we have here is a decidedly light-hearted racer that’s so easy to pick up and play non-gamers actually may actually have an advantage over those who have been playing racing games for as long as they’ve been racing.
That’s a great thing if you have a lot of non-gamer friends that you plan to play this with. However, it can expose you to a bit of humiliation. How so? In the twenty-odd games of Excite Truck that my wife and I have played, I might have beaten her twice.
Now, granted, I almost always make it to the finish line first, but this is one of those games where racing with style is as important as, well, racing. In a sort of abbreviated version of the Project Gotham Racing kudos system, you earn between one to five stars each time you perform a stunt, stuff like drifting (or understeering), getting air, making it through trees without crashing, etc. At the end of the race the winner gets a bonus added to their star count and, in multiplayer at least, it’s the person with the most stars who wins.
So, in a multiplayer race you can slip, slide, spin, and drift your way to a lazy second place finish (and, with only two players, that’s as low as you’re going to place), yet still come out on top. Normally I might find this a little irritating, but given the style of gameplay here, you really won’t care who wins. You will, however, care that someone actually finishes the race, which irritatingly isn’t guaranteed to be the case here.
It’s common for racing games to start a timer ticking when the first player crosses the finish line, but Excite Truck will start counting down before anyone’s finished the race. Each track has a set maximum duration for the race and if nobody gets to the line before the timer hits 0 it’s race over instantly and nobody wins. That’s not fun; that’s just plain stupid and unfortunate. The game is so easy to pick up and fun to play everyone will want to try it, but many will leave frustrated when they can’t even finish their first race.
So, as I’m sure you know, you actually play this game by turning the Wiimote like a steering wheel, also tilting it forward and back to align your truck for landings. On one hand this is the most natural feeling control scheme in the world, but on the other requires you to format that section of your brain you’ve dedicated to playing racing games on consoles. Gone is any concept of counter-steering via thumbsticks, so too the incessant tap-tap-tapping that was required to play racers in the days before analog.
You’d think that those who are used to playing driving games with steering wheels would be at an advantage here, but it’s a big step even from that to here. The game responds to very small inputs when compared to the large motions you typically make through a wheel; just a few degrees are required to go from lock to lock. Since you’re not bound by any maximum degree of rotation you can, of course, go crazy and incline the controller all you want, but a deft touch is required to follow a straight path.
This responsiveness will result in players zipping from one side of the track to the other while they get accustomed to things, but the feel comes quickly and, once acquired, results in some surprising precision. In other Wii games I’ve found the accelerometer-based controls to be a little sloppy and clumsy. Here they’re divine. That’s not to say that I’d necessarily want to try to do some laps around Spa in an F1 simulator using this controller, but for this game at least it’s brilliantly well suited.
So, it’s easy for non-gamers to pick up and controls really well, which is important, but more important is the gameplay, which is also very good. Tracks are for the most part short and simple, comprised of massive jumps and blisteringly quick straights. Each is littered with icons that, when touched, result in some sort of geomorphing to occur, causing jumps to spring where there were none or a valley to form enabling you to get some serious banking around turns.
There are other icons, too, one that makes you basically invincible, enabling you to cut straight through forests or ram the competition off the road, others that cause floating rings to appear. Jump through the rings and it’s more stars for your total. Each time you manage to score five stars doing any one type of stunt (hitting a particularly huge jump, for example) you get one more notch added to a series of stats. Earn enough notches in any given stat and you’ll unlock a picture of a trophy. Whoopie.
This, unfortunately, is where things go a bit sour. There just isn’t enough here. Yes, there are a solid number of tracks to unlock, but many are just variations on layouts of earlier tracks, so they tend to feel the same. So do the cars. You can race to get higher and higher scores if you like and unlock all the paint schemes and trophies, but honestly the lasting appeal just isn’t there.
The music is downright awful. Remember those cheesy guitar riffs in Sega’s classic Daytona series? Excite Truck makes that stuff sound symphonic by comparison. You will get your daily dose of big-hair guitar solos after a brief two-minute gameplay session here. The other sound effects aren’t much better, particularly the wheezy and whiney engine noises.
Graphics, however, are quite good. Yes, they’re simple and don’t compare to the racers on either of the competing console systems, but the game delivers some nice reflection effects, impressive lighting, and overall everything looks clean and bright. The only real problem is in the crash deformation; hit something like a tree here and you’ll be presented with a Burnout-style slow-mo replay of your wreck spinning in mid-air. Depending on where you hit that tree, textures and polygons are often stretched into jagged edges, not looking like a car wreck, just looking like a big ugly mess.
Imperfect, but Fun
Excite Truck is one of those game’s that’s great fun to play but just isn’t quite worth paying full price for. At that cost it feels awfully light. It is fun to play and a great game to tackle with a friend. But, the little issues and problems mean long-term value is low. This is one of those games you’ll see on a store shelf in eight or twelve months for half what it’s selling for now and, at that price, it’ll be a very, very good deal indeed.
Oh, and a note to the developers: next time if you want to make us remember Excite Bike, forget the throwback sound effects and tacked-on retro gameplay elements. Give us a track builder. That was the best part of the original game that was (cover your eyes nostalgia gamers) pretty boring for the most part.