A fitting game for the Monster Jam brand, that unfortunately may have too many shortcomings to appeal to most gamers.
- Developer: Rainbow Studios
- Publisher: THQ Nordic
- Release date: 25th June 2019
- Genre: Racing
- Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, Windows PC
- Reviewed on: Xbox One X
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
The initial experience of playing the game is fun, as you complete Monster Jam 101 (the tutorial missions) at the Monster Jam University. You are guided through a series of training exercises, which cover the basics of controlling your Monster Truck. Once you’ve completed your training, you are let loose into the open world to explore. More of the free roam arena unlocks as you progress through the career, and there’s some nicely designed areas, with an assortment of ramps and obstacles, but aside from finding the fifty collectibles placed around the world there’s not much to interact with. n.b. not sure if it’s a glitch or deliberate, but driving at high speed into out-of-bounds areas will catapult your truck a considerable distance through the air, though I didn’t encounter any other glitches whilst playing.
There’s an impressive roster of trucks included, with 25 licensed monster trucks to unlock, including fan favourites such as Grave Digger, Max-D, Megalodon, and many more. What isn’t made clear is how to unlock them. I found that you can unlock several by performing well in the championships, but there’s no indication as to what you will unlock, or when. In order to unlock a favourite sooner rather than later, you will have to spend points you’ve accrued throughout the championships and quick play events. This is easier said than done, and every point is hard earned, with races and skill events only awarding a small amount (from just 15 for a last place finish, to 1200 for a win). To begin with, you’ll need to spend these points on upgrades to keep your truck competitive, but once you’ve upgraded your current vehicle and want to try something new, monster trucks can cost up to forty thousand credits each. Unlocking them all will take a lot of grinding.
The handling of the trucks takes a while to get used to, as the default option links front and rear steering together, which makes the truck very twitchy, often leading to gentle turns becoming oversteering drifts. You can assign the rear steering to the right analog stick, but it takes a bit of mental gymnastics to get used to the unconventional controls. It allows you to pull off some entertaining driving, including your being able to perform crab walks (a sort of strafe maneuver), although in the long run I lost too much time in races with this setup. I eventually settled on the intermediate face button setting, which locks the rear wheels until you hold X. I’d highly recommend this setting, as it allows you to make regular turns without scrubbing too much speed off, while also giving you the freedom to make sharp turns or line up on ramps, as needed.
Once you’ve found a control scheme that works for you, you’ll then need to get used to the power delivery. Pulling away can be a jerky affair, and the trucks don’t behave how I expected, with a notable delay in getting the truck to respond when pulling away or reversing. This made performing wheelies and stoppies extremely difficult for me, as while trying to feather the throttle to balance the truck, the sudden surge of power would cause my truck to flip, rather than crawl. I’m not sure if this is a nod towards realism (they are five tonne trucks to be fair), but it takes a bit of acclimatisation before you get the best from them, and I’d have preferred that they adapted it better for the game.
From what I can tell, all the trucks handle identically, with any differences being purely cosmetic. It’s a fair way to equalise the field, and stop races being too difficult if you were to go up against faster opponents. That said, it removed my motivation to earn points for a new truck, in light of the fact that the one I already had performed just as well.
Once you’ve had a cruise and crash around the free roam area, you will no doubt want to get stuck-in to what is the meat and bones of any racing game, the career. Once you are ready to start the main events of Monster Jam Steel Titans, you simply access the career option from the pause menu. It’s a straight forward but overly simplified method of choosing what to do next, especially following the great intro sequences. Your choice of what to do next is restricted to whichever event is next on the list. The only way to unlock the next tier of events is by coming in third or above in the current series. It turns progression into a checklist of series to finish, and I would have liked it if there were more options and variety here.
There are a meagre six series to complete throughout your career, with two of them being trials that only take a few minutes to complete. The championships are much lengthier, however, with a collection of Head-to-Head, Two Wheel Skills and Freestyle events spread out over various arenas and stadiums. It’s not a huge amount of content though, and by the end of my second session of playing I had only the final championship left to complete.
Initially, you will be competing outdoors, in a series of fun and challenging races set in an open world environment. These include ‘Rhythm’ races, where you have to try to maintain maximum speed over a series of jumps on a straight track (very similar to Red Bull Rhythm if you’ve ever seen it), circuit races around dirt tracks with jumps, bumps and sharp turns, and waypoint races, which have you going off the beaten path as you try to reach the next checkpoint ahead of your competitors. I enjoyed all of these races, and if the whole game featured more of these events I’d be more than happy.
Unfortunately, the outdoor events are short lived, and you will soon progress to the stadium and arena events. You still have to complete races, however, they are now run in eliminator style Head-to-Heads, and due to the size of the arenas, a single lap will only take around fifteen to twenty seconds, and last only a few laps. This is fine, and it’s just like the real events, but once you have upgraded your truck, the throttle is sensitive, and the delay in getting the power down can cause you to either bog down or surge unexpectedly. This, coupled with the relative ease with which you can accidentally crash your truck, means that it can quickly become annoying when you lose a race because of a minor error.
The stadium tracks are frustrating, as even though they are very simple ovals most of the time, they throw in kicker ramps, or cars just on the inside of the track. Unless you hit the ramps perfectly, you can easily be thrown outside the track, forcing a reset where you came off, and hitting a car will almost invariably tip your truck into an unrecoverable roll. With no restart option, the only way to retry an event is to quit, return to the open world area, and reload your championship. Fortunately it saves your progress, but it’s a chore to restart, especially when, if you want to make progress, you need a decent finish. That’s not to say the races aren’t fun, because once you get used to the tracks, they can be, but it’s a steep learning curve, and the short length, challenging difficulty, and lack of restart could be off-putting to many.
The freestyle events were one of the things I was looking forward to the most, and they are recreated reasonably well in game. With a lot of practice you can consistently rack up winning combos and pull off some epic stunts, but the scoring for these tricks can be inconsistent. I had issues with backflips, wheelies, and even big air tricks failing to be recognised sometimes. These tricks aren’t always that easy to pull off to begin with, so when you do a sequence of tricks, only to have them not be acknowledged, it is somewhat disheartening. If you are prepared to spend the time practicing and learning the best spots in the arena, you shouldn’t have too many problems, but again, in career you only get one try, with no restarts, meaning you have to take a poor result on the chin or back out and reload.
Similar to freestyle, but more difficult to execute consistently, are the two wheel skills events. You have two chances to earn the score for these, and they must include two wheel skills such as wheelies, stoppies or bicycle manoeuvres. As before, the inconsistent scoring can make it an exercise in frustration trying to chain together moves well enough to win, or at least finish higher up the leaderboard. If you’ve never watched Monster Jam, I’d check out a couple of videos to see how they perform the tricks in real life, as I found it much easier trying to copy their moves, as opposed to hurling the truck around like I initially tried to do.
As short as the career was, I still enjoyed it, though there’s a lot they could improve on. Outside of the career, you can play solo or split screen in Quick Play. You can choose to do any of the events from the championships individually, as well as having a couple of extra choices. There are timed destruction challenges, where you have to smash through fences, porta-potties, and crates, and you can choose freeride, which lets you practice in any unlocked stadiums. I don’t understand the decision not to include online multiplayer though. I’d have enjoyed racing against others, but there aren’t even leaderboards for comparing times and skill scores.
The graphics are pretty decent, and the trucks themselves look good, featuring destructible panels that will fall from your truck when you crash, but frame rates suffer occasionally. The open world is excellent, with plenty of detail, and the arenas and stadiums look suitably impressive, and I think they have done well recreating the look and feel of the real world events. From the appearance of the obstacles and ramps, to the tiers of seating filled with thousands of cheering fans, they have really captured the atmosphere and style of Monster Jam.
Something I haven’t really touched upon so far is the audio. The trucks sound suitably aggressive, and have the distinct growl from the enormous engines that fans know and love. Crowds cheer your progress, and this applause intensifies as you perform more impressive tricks. There’s a gnarly crunch when you crash too, but other than that, there isn’t much else to comment on. In-game music is that kind of generic instrumental rock / metal that you’d expect from this genre of game. I assume it’s just generic, as I didn’t recognise any of the tracks, but then I hardly noticed it at all, so at least it’s not obtrusive!
Monster Jam Steel Titans is a faithful rendition of the fun you can have in a monster truck. It’s just a pity the game is so short. By the time I’d begun to master the driving and acquired the skills required to pull off the tricks consistently, I’d finished nearly all of the career. Regardless, if you are a fan of Monster Jam and are prepared to put in the time practising, and can overcome a little frustration while you get better, it could be a worthwhile investment, though for casual gamers or pure racing aficionados, there are better games to spend your money on.