IGN Review of Monster Trucks DS
A few weeks ago, just before we hit the Holiday Break here at IGN, I reviewed ATV Quad Frenzy, a Nintendo DS racer with a good amount of potential that ultimately failed due to horrible presentation and wonky gameplay issues. When that game hit the shelves, Majesco also released Monster Trucks DS at the same time. Not only does Monster Trucks DS share similar traits as ATV Quad Frenzy, it is, essentially, the exact same game. The toolset and technology created by Skyworks was moved to two different Nintendo DS SKUs, the games different only in the tracks, locations, and vehicles that you drive. It's a shameless recycling of assets, an action that's usually reserved for handheld productions spread over several months, but we're witnessing the first example of simultaneous engine recycling on the Nintendo DS.
Since the games are virtually identical, we'll reproduce our review of ATV Quad Frenzy and alter it where applicable for Monster Trucks DS. What better way to honor a recycled game than with a recycled review.
Majesco's racing design, a product of Shockwave-centric development studio Skyworks Technology, is a much better tech demo than it is a full-fledged game production. The core of Monster Trucks DS is its engine that combines 3D elements with solid, smooth, and very competent voxel graphics. A "voxel" is a programming technique of putting height data on individual pixels, popularized on the PC until powerful 3D hardware made the technology unnecessary and, ultimately obsolete. But it's still a cool way to create outdoor mountain effects on systems with not a lot of performance under the hood, and here on the Nintendo DS the visuals come off pretty darn nice. There are some downsides, like the side effect of the landscape being drawn in a few hundred feet ahead of the player. But overall, the game moves smooth and enables the developers to create some realistically flowing terrain that works well for an off-road racing game.
The game itself isn't going to knock your socks off with a sense of speed, mostly because that's not the game's aim. The trucks rarely crack 65 MPH in the race, so you're not going to get an adrenaline rush watching the scenery whoosh by. This racer more emphasizes the technical aspect of off-road racing, with the vehicles launching off jumps and bumps, and the player having to deal with a truck that has a habit of getting a little goofy due to the little whoopty-doos in the course. The slower pace and somewhat mushy controls are intended to give the trucks a sense of weight, but that's much of the intended challenge: to make players focus on their vehicle's bouncing and sliding, because one goof-up can cause a loss in the race.
Admittedly, though the game's strengths lie within the actual race, it still could use a bit of polish. It's a nice start for a racing game foundation, but it still needs a spit and polish for it to be considered a full-on success. Monster Trucks DS is missing the little details like dirt kicking up on the tires to make the trucks feel more like they're on the road. But it's also a little odd in its HUD display, which is all relegated to the lower screen; the game's directional indicator points the player in the direction he should be going in relation to the crude map instead of the direction he's facing in the 3D world. And in a racing game where the track's vaguely laid out with course flags, having this awkward directional indicator hurts more than helps. Especially when the game puts overturned vehicles back on the track in the same exact direction that the player was facing at the end of the wreck, regardless if it's in the completely opposite direction that the player needs to be going.
The game's handling is a little on the loose and wonky side, but they do their job to make the truck bounce around realistically. The game feels more tailored to the ATV style of race, as these Monster Trucks control far too unresponsive than they feel like they should. Plus the fact that you actually have control of the pitch of your vehicle while it's airborne seems completely out of character for a truck that weighs several times heavier than the rider inside.
Where the game really fails, and it's a doozy: the game's progression and presentation isn't only broken, they're almost non-existent. Monster Trucks DS's user interface is so hastily thrown together it's a chore to navigate and understand. Sure, you can enter into a career mode, but good luck figuring out where your position is in the season, or where the next race will take place. It's easy to pick your driver and your vehicle, but the interface is so crappily laid out that you'll be cycling through the menus like a looping set of webpages until you realize that you can just hit start at any selection to begin the race. You'll just have to remember which racing option was selected before pressing select, because the game never tells you. And good luck figuring out if the cartridge saved your race in progress, or what Track 2 in the Swamp actually looks like, because the menus are ridiculously uninformative.
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