In the UK at least, Monster Truck racing seems to be a thing of the past – a relic of the late 1980’s/early 1990’s that used to draw crowds into seldom used sports fields to watch a couple of hours of dirt bikes leaping over wrecked cars before they unleashed the star attraction for a trundle around in the last two minutes. Bigfoot was the one that got banded around the most in the North of England, and was always a let down, partly because as Brits the notion of the massive vehicles was a tiny bit absurd (we just don’t have the space or terrain that inspired them in the first place); but mainly as a kid you were always expecting more from the event, and the spectacle rarely lived up to the images beamed from across the pond where bigger was better. Fortunately now, though much too late to satisfy the 12 year old me, we can experience the thrill of giant wheels crushing all that come before them in a virtual space. Does Monster Jam Steel Titans 2 manage to ignite the excitement and deliver on the promise we thought we’d get in disused rugby stadiums 30 years ago, or is it on the same level of disappointment?
There’s a simple premise behind Monster Jam Steel Titans 2 – go nuts. It is pretty much geared towards that type of play with an open world, forgiving physics, and indestructible vehicles allowing you to enjoy the basics of flooring a hugely overpowered pickup with massive tyres and watching it churn up whatever is in its path. Launch off ramps, spin up on two wheels, or just drive over whatever obstacles are in the way; it’s a playground that lets you experiment with what you can do and how to handle the weight and power of a monster truck. Admittedly, it won’t take long to get over that initial enjoyment and start to look for some sort of challenge, and that’s when the game reveals that the bulk of it is actually enclosed stadium events and the open world is just a pleasant distraction. It’s not a bait and switch situation, but it’s only fair you know what you’re getting into. Taking part in the arena events based across the US leads to unlocking new vehicles and new open world areas, so it forms a sort of progression, yet it’s not quite what you’d expect after the initial tutorial.
At least there’s a really comprehensive set of instructions to go through, with plenty of opportunity to practice what Monster Jam Steel Titans 2 is preaching. In fact, for a racing game, it possibly has the best set of instructions I’ve come across. Whether you know what the events are and how they work or are complete n00b, it’s got you covered. There are four types of stadium competition – head to head, destruction, two-wheel tricks and freestyle – each requiring different ways of driving. The first is straight racing, a little bit like pursuit in cycling, the second is about wrecking as much arena furniture as possible in a time limit, and the latter two are about getting crazy with the trucks. Big wheels mean big opportunity when it comes to manoeuvrability and nothing pleases the crowd more than seeing them balancing on one wheel, back flipping several tonnes of metal, or leaping to huge heights. Linking them together is a combo meter and as long as that doesn’t run down between tricks there’s a chance of scoring highly and winning the event. With each event nested in a tournament, and placing in the top three bringing the rewards, there’s incentive to do well, especially if you’re wanting to try out new vehicles.
Tying back to the open world, the tournaments tend to end with some form of race in the area you’re currently in, and against a different themed team of machines. These can be point-to-points, checkpoints, or crazy layouts where two groups of three race in opposite directions… that gets messy. Success means unlocking trucks, and every fourth tournament, a new area to visit. Every event is accessible from the pause menu, and the tournaments are only shown at the exit of the current area, so you’d wonder why there’s even an open world in the first place if there’s nothing to do, but there is. A blast around each park will uncover secrets that act like little puzzles where there’s a specific behemoth needed to solve it. It’s an interesting addition that encourages trying out all the rides, aside from the fact that continued use levels them up to improve their speed and stability. There’s also a treasure hunt of sorts with a map shown at each garage point that directs you to where you can snag a secret vehicle. With 38 trucks in total and 5 “worlds” to explore, there’s quite a lot to go after. A note though: some trucks only open in specific arena tournaments which feel like they go on forever. Seriously, the first must be 40 events long and it has no indicator of how far through you are, and will lose progress if you quit. Make sure you’ve a couple of hours spare or a working rest mode for those.
Adding to the unlocks is each team of trucks has a special ability, like additional boost or overtake improvements, and taking part in set challenges in each section unlocks those upgrades too. It’s a decent way to differentiate what is effectively the same core chassis across all of them, though it doesn’t really make a difference to how you’ll play. Monster Jam Steel Titans 2’s defining gameplay is getting to grips with the controls. Steering is done with both the front AND rear axles, so tight turns or crab-like movement is possible, as well as using them to make the oversized tyres bite into the dirt to right the truck when it topples over. It will flip over by the way. Many, many, many times. Top heavy + loads of torque + oodles of horsepower + uneven terrain = turtled. It’s not too frustrating given how easy it is to get back over, or reset to the track, but it’ll ruin high score trick runs and first places in races at the drop of a hat. The physics are bouncy enough that it ends up being fun to play with and restarts take no time at all if you need another go. The suspension responses are predictable too, so at the very least you’ll know when you’ve overcooked something and need to correct or recover.
With decent handling and solid mechanics the unpredictability comes from the landscapes themselves with their tendency to unbalance the rigs on launching from ramps… but at least they look presentable. This isn’t an AAA title, and there’s a thanks for that because it means it’s been made at least, so the environments are functional and do the job without being stunning. The arenas work too as long as you don’t spend time examining the crowds and overthinking there’s no point in saying what city it is because they’re all the same from the inside. It’s bright, colourful and smooth on the whole. Audio does what it should for the monster trucks, but there’s some overlapping of music during loading screens and the default volume is pitched pretty high so it needs dialling back a bit if you don’t want to annoy your neighbours. It holds together though which is the important part, and I didn’t come across any bugs, glitches or crashes during play. Online is trickier to comment on as it’s fairly sparsely populated, though it seemed to be fine setting a game up, whether that’s exploration or specific events, and it fills the lobby with AI so there’s always some competition. They’re pretty good too, so expect to be beaten in the multiplayer races by them quite regularly.
If you’re looking for a few hours of big wheeled fun then Monster Jam Steel Titans 2 will suit you. It’s uncomplicated, easy to play and makes sure you know what you’re doing at each stage, which doesn’t come up often in racing games. After the first couple of tournaments you’ll feel like you’ve seen everything it has to offer though, and potentially only the secret hunting will keep you engaged – that’s strangely satisfying. Rainbow Studios have turned out a solid performance, yet the open world elements feel a bit under utilised. Even if it was simply having markers to reach to trigger the different stadium events, it would make roaming the areas a bit more enjoyable once the collectibles have been grabbed. It’s compelling enough for completionists, and the variety of designs of monster truck is brilliant, it just runs the risk of not providing enough bang for your buck.
A PS4 review copy of Monster Jam Steel Titans 2 was provided by THQ Nordic’s PR team, and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One, PC and Switch for around £30 depending on platform.