As far as games are concerned, it’s been a good few years for fans of looking at the ground. That’s if you consider three games to be a good outcome. I love looking at the ground, so I’ll take what I can get. Spintires, Death Stranding, and now Overpass: I’m happy.
All three games are sort of similar, it seems to me now. Spintires was bold enough to ask: what if driving games were all about getting stuck in the mud and maybe moving a couple of feet every hour? It turned out this was thrilling. Death Stranding asked: what if walking simulators really tried to simulate walking? What if the worst thing the post apocalypse could offer was a nasty tumble with a lot of boxes clamped to your back? And now Overpass asks: what if getting stuck in the mud and stuck on rocks was really exciting, and while you did all that stuff a counter was ticking along in the corner driving you into a frenzy?
Overpass tasks you with getting all terrain vehicles over terrible hurdles. There’s mud! Such beautiful, churning mud. There’s slippery rock and shifting sand. There are boggy patches and bracken, and there’s also all manner of man-made stuff. Honestly, one of the worst things I have ever encountered in a game – and by worst I mean you get that strange thrill of dread that only games can conjure – is a series of concrete pipes half-buried in the earth. Or a bunch of logs laid lengthways and piled into wobbly ziggurats. Oh god!
You need to get from A to B. Fine. But the maps are wonderfully twisty and organic. One minute you’re sliding over sand, the next minute you’re in a channel filled with rocks. Reader: I got very stuck more than once. At first I thought the secret to everything was getting enough of a run-up. Then I thought the secret was whacking on Diff-lock! So much grip, but suddenly you can’t turn. It took me an age to realise that I shouldn’t just gun the engine madly. It took me even longer to realise that there is no secret, that you have to manage everything. You need to switch between drive-types when the landscape dictates. You need to use momentum but also keep an eye on momentum. You need to understand that the throttle has a range of possibilities, and if your tires are spinning madly you’ve already screwed it. Slow down. Rev back up. Somewhere in there is grip, is purchase.
What you’re really doing in Overpass is learning to read the ground. It’s almost strategy racing: which route do I take past these rocks, but then where do I head once the ground gets steep? There’s a separate hill-climbing mode alongside the main courses, and I swear you do most of the hard stuff in your head, picking a route, breaking hills into different chunks that can be handled, willing your straining engine to help stick your wheels to the ground.
This is all pretty wonderful by itself, but I’m really interested in multiplayer – online, splitscreen, hot seat – where it’s not just the timer ticking away but all those other players whose ghosts you see on the track. And I’m interested in the flow of campaign mode, in which damage accrued in one race must be paid off before you go into the next race, or else. Or else! In a game as treacherous as this, there is a lot of potential else.
I love games like this, because they do a lot with things that seem rather straightforward. Forget the grand sweep of the track, how are you going to deal with the next two feet? I love games like this because they do so much with physics, with the feel of the meeting of materials. I love games like this because they work so hard to capture the glories of the natural world. And yes, I love games like this because they make you look at the ground – and really think about it too.