Game Review – Clustertruck

Clustertruck is a hectic first-person vehicular platformer by Landfall Games [ pub. tinyBuild ], released September 27, 2016 on Steam and GOG [PC, Mac, Linux] and PS4 [Xbox One soon-2016]. These guys also made the now free, Air Brawl, a simple but extremely satisfying multiplayer arcade dogfighter. They know how to make games that feel great, and Clustertruck is no exception. Review last updated 2016/09/27.

Banner - Clustertruck

Aspect Ratios 16:9, 16:10, 4:3, 5:4
Framerate Cap None (120+), 90 cap when V-sync is disabled
FOV 50-140°
Performance Good
Options Sufficient
Key Rebinding Yes
Controller Support/Rebinding Yes, No
Multiplayer No (Global/Friends Leaderboards + Ghosts)


PC Port Quality

Standard Unity launcher (Windowed or Borderless Fullscreen), with a few graphical options once in-game (SSAO, Bloom, Shadow Distance, V-sync, TAA, and FOV). TAA (Temporal Anti-Aliasing) is essentially motion blur, which really hinders the clarity, so I’d recommend forcing SMAA/FXAA via Reshade or your graphics control panel. 4:3 to 16:9 are all fine, but I cannot currently confirm 21:9 or wider; the window cannot be manually resized. The SSAO (screen space / post-processed ambient occlusion) tends to flicker, but I like the cleaner/brighter aesthetic without it anyway. The FOV adjustment (50-140°) is extremely welcome, and can greatly contribute to the game’s sense of speed and your spacial awareness during these hectic scenarios. Finally, framerate tends to dip a tad for ~2 seconds each time you spawn, but it’s not too noticeable, otherwise pushing 1080@120FPS effortlessly on a GTX 670.

Clustertruck - Options

There is however one big problem… I can confirm that framerate has a huge impact on the damage trucks take (and potentially other factors/timings), meaning that while playing at 120FPS, trucks explode seemingly twice as often as they should, which in turn makes certain levels far more challenging. Level 8-8 features a grouping of trucks that fall down repeatedly onto platforms lined with speed boosts. At 60hz, more than enough will survive making the whole stage trivial; I did it in a single try. At 120Hz it’s as if each fall is a 70% chance to explode, so with half a dozen drops in a row, you’re exceedingly lucky if even a single truck makes it anywhere near the destination, and because it’s such a massive distance, the various abilities are of little use when there’s nothing in sight to land on. One of the devs said it should be fixed, but I’ve tested on the very newest of builds and it is still very apparent (particularly on 8-8).

Load times are essentially non-existent, and re-spawning happens instantly after any input during the death screen. The game features an in-game level editor and Steam Workshop support which will hopefully foster some interesting user-created stages. I played around with it a bit and it seemed pretty usable, but I’d have to put a lot more time in it to really find it’s limitations.

Xinput controllers are supported, but the movement on the left analog stick is digital, and while you can get through some levels, the lack of constant camera control will really hinder you, while also taking a lot of the life and feel out of the game. You can try it as a challenge, but I would definitely not recommend choosing controller over Mouse/Keyboard completely.


Gameplay

I have to be honest here, this is not at all an easy game, and it can be extremely frustrating at times, particularly because of the random nature of the AI trucks and timing of various events. The will be a lot of narrow misses, a lot of restarting (which is thankfully instant), and really it seems so challenging and dynamic that without abusing some sort of gimmick, I don’t see how someone could clear a full run without any deaths. Similarly the movement physics will fail you from time to time, but generally they can be mastered, and it’s wildly satisfying when things go right.

Source: Lakers3019 on Reddit

The goal in all but the very last level, is simply to pass by a goal by means of trucks. No, you don’t drive the trucks, you stand on them and bounce from one to another. Simple enough, but these aren’t your average trucks either. They behave more like a school of fish of cattle being herded; very erratic, they’ll bash into obstacles and each other, explode, flop over, or flip wildly into the air when the mood is right. Then you have the grand environments these trucks roam in, filled with all sorts of crazy contraptions, and what was a simple A to B, turns into one hectic romp that feels pulled straight from the craziest of action / super hero movies.

As I played I increased in skill and confidence, and by the end of it I was pulling off insane maneuvers that didn’t even seem possible at the start. The movement is just WASD/analog, shift to increase speed of all movement, a variable jump (more elevation the longer it’s held, and continues bouncing while held, like Mario), and of course aiming with the mouse/analog. That’s it about it before you delve into the optional abilities… but there’s a whole lot of nuance beneath the surface. For one, you can do front/back-flips by simply rotating the camera in that direction, but the odd thing is that your movement controls stays with your original orientation. If you walk forwards, and aim up till you’re looking upside-down behind you, you’ll keep going in that original direction. Similarly, while falling or ascending, forward movement doesn’t increase your velocity along the vertical axis, but rather still positions you parallel to the ground. Another quirk is that you can cling to vertical surfaces by pushing into them, and launch yourself into the air by jumping while doing so. You can use this off the backs or sides of the trucks to get far more air time or momentum than your standard jump, which along with late jumping (jumping just after falling off of a truck), are essential for proper speedrunning. There are certain props in the environment that don’t kill you and can be leapt off of, and smacking face first into the goal sign still counts as a finish (useful for grappling/teleporting to). Spawning a truck/object between you and a surface can send you flying the other way. And finally, one must learn how momentum is built and carried by the player character, or drained via powerful, but not quite dominating air control.

Playing any level rewards you with Style Points (easily modified via Cheat Engine), which are used to unlock various abilities. You can equip one from each category at a time, and they entail passive mechanics changesactive powers that consume recharging energy, and others that can’t be used until the energy is completely full.

  • Movement Abilities
    • Double Jump – Recharges every time you touch a truck.
    • Air Dash
    • Jetpack
    • Levitation – Maintains elevation while held.
    • Grappling Hook
    • Truck Boost – Makes the truck you’re standing on sprint forward, smashing through others.
    • Disrespected Blink – Cheeky Dishonored reference. A warp to where you click with a 3D color-coded indicator that demonstrates it’s maximum distance.
    • Trucker Flip – When leaping off a truck, it launches forward/upward, doing a “barrel roll” in the process.
  • Utility Abilities
    • Time Slow
    • Portable Truck – Shoots projectile that spawns a truck.
    • Back Truck – Teleports you back to the last truck you touched.
    • Trucksolute Zero – Freezes all trucks in place.
    • Epic Mode – Letterboxes the image and plays tribal drum music, while doubling points awarded for tricks.
    • SUPERTRUCK – Desaturates the level color, makes the trucks red, and slows/stops time as you slow your movement on the back of a truck.

I played up till 8-8 having not purchased or used a single ability, and that turning point was before I realized the level essentially wasn’t possible regardless because of the framerate/vehicle-damage bug. There are a ton to choose from, they’re insanely helpful, and there do seem to be “optimal” choices depending on the stage, but the game still seems do-able from beginning to end without any of em’. With the right choices, you can massively decrease your clear times, sometimes enabling substantial shortcuts, and can make recoveries from mistakes happen far more often.

Clustertruck - 9 Worlds

There a 9 worlds, each with 10 stages (descriptions have light spoilers):

  1. Desert – Very basic. Lines of trucks on simple terrain, introducing large moving obstacles at the end.
  2. Forest – Introduces transitioning onto adjacent truck “herds”, hanging obstacles (over and/or around), oncoming trucks, and large physics obstacles.
  3. Winter – Tons of transitions, now with long falls, and sometimes through large spinning obstacles. Final stages use a ton of hanging/spinning obstacles, one having a timed gate at the end requiring you to go quickly.
  4. Laser – Many different uses of lasers, many of which involve timing your jumps, and reward good depth perception.
  5. Medieval – Perfectly linear paths, but filled with swinging, flame, bouncing, and jabbing traps.
  6. Ancient – Many challenging transitions, and a few with cascading trucks.
  7. Sci-Fi – This is really where you really start to feel like a super hero. Magnetic truck abductors/pushers, giant missiles, leaps and falls through huge shafts (sometimes while jumping between trucks), ending with you climbing up a herd of trucks as they pour in above you.
  8. Steampunk – More linear paths, with pipes/cogs in the way, and some more flying trucks/rockets. 8-6 and 8-9 are amazing, one has you leaping between trucks that fire out of cannons beneath you, and the other between singular trucks wedged in enormous spinning cogs (it’s like something out of Ant-Man, I swear…).
  9. Hell – Pretty underwhelming… Mostly linear paths where trucks tend to bounce around a bunch and topple over. One though has you leaping between bits of trucks impaled by huge spikes over lava, and the final level is a boss creature that you have to circle and ascend (intricate vertical platforming) to push a button 3 times.

In the end I was really quite impressed with the amount of visual and mechanical variety between these stages. Certain difficult games are really quite monotonous, and you get to a point where you see no point in bashing your head against the wall anymore for a better score or something, if there’s nothing beyond the single gameplay mechanic you’re already “enjoying”. Clustertruck on the other hand, is continuously inventive and diverse, and the desire in me to succeed was so high, just so I could see what it would throw at me next (that said I do think they should have a way to open all the levels for players not determined enough to conquer every level). You constantly learn new things, the nuances of the movement system, and once you’re done there’s reason to go back and do it all again. Not just because of the leaderboards, nor just to use new ability/modifier combinations, but also because the worlds have their own look, feel, and pace.

Cluster Truck - Leaderboards

Once you’ve got a handle on things, you can head to the leaderboards (from the main menu or after completing any level), where you can see the times of all players or just your friends, and challenge their ghosts (represented as a blue fireball of sorts). I’d really like to see icons showing which abilities each player used, and a way to switch between ghosts from the pause menu while already in a level. It doesn’t seem like there are stringent cheat protections in place, so I’d imagine these will unfortunately be topped by cheaters before too long.


Presentation

The menus are visually clean, quick and easy to navigate, with a nice depth of field slathered 3D scene in the background based on how far you’ve made it in the campaign (I wish this changed based on the last world you played instead). The low-poly geometry and low object density of the levels isn’t going to impress anyone, but where I feel it succeeds is in it’s use of color and bright lighting. Large blank spaces are filled with smooth gradients of really mellow colors, and while many of the scenes aren’t necessarily cohesive, I think it’s approach is appealing overall. Readability is pretty high outside of a few sections in worlds 7 and 9, and every stage has a separate White + Red aesthetic while using the SUPERTRUCK ability, mimicking SUPERHOT, that pushes the visibility to a whole other level.

Visually my only real complaints are how blurry it can get with TAA enabled (you can disable and force an alternative [SMAA/FXAA] externally), and how much explosions tend to obscure your view. There’s one section where you have to fall down a thin tunnel as trucks funnel in, and they tend to explode, completely obscuring your vision on the way down.

The soundtrack entails a track for each world, and mixture of guitar and what I believe is ‘Drum & Bass’. Knowing how often players will be resetting and coming in and out of the level select screen, they smartly made the music play in a continuous stream at all times, with a few post processing effects during deaths and while in the menu, and the track only changes once you choose to enter a stage from a different world. The selection here is respectable and suits the game well, but I don’t think it has must lasting appeal beyond that.


Conclusion

Clustertruck can be painfully hard at times, but is unique, inventive, and oh-so-satisfying. They took a simple concept, made sure the base movement was fun, and then proceeded to answer YES! to dozens of “Hey but what if we had <crazy thing>?” inquiries. Time bending, double jumping, teleporting, grappling hooks, kick-flipping trucks, front/back-flips, jetpacks, truck summoning PokeBalls, lasers, waterfalls of trucks, hugs jumps, rockets… Yep, sure, absolutely! Each world has it’s own look, geometry, and gameplay focus, and even though they could’ve pumped out way more than 10 levels for each without the player getting too bored, they chose to keep it concise, constantly presenting new ideas and scenarios.

Clustertruck - Scorecard

It should take a semi-competent player roughly 3-6 hours to get through it the first time with minimal use of abilities, but speedrunners can manage the whole thing in under 30 minutes, utilizing a number of advanced techniques and shortcuts. Don’t scoff at either number though, because while it’s not necessarily overflowing with content, basically every moment of play requires so much of your attention. There’s absolutely no waiting around for anything… cutscenes, dialogue, travel times, nothing… just pure, intense gameplay. There’s a ton of speedrunning potential, as even though there are randomized elements, great players can power through these irregularities with fast enough reaction times. There’s a lot for the average player to enjoy as well; there’s more than enough reason to replay levels with all the variety that comes from different ability combinations, the drive to improve your skill and clear times, and quite simply because the game is a joy to play.

The original soundtrack and visual aesthetic don’t quite shine on their own, but come together to compliment the gameplay for a pleasant experience, in-between the blips of frustration over your own inadequacy… The devs have alluded to continuing support after release, showing off extra variants recently on their Youtube Channel, along with the seemingly competent level editor and Steam Workshop support, I really look forward to seeing where it’s taken going forward.


For full disclosure, Clustertruck was provided by the publisher for review. If you found this review helpful, consider a rating on Steam.


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