As a standard racing game, Excite Truck would fail. It would simply be a showcase for the new Wii Remote controller and a nice game engine that looks half-decent but pales in comparison to the "other" off-road game on the horizon (MotorStorm). But Excite Truck is more than just controls, visuals and racing; it's a game that firmly has a grasp on the Excite series and shows us that win or lose, it's really about how many stars you can accumulate along the way. And as such, it's a fun, albeit shallow, diversion that can keep even the most jaded gamer entertained for hours. Excite Truck proves that gameplay is indeed king and if the new controller is fun and new too, well that's just a nice bonus.
What will undoubtedly take gamers the longest time to get accustomed too is the way the Wii Remote controls all the action. To play Excite Truck you'll need to hold the Remote on its side with the buttons facing up. The 1 and 2 buttons will control gas and breaks while the control pad (any direction) controls the boost (which you will definitely need). To turn you truck, simply tilt the controller left or right and to control your airborne motion, simply dip the controller back and forth to control the pivot of your vehicle. This seems easy and in theory it is, but as a gamer, I'm not used to it. It took me the entirety of the tutorial and a good four to five races before I realized the turning limitations (there's a certain angle blind-spot) and stopped trying to turn using the control pad. All said however, it was fun to be challenged in this way and once I picked up the hang of it, it made regular racing games seem a little blah in comparison.
The shtick of Excite Truck however is not really racing (it's still good to win as it nets you more stars for placing ahead) but doing enough tricks and stunts to accumulate enough stars to fill each tracks quota so you can unlock the next one. You'll gain stars for almost everything in the game from hitting opponents, getting good airtime, holding long drifts around corners to passing through rings (which you'll activate by hitting track modulator icons), driving close to trees and performing aerial stunts. Each track in the Excite Race mode has a star quota that once filled unlocks the next course. Once you unlock an entire tier of courses, you'll move on to the next circuit and so on. You'll also be graded on each course and attaining the coveted S rank will eventually allow you to unlock the Super Excite mode/difficulty which is a lot more fun than even the regular mode.
The other single player mode in the game (besides the very good tutorial) is the challenge mode which features three competitions: gate challenge, ring challenge and crush challenge. Unfortunately, challenge mode is not really as fleshed out as it could've been and not very fun. The difficulty begins quite high and ramps up from there. The gate challenge has you racing from gate to gate before the timer runs out in the hopes of adding more time to your timer. We've seen this a million times before, but Excite Trucks adds a few nuances: you don't start with a whole lot of time, there are way too many checkpoints in each level and the gates get progressively smaller in size and therefore harder to pass through. This can get frustrating very quickly and the fact that you'll have to restart the mode over and over and over from the beginning is annoying. Ring challenge simply has you jumping through hoops (literally) to gain stars. The harder to reach rings are obviously worth more and at the end of the time limit, you'll need to have accumulated enough stars (or more) to pass the challenge or you'll simply fail. Crush has you pitted against opponents on an open-ended playing surface and you simply have to find each opponent and ram him in with as much force as possible. The HUD shows you the positioning of each opponent (they never try to hit you) and you just have to hunt them down and hit them. In theory, this seems like fun in a destruction derby/Twisted Metal sort of way, but it's far too easy to over-shoot enemy cars and this becomes more an exercise in frustration than a nice diversion. All in all, the difficulty and overall rigid guidelines for each challenge make this mode forgettable at best and really not that fun.
When friends are over, you can always boot up Versus mode. This is a split-screen mode that could've been fun, but two-player racing, without AI opponents, gets old very quickly. Luckily, hitting each other is always fun.
Clearly, the bulk of your time with Excite Truck will be spent in the Excite Race mode, gathering stars, replaying races and unlocking trophies (there are some for absolutely everything in the game), cars and paint jobs. You'll also repeat races with faster cars to achieve S rankings and while it may not look like much from the first four initially unlocked courses, there's hours to be spent in Excite Mode once you get the hang of driving these cars. The entire premise of Excite Truck is the ability to master not only the nuances of each track (cutting corners, taking the jumps properly, etc) but the nuances of each truck. The initial three trucks are fine to learn on, but once you start unlocking faster ones with greater hang-time, you'll find yourself re-racing tracks that you'd passed with 111 stars only to get 200 plus. Excite Truck also forces you to properly conserve, replenish and manage your boost. Using the boost, which is essential in achieving maximum height let alone proper standing, causes your gauge to creep towards overheating. You'll therefore need to lay off the boost in key situations and use it conservatively. Don't get the wrong impression though, you'll be boosting for more than 50% of the race if done right.
Visually, Excite Truck is a great showcase for how the Wii can render speed. The trucks move quickly and when boost is engaged (or the POW power-ups which sends you hurtling at breakneck speed with near invulnerability) the trucks move at insane speeds. All this while the game maintains a great level of detail and never falters in any way is impressive. The cars themselves are well detailed and animate nicely but never show damage like that "other" off-road game does. The environments are fun and look great (even better at high speeds). The Wii, however, was not built on graphical prowess and while this may be an excellent example of what the launch titles can look like, I'm sure we'll see better in the future.
In the audio department, the cars sound alright and the effects (boosting, hitting, etc) sound accurate, if a little canned. The musical presentation is "excited" but limited and luckily, Excite Truck allows you to play MP3s off of an SD card that you place into the Wii's SD port. This is a really nice inclusion and one that made me enjoy the game even more. I'm used to racing to Green Day and Excite Truck was nice enough to let me do just that without muting the TV and turning up the CD player.
In the end, Excite Truck builds on the legacy of Excitebike and Excitebike 64 nicely. While a decent racing game, it's really the depth and nuances of the tracks, trucks and power-ups (not to mention control mechanics) that provides the bulk of Excite Truck's enjoyment and its "star collection" gameplay that adds to the addiction and compulsion to keep playing it. While the additional modes (challenge and versus) seem a little bland and lackluster, the single player's Excite Race mode is fun enough to last you 20-30 hours easily. A few more tracks would have been nice though, perhaps in the sequel.