As you carefully trundle over a particularly difficult outcropping of rocks and find yourself staring at a horrifically steep drop in the middle of the video game wilderness, there are three possible solutions. The MudRunner way would have you turn around and try to find a different, more sensible way around, or you could embrace the Forza Horizon way and launch yourself off it, resulting in the doom and destruction of your vehicle. Finally, and quite unexpectedly, you attach your jeep to a nearby rock and abseil down the rock face. Yes. Abseil. A jeep. This would be the Expeditions way.
Announced at Gamescom’s Opening Night Live, Expeditions: A MudRunner Game might have had a few fans of the series worried. Gone are the long-haul trucks with their ponderous trailers full of cargo, and gone are the distinct tracks and roads of civilisation. At first glance, and with the newly updated MudRunner engine, you could mistake this for a run of the mill open world driving/racing game. Thankfully, that couldn’t be further from the truth – the MudRunner DNA is present and correct, and if you weren’t sure at first glance, then the subtitle tells you everything you need to know.
MudRunner, and it’s excellent sequel SnowRunner, should be amongst the most frustrating driving game experiences of all time. They task you with driving sensibly. They task you with driving slowly. And they task you with doing so across terrain that is often thoroughly inhospitable to wheeled vehicles. But – and this is a big, hulking but – somehow this is a series that brings its players a place of calm, a place of zen, and which focuses you on one simple question: how do I get over there?
Expeditions pulls off the same thing trick, though it drops players into the midst of the wilderness and, as the name might suggest, gives you a series of tasks to do out there. Yann François, Creative Producer at Focus Entertainment told us, “The idea was to get away from the logistic aspect, the truck-driving fantasy, which was kind of scary for newcomers or non-hardcore gamers, as you’d often just drive a truck in the wood, and you’d then get stuck in the mud… which is kind of true! The idea was to convince this type of newcomer that even if we keep this core gameplay – it’s demanding, the technical driving system, the struggle with the terrain, the treacherous paths – you can create new ways of playing, new ways of having fun.” He summed it up, “Expeditions is based on the adventure, scouting, exploring approach to the Runner franchise.”
You’re working as a contractor for governmental agencies and take on the role as lead of a scientific expedition. You have your crew and your vehicles, with a raft of equipment and gadgets, and your job is to head to places like Arizona and dig out some interesting sites and ancient ruins, with archeology and exploration at the heart of it. The progression flow is more mission based than SnowRunner, with every mission starting with a preparation stage where you choose the correct load out for the task in hand.
There are three biomes to explore in Expeditions: Colorado, Arizona and the Carpathian Mountains. Each biome is separated into four interconnected maps, helping to keep things approachable, rather than dumping you into a truly massive area. Instead of letting you loose like the previous games – though of course you can drive off into the wilderness to your heart’s content – every time you complete a mission in these large areas, you’ll return to your camp to choose the next expedition to embark on.
Those preparations begin with choosing your vehicle, with our demo showcasing a jeep and a larger T5 class truck as the options. You then select a load out, choosing the particular tools you’re going to need for your mission. There are required tools for many of these, so some of your slots will have to be taken up by tools you absolutely have to have, making your selections even more tricky. There’s the returning winch, but you don’t necessarily need a nearby tree anymore. You can now use anchors to secure yourself to the rock-face, and alongside clambering up these now let you ‘abseil’ down, which is hugely impressive in action – as long as you don’t flip your vehicle in the process. If that happens you could have used a jack to right yourself (as long as you’ve remembered to add one to your inventory). Other tools include a drone which you can launch to check out the area and its terrain from above, or it may be needed to scan something particular as part of the mission.
Your base itself can expand too, adding modules like a gas station to refill your tank, and offering you new support options that’ll help you tackle the steadily more difficult tasks in front of you. You can also hire new specialists, scientific experts like statisticians and engineers, and by hiring them it’ll give you a bonus that’ll assist you on your expedition.
Fans of the series can be assured that this is absolutely a Runner game. Yann reiterated “Even if we’re trying to open the experience to newcomers, the idea was not to betray the core. We are confident that even the most purist of our fans will find an interest point in Expeditions. We still have the inch-by-inch progression system, the physics-based system is incredibly precise, and we still have muddy terrain like SnowRunner but we have more vertical environments like rocks and cliffs.”
You still have to drive very, very carefully. Expeditions throws all sorts of rocks and ravines in your way, and you often have to alter the vehicle’s setup to make your way past them. So, you can reduce the pressure in your tyres to maximise their grip, but you have to be careful when you do so as you’ll use up more fuel, and you can damage your tyres in the process as well. You also have to make the most of the different gears you have at your disposal, particularly when climbing up a steep section. If you’ve played MudRunner or SnowRunner, the series DNA is obvious the moment you put your hands on the controller, and I could already feel myself sinking into the slow, thoughtful, incredibly satisfying progression across the landscape that makes the series so special.
At the close of our demo one final new tool was showcased, and these were Echo Sounders for checking the depth of a body of water. This ‘pings’ the water, throwing up a batch of coloured pegs which move from green to red depending on how deep it is. I was able to make my way across a small lake by repeatedly sounding out my path, just about managing to keep my jeep from drowning, much to Yann’s delight – “Very good! Very good! You’ve given me clues to add to my next run!”
The Runner series is something of a hidden gem in Focus Home Entertainment’s lineup. However, Expeditions feels as though it is shifting the focus in a way that will open the game up to a whole new audience, without losing that incredibly special driving feel. I absolutely can’t wait.