STAFF REVIEW of Monster Jam Steel Titans (Xbox One)

Sunday, September 8, 2019.
by Josh Morgan

Monster Jam Steel Titans Box art What’s the first thing that you think of when you hear Monster Jam? Chances are you have a vision in your mind of a huge monster truck soaring through the air before landing on some cars with thousands of flashing cameras going off in the background. Perhaps you have been to one of these events live and have fond memories of your parents buying you tons of snacks as you watched these behemoth machines do their thing in the mud. For me, the first thing I think of is my son and his first event. He was so excited and Monster Jam definitely delivered. He had trucks on the brain for weeks after, and we even set up trick events in the basement with the trucks he has. When I heard that Monster Jam: Steel Titans was coming out, I jumped at the opportunity to review it with my son. Who better than to offer up their opinion on a monster truck game than a 7 year old boy obsessed with their product? For the purpose of this review I will call him Booger Eater. That sounds like a Monster Jam truck name, right? After hours with the game and the racing series complete, I am left wondering who this game is really for, because Booger Eater wants nothing to do with it, and I had my fill of it.

You start off with a quick tutorial mode that runs you through the basics, which Booger Eater completed before I got home from work. I told you he was excited for this. After you complete the acceleration, braking, steering, jumping and the other basic mechanics of the game, you are put into the open world freeride mode. This is the area that Booger Eater liked the most. It’s a pretty large desert map that has plenty of ramps and dirt mounds to jump off of and trails to explore to find higher ground to gain speed for those jumps. As you progress in the career mode you unlock other big areas to explore. One of those areas is an airplane graveyard that has a lot of jumps and planes to drive through, which was a huge hit with Booger Eater. Scattered throughout the freeride area are 50 Monster Jam logos to collect by having to jump super high, or super long gaps. Once the logo is collected, the count is displayed at the bottom of the screen so you know how many you have found, but the logo eventually reappears in the same location making it real hard to keep track of the logos you’ve already collected. This is going to really frustrate achievement hunters.

Booger Eater: “I like the dirt area the best because I get to do jumps and flips and I don’t get reset all the time”

The career mode starts off with a racing series made up of short routes through the open freeride area that you’ve already been exploring. You progress by placing 3rd place or better overall, and let me tell you, it will be a fight to place 3rd. At the start of the first race I found my first negative mark with the game; there is no timing indicator with the fast start. Your truck is parked at the starting line with the other trucks revving their engines, and a small street light appears on the screen with two lit red lights and a green light that is off. I was expecting the red lights to shut off and give an audio cue to help with the timing of the green light, but nope! The red lights just shines until the green light flashes and you’re expected to react immediately to start the race. Roughly fifty percent of the time I was hit with a “Late Start” which made my truck chug off the starting line with the same speed that I get out of bed in the morning. About forty eight percent of the time I hit the gas too fast and I was hit with “Early Start” penalty as I got to watch the other trucks shoot off the starting line while I slowly took off. The final two percent, the TWO TIMES in my hours of playing that I actually timed the start right, (by luck I’m sure) I was able to beat the pack out of the starting zone and grab a quick lead.

Grabbing a quick lead is key to the races in this game. The trucks are so big, that when they are side by side they tend to take up most of the track, and getting held behind slower trucks boxing you out of the race makes the first place racer pull that much farther out ahead of you. You’ll eventually be able to muscle past the three or four slower trucks, but that first place racer will have such a commanding lead that you will never catch up and you will be fighting for second or third place at best.

The second negative mark came when I was doing some of the trail racing events. You are racing on a narrow path with trees, rocks, dirt mounds and jumps galore. Sounds fun right? Well, it can be. If you’re in first and have a commanding lead you can lay off the gas a bit and take your turns a bit more careful, but if you make one mistake, you are doomed. The race resets your truck if you veer off course for too long. I believe it's 5 seconds. They don’t want you taking shortcuts, and they want to help you if you drive too far off by resetting you to the track. Fair enough, but the timing is way off. Multiple times, I was back on the track and the 5 second warning went away, only to be reset onto the track about fifty feet back in fifth place, or worse. I was back on track, the warning went away and I was still penalized and reset even though I had adjusted course and resumed the race. This is infuriating. One time Booger Eater veered off the small track and his truck was reset into a cluster of trees. No problem, he’s in a monster truck, he can just drive over the... nope, because running into the trees makes his truck flip over and he had to reset again. Where did it put him? Back in the trees. We had to exit out of the race and start the series over.

Now, I am a racing veteran. I’ve been playing racing games since Gran Turismo on the Playstation, so I’ve seen all the nasty tricks developers have used over the years to maintain difficulty or stretch the gameplay to provide a longer experience. Imagine how Booger Eater felt during the multiple times he was reset. He even questioned the reason he was reset at all. This is a monster truck game right? Isn’t the point of racing a huge monster truck that you can just drive through and over anything? Why are we being constrained to a small path being forced to make tight turns? Another nasty trick they pulled with this game happened to me twice at the same point of the same race, but on two different attempts.

On the final lap of the first series, my tire broke, which puts you into a tire changing mini game where you smash 'A' repeatedly. It’s pretty fun and a neat mechanic to deal with a broken tire that happens pretty often at Monster Jam events. This time the broken tire cost me the race, and losing this race pushed me below the third place requirement. I had to start all over. To be fair, I blew a few early races, so my point total was low, and tires breaking are a part of racing. So I dusted myself off, got behind the wheel of the massive truck and started over. Then again on the final lap of the final race I broke another tire. This time I had enough points built up that I did not fall below third overall, but it seemed pretty fishy that my tire broke on the same lap of the same race, twice. It just felt like a dirty trick to even the playing field. I’d be curious to see the percentage of people that had their tire break during that same lap.

Booger Eater during one of the races: “I just want to do flips and tricks, why do I have to race?”

After you complete the early races you start to do checkpoint ones that take you through the open freeride area. These races don’t have the restraints that the previous ones did. You are free to ride off the track and go as you please, but you need to hit the checkpoints in order to advance the race. These are a lot more fun, and my only complaint here is a small one with the checkpoints themselves. They are a glowing yellow making them easy to spot out in the green and brown environment, but the arrow inside the checkpoint pointing to the direction of the next one is almost impossible to distinguish from the glowing aura of checkpoint itself. You’re busy enough trying to stay on course, fighting off other trucks, dodging trees and trying not to flip, that by the time you see the arrow it’s too late. Your AI truck opponents of course, know right where to go and are already adjusting their direction to the next checkpoint. There is also no minimap that has become a staple of racing games. If there was a minimap that showed the checkpoint locations then it would make this a lot better.

Booger Eater: “I like the end when you can smash into the other trucks”. His favorite part of the race is the end. That tells you something.

If you managed to place third or better in the first series you unlock the stadium series which can be a lot more fun. I don’t know why they didn’t open with this, or even better leave the first one with the trails and small routes out. You travel across the United States visiting different cities and compete in races, freestyle and two wheel competitions. These can be super fun, it’s just too bad we are already 2 hours into the game and have had to deal with the frustrations of the first series. Don’t get me wrong, there are still frustrations with this series, but the fun of performing trick combos during freestyle outweighs the major complaints that I have.

Booger Eater (laughing): “Daddy, look Monster Mutts tail fell off!”. After that he made it a point to always flip enough to land on the roof and break the tail off of Monster Mutt. He laughed every time.

I feel after 8 paragraphs I need to write about something positive with Monster Jam, and easily the best part about this game are the trucks. They are the stars of the show, and the artists do not disappoint. The trucks themselves are gorgeous and you can see every small detail that went into the models. From the small messages on the bottom of the trucks you see when they flip over, to all of the sponsor logos featured on them, they spared no expense on the details. Lights shine off the bodies when you are in the arenas and they look clean and shiny as they are supposed to. Then as you work the track they get dirty and banged up showing great body damage specific to the location of the hit. Mud flies up from the tires as they grip into the dirt and as you drive over flowers and grass you’ll see those kick up too.

There are 26 trucks in the game that are locked behind a grind for currency that puts some pay to win phone games to shame. Oh dear, there I go being negative again, but come on guys. I played for nearly 2 hours before I saved up enough currency to buy my first truck. TWO HOURS. Do you know how long the attention span of the average kid is? I just Googled it and it’s 20 minutes for a 7 year old. I was barely able to keep Booger Eater focused long enough to give a few one sentence quotes for this review. The starter truck, Northern Exposure, is cool and all, but once Booger Eater found out that his favorite truck Monster Mutt wasn’t available to use it was hard to get him to play more.

This is a huge problem in a game where the trucks are the stars, and kids will always have their favorites. It’s not good to lock them all behind such a ridiculous grind. I just feel bad for the artists that put so much time into trucks that will never be seen. Once I got enough currency to unlock Monster Mutt, all of my money went into upgrading it. After another 3 hours or so of racing the next series, I almost had it fully upgraded. If you are keeping track of my hours I am close to 7 hours in, and I have earned enough to unlock one truck and almost max out the upgrades. There are 24 more trucks in the game that I will never drive.

Booger Eater: “Daddy look they have Megalodon, can we get it?”
Me: “no, I’m not going to do the work to unlock it”
Booger Eater: “why not?”
Me: “Do you want to do the races to unlock it?”
Booger Eater: “no”

The upgrade system is pretty bare bones and I can’t decide if that’s a good or bad thing. On one hand it’s nice to be able to spend your limited currency and be able to notice progress, but on the other hand, some added depth would be a welcome feature for some of us veteran racing players. Booger Eater isn’t going to spend any time messing with suspension settings, but I’m sure someone else out there would. The upgrades focus on tires, suspension, acceleration and top speed. The good thing is that you can upgrade between events without having to exit out or hit a garage. You just choose the upgrade you want to spend your money on and it’s applied to the next race. It’s very simple and clean and Booger Eater was eager to use all his money to upgrade the speed, as a seven year old would.

As he was upgrading the speed on Monster Mutt: “I’m going to make this the fastest Mutt ever. He’s going to go so fast he will jump over Mars.” He’s also kind of obsessed with space and planets right now.

I ran into some frame rate issues when racing with more than one truck on screen. I’m playing on an Xbox One X, and when there were 3-4 trucks on the screen you will see a pretty noticeable stutter and slow down until you are by yourself again. The audio is pretty standard for a racing game. While in third person view you can hear and feel the rumble of the trucks and it’s pretty impressive, but the real shining point for the audio is the first person cockpit view. If you have been to a Monster Jam event live then you know these beasts are loud. Playing the game in first person might not be the best visually, as the hood takes up 70% of the screen, but while playing I would suggest at least giving it a go for the audio. I can’t imagine how loud these things are when you are sitting 2 feet from the massive engine, but playing it in first person might give you a bit of an idea. The soundtrack features a generic rock score that fits this game well. I’ve heard that past games have had more of a hip hop theme to it, so this is a welcome change.

In 2019, online multiplayer is a standard, especially with racing games. A game like Monster Jam is BEGGING for online multiplayer where you can race some friends, trade some paint and break some tires on the same lap together. Unfortunately, it is missing from Monster Jam: Steel Titans and I just don’t understand it. Two other features that would make a huge difference are create a truck and create a course. Imagine the fun of creating your own massive monster truck and being able to take it out on a freestyle course that you made. Sharing it with your friends so you can compete online together would be a lot of fun and a huge missed opportunity to get more life out of this bare bones game. These missing features are a big miss in my opinion and drastically lower the value of the game.

There are a few things I really liked about Monster Jam: Steel Titans; the trucks themselves and the handling of the trucks are top notch and the stars of the show. It’s really fun to drive around and see what these beasts are capable of. You can run full speed into a ramp and see how many flips you can pull off before you slam into the ground. This is fun for about a half hour before you start to look into other modes to keep you busy. Unfortunately that is where the game falls extremely short.

No online multiplayer, the fun events being locked behind a hard single player race series and the slowest grind of in game currency that I can recall makes it really hard for me to recommend to even the veterans of the racing genre. What’s worse, is that I can’t recommend it to the REAL FANS of Monster Jam, the kids that drag their parents out on a work night to spend $100 on popcorn, a hot dog and a two pack toy truck set of Megalodon and Monster Mutt.

Overall: 6.0 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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