If you were to ask me to list my all time favorite arcade racers, there will be one inclusion that you may not have expected - Monster Truck Madness. While it was never the most technically sound racing game made, it will always hold a special place for me as one of the first I truly enjoyed as a youngster. However despite the fame of that series, and despite the fact there is something about monster trucks and video games which just go well together, it has never been an overly successful pairing,
with mostly only low budget generic efforts to speak of. This trend is set to continue with Activision's and Torus Games' recently released Monster Jam for the Xbox 360, because while it seems to offer what you'd expect from a monster truck game, it is overall a very generic racer that doesn't really standout.
In case you're not up on the scene, 'Monster Jam' is a real life event that tours mostly across the US with monster truck races and freestyle competitions. Monster Jam the game takes this concept, some of the locations visited in real life such as Reliant Stadium in Houston Texas, some of the trucks such as Gravedigger and Monster Mutt, and throws in some classic arcade racing gameplay to complete the experience. While a decent portion of the real life trucks are included (20 to be exact), and
while the game does feature some semi-realistic elements, the primary focus here is definitely arcade racing action, best seen with the fantasy track circuits, and the crazy objects you will be smashing through like demountables and construction sites.
The modes on offer are an initial insight to the game's generic approach. You only have three major modes of play in 'multiplayer', 'single event' and 'championship', all of which are self explanatory albeit with a few catches - multiplayer is offline split screen only, and the championship mode is really nothing more than the game throwing together single events for you with no real sign of any career development, point totals, seasons etc. The absence of Live play and the absence of a
more detailed championship mode are both quite disappointing and basically reaffirm the generic and basic nature of the game.
Inside all these modes there are three main styles of play. You have basic outdoor circuit races which either take on the form of 'elimination' or a preset amount of laps, indoor tracks which involve a one-on-one mirror track somewhat like a rally stage, and lastly indoor freestyle events which involve you driving around and causing as much damage to the cars and other objects as possible, tallying a score in the process. The variety covered by all these styles of play are decent, but it wouldn't really be
much of a monster truck game without any of them, so they were basically expected inclusions.
The driving gameplay itself is again quite basic and not overly challenging at that. At first the game comes off as quite tough, but once you get accustomed to the controls and the way the game works, races and other track events become reasonably easy to master. The freestyle damage events remain a little tricky but once you figure out the presence of combos, those too are not much of a challenge really. The absence of an in-depth championship/season mode means the game relies heavily on its sheer
gameplay to keep you playing and unfortunately the replay value just isn't there with the gameplay. On the other hand, the game is quite 'pick up and play' friendly, but this is definitely at the expense of any real depth.
With that said though, fun can definitely be had in Monster Jam. Races, particularly at the start before you pull away from the CPU trucks, can be absolute mayhem as you blast through everything in your path including other monster trucks. You also have to watch out for too much contact as the game features a reasonably well done damage model to the trucks that can influence your abilities, particularly in the freestyle damage events where losing a wheel or two seems common place if you don't hold back
a bit. In many ways Monster Jam is a lot like Flatout: Ultimate Carnage, featuring similar gameplay with similar attitudes towards environmental damage (i.e. almost everything is destructible), and even quite similar tracks and locations when in the racing modes. There is a definitely difference between the two though that comes down to the feel of 'quality', or lack thereof in Monster Jam's case. The racing just doesn't flow as well or feel as exciting and finely tuned with Monster
Jam, so from a gameplay point of view, unless driving monster trucks is a must for you, there are better arcade racing options out there with very similar features, such as Flatout. Visually the game is also nothing to brag about, with average quality across the board from trucks to tracks.
Monster Jam is really a very generic arcade racer. It doesn't really do anything painfully wrong, but it does nothing exceptionally well either. It is a throwback to the arcade smash em' racing game days which is nice to see in a way, but as far as gaming standards go today, it isn't much more than a basic racing game with a predictable set of modes. So, with that said, as long as you don't expect too much you can certainly have a bit of fun racing around some monster trucks, but I'm not sure
there is enough value on offer here for anything other than a rental for most gamers. Fans of the big trucks or of the 'Monster Jam' tour in particular may get more value, but given the game is clearly not too concerned with realism, I'm not sure that will be necessarily true. Ultimately though, like Monster Truck Madness was for me as a kid, I'm sure there are some young fans of the big trucks out there who will find enjoyment with Monster Jam regardless of its shortcomings.