Kickstarted back in 2014, TerraTech is one of the more successful attempts to evolve the sandbox construction genre in a new direction. A sort of Meccano to Minecraft’s Lego, Terratech focuses largely on building vehicles (or ‘techs’) which can be driven or flown around a randomly generated world. You’ll get into fights, complete quests, mine resources and refine your creations as you explore, but not without some significant control frustration and some big questions about the long term appeal of the whole thing.
At the core of a TerraTech tech is a cab block which defines the direction of travel (hide it away as deep in your vehicle as you can for protection). Blocks attach to each other at points on a cubic grid along each face. Construction is easy to understand – anyone can stick a bunch of blocks together, slap some wheels on the sides, some guns on the top, a drill on the front and let the game’s physics engine handle the result in a believable way.
Blocks fall into four distinct mechanical themes, associated with the rival corporations of the game’s lore. These cover grey military hardware, yellow construction vehicles, colourful racing vehicles and black stealthy builds. There is a range of sizes, with diverse aesthetic and mechanical functions that allow imaginative players to make and enjoy in the game’s generated worlds.
TerraTech definitely provides an interesting construction set, but it can be difficult to discover and enjoy its nuances. Descriptions of blocks in your inventory feature no useful statistics to aid comparison – furthermore, whether you’re playing docked or undocked, the whole game is plagued by small fonts that make reading what text there is uncomfortable.
Overall, there is a sense that all aspects of control and user interface needed a more ambitious overhaul when transitioning from PC to console. The controller mapping is a valiant attempt at marshalling the complexity of the construction system, but it is all too easy to forget that you are in a certain editing mode or sub menu, and what that means for the function of each button.
Though the principles of construction are delightfully easy to understand, the actual process can become exhausting on a controller. A good chunk of the interface works under the assumption that dragging and dropping items into place is an easy and comfortable motion – true for a mouse, but something to be tolerated on a controller. Something like Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts was far more successful in this regard. Tellingly, there is no touchscreen support in handheld mode.
The focus on player-controllable vehicles does mean that Terratech misses out one of the most interesting parts of that Minecraft formula: a world entirely composed of building blocks you can reshape into your own creations. The undulating hills of Terratech’s landscapes are obviously conceptually more true to reality than the Minecraft’s bizarre, blocky worlds (a hell of a lot easier to drive on too), but they’re also non-interactive and entirely unmalleable.
The game’s raw resource chunks are instead solely locked up inside the trees, rocks and mineral patches that pepper the land, ready to be bashed or mined out with various pieces of equipment. Once extracted, you could run these chunks through a complex manufacturing base to refine and fabricate the blocks you need for your creations, but this is an intimidating option in need of a more robust tutorial than the game provides, and unlikely to be the route most players take considering the campaign offers far simpler alternatives.
Building blocks can instead be more easily acquired by taking resource chunks to trading posts to earn gold, which can then be simply used to purchase new blocks. Alternatively, players can earn blocks (and gold) through completing the missions also dispensed at trading posts, or salvaging blocks from vehicles they defeat in combat (though you often destroy the best blocks in the process). Block and resource chunks each have their own corresponding collector devices, though you can always just stick interesting blocks to your vehicle to nail that classic “picked up furniture without measuring the car” aesthetic.
Combat in TerraTech is a mixed bag – there’s a definite joy in filling every surface of a large vehicle with small cannon and greeting roaming vehicles with a hail of bullets. However, early game survivability is low which leads to frustration – players will have to wait a fair while before they can obtain larger batteries to power their shield and healing bubbles, but stopping regularly to recharge batteries is unnecessarily arduous.
Wading into combat without shields isn’t advisable – dying means either paying a hefty sum in gold to get your vehicle back, or taking the option of a free starter vehicle and investing the not insignificant time it takes to re-build a creation capable of taking on larger opponents (though the free vehicle is at least scaled somewhat to your mission level). If you’re dying too often, you may be tempted to simply choose the free option repeatedly and wear down difficult enemies – the game is arguably full of these instances where the proper solution can be bypassed by something far less time consuming but also less interesting. Undisciplined players need not apply.
The missions dispensed by the trading posts do a better, though imperfect job of breaking things up. Missions are posted by the game’s corporations and the theming from their available blocks carries into the kinds of tasks they offer – the heavy duty, hazard yellow Geo Corp tasks you with resource harvesting whereas the colourful Venture Corp requires you to complete quests such as time trials, fitting their race car-like parts.
This theming injects some variety, but there are still too few mission types (expect a whole lot of “find the delivery crate, oh it’s an ambush” missions). Furthermore, by making them just another thing to pick up at a trading post, there’s a limit to how interesting the campaign can ever hope to be. The world overall feels quite empty, and the graphical presentation on Switch doesn’t help matters – textures are generally very blurry and effects such as shadows pop in only a few paces ahead of the player. Framerate and vehicle graphics are prioritised – the right choice, but in a way that calls into question whether the Switch version is itself ‘the right choice’.
Of course in the creative mode, much of the above is technically moot – but campaign mode really is the best way to experience the game. For starters, players will have difficulty working out what half of the blocks do without playing at least some of the campaign. Then there’s the sense that building for building’s sake is less fun overall when you’re building vehicles – why go anywhere, shoot anything or mine anything when there isn’t a reason to? TerraTech’s campaign (and to a lesser extent, the limited build and race ‘gauntlet’ mode) gets far enough towards answering that question to not be a total write-off.
At the core of TerraTech is an extensive mechanical construction kit that presents an interesting canvas for creative players. However, the Switch’s significant UI shortcomings, a cumbersome console control scheme, and a limited-feeling campaign will ensure that only persistent players stick around long enough to find the fun.