Towing a trailer longer than my truck, I overestimate how deep a patch of mud is and firmly root my vehicle and its payload in it. As I ponder my options, the thought occurs: “Am I actually having fun here?”.
Whilst to many it may seem like a good time to give up and play something else, this is where SnowRunner shines. A calming yet tactical delivery simulator, it’s not for the quick and easily distracted. Half the fun is in dropping your payload off, the other is working out the varying and treacherous terrain as you go.
Admittedly, it was my own fault for underestimating the mud depth, but that’s not the point. SnowRunner is designed around this, its raison d’etre is to triumph these conditions. It is by no means a fast-paced game, and yet… that’s why I love it. So strap on your chained tyres and we’ll find out why…
Winter Is Coming… Depending On What Region You’re In
Set across three different regions and climates, SnowRunner is a vast game that highlights a trade most of probably have never given any real thought to. Set in two American locales, Michigan and Alaska, as well as the Russian region of Taymyr, each region brings it own set of challenges and jobs, as were as differing weather and terrain conditions to overcome.
If you’re not familiar with Saber’s hauling lineage, SnowRunner is a continuation that started with Spintires, that in itself branched out into Mudrunner on consoles as well as PC. The series goes back as far as 2013, with MudRunner being the first console release in 2017. Whilst it didn’t hit high review scores, it did garner a strong enough reputation for a sequel (of sorts) that has improved on a lot of the criticisms. For one, it’s certainly better to look at. Whereas Spintires and MudRunner were well, muddy, SnowRunner looks rich and verdant with its varying landscapes and seasonal weather. There’s been times where I’ve got stuck in or on something as I was too busy enjoying the environment on display.
However, the title is a little bit misleading, as the promise of snow doesn’t come until you’re a good few hours in. You start of in one of Michigan’s regions, and while the tutorial does let you go to Alaska, the game essentially goes, “This is Alaska. Take a good look, you won’t be here for a while” before sending you back to Michigan. But it is for good reason: you won’t have a suitable vehicle or the means to upgrade it by then. The pessimists will say it’s a bait and switch, while the optimists will have something to look forward to. That impetus to get to the snowcapped lands of Alaska, instead of throwing a massive difficulty spike at you straight away is a welcome component. You have to earn it.
Playing The Long Game With The Long Haul
Be warned going in though, SnowRunner is snow easy game (sorry, had to get one in) to control. Alright, slight exaggeration there. It’s not as dastardly hard and scientifically accurate as something like Kerbal Space Program or Flight Simulator, but don’t expect to be drifting round corners and rallying up inclines.
Gearbox management and logistical turning are the tenets that SnowRunner deals in, which can take a while to get used to. Turning isn’t necessarily slow to respond, but it does take a while to realign after going round a corner. You have to manually bring the wheel back lest you overcook it into a wall or over a drop. It’s not an issue when you’re navigating rocky passages and climbs, as you’ll be making incremental adjustments all the time. But if you’re on your way into town and take a corner too abruptly, you’ll be cursing yourself out.
The gear shifting side of things isn’t too difficult to get to grips with. For the most part, you can leave it on automatic as you take main roads and such. It’s when you go off-roading that you have to start dropping into lower gears manually to not over-spin your tyres in mud, or to navigate a tricky incline and not accidentally launch yourself off the edge. When you get the hang of it, you can start using it to your advantage. If you’re on a slope with a clear run ahead of you, you can put it in neutral, get those revs high and quickly stick it in gear for a bit of a jump. You won’t boost yourself Mario Kart-style to the top, but it’ll give you some initial momentum to get that climb going.
As I’ve said though, the core gameplay is getting stuck into it and overcoming various difficulties to make deliveries in occasionally harsh climates. SnowRunner does this well, so more credit to it there, yet at the expense of time. You need to put time into getting the hang of it, as well as the time it takes to deliver massive payloads as the game progresses. So you’d think a game like this would have a massive and comprehensive tutorial to teach you the rigorous and expansive mechanics behind such a big game, right?
Surprisingly… it doesn’t.
Everything The Light Touches Is Yours To Get Stuck In
There is a tutorial, don’t get me wrong. It teaches you the basics of driving in your first scout vehicle and how to refuel, unlock some FarCry-esque watchtowers and how to access or find new vehicles. You get a brief tutorial when you get a bigger workhorse of a truck (which is still small compared to some of the beasts you unlock) and how to start missions and tasks… and that’s it.
There is a pop up hint system, but I swear it’s the most passive-aggressive insult system ever devised. It’s great at telling you, if you’re stuck, to use your winch (because you’d have forgotten about it, obviously). When that doesn’t work, you’ll get, “You know you can recover [back to the garage], don’t you?” as a sort of acknowledgement that you ballsed up big time. Thankfully you can turn these off, as they start to cycle ad nauseum and take up screen space.
But in the grander scheme of things, SnowRunner doesn’t understand the notion of baby steps. Not when you’re expecting to haul freight liners over snow-ridden lands, anyway. Mission trackers are minimal, in telling you what supplies you need to complete a task and sometimes, if you’re lucky, where you can pick them up from. Of course, the natural deduction is that timber would be at a lumber yard, metal plates at a steel plant, that’s a given on us to work out. But bar a little HUD icon, there’s very little in the way of guidelines or markers to help you out.
You can plant your own markers on the map, adding several into a little checkpoint system towards your end goal. Unfortunately, these are “as the crow flies” literal straight lines across a map. So when you do get back to driving, you only get the blue marker with a distance above it, not the correct route to take.
However, I’m actually in favour of it. I’ve said before about the dumbing down in modern games, so that SnowRunner makes you figure out your own damn route is a godsend. It brings back lateral thinking and path-finding as part of the overall experience and I applaud it. If it told you which path to take, where the obstacles and deep spots were and which gear to be in, it would be a linear and bland experience. The onus is on you to figure out how you are going to make this delivery/bridge repair/landslide tidy.
United We Fall Over, Or Get Stuck
Fortunately, a problem shared is a problem halved, as SnowRunner expands on the co-op from Mudrunner from two to four players. Part of the former’s endearing charm is that if you get stuck, you can hop to another truck Driver San Francisco-style and bail yourself out. If you’ve got a friend or three to help you then that makes it not only easier, but fun too.
You can coordinate a massive delivery, with one of you as the heavy good transport and the others as the problem solvers, the scouts, or the ones that inevitably will be pulling you out of whatever realistically designed natural element you’ve managed to get yourself stuck in. Sadly, there’s no CB radio button to press before you talk for that authentic touch, but you can start every chat with “Breaker, breaker” if you really want to. No one will judge you.
Yet even if you don’t have the friends to jump in to help, the arsenal of trucks for you to play with is still just as staggering. Real world companies like GMC, Ford, Dodge and Western Star Trucks all lend their models to be accurately portrayed in the American regions, whilst the Russian counterparts are all equally licensed. Vehicle classes range from the Scouts, which are your recon jeeps and Humvees all the way to the heavies, the big guns in the freight transport world. These tall boys are the gas guzzling, long hauling beasts that you’ll get to handle the further you progress and unlock massive jobs, testing everything you’ve learnt about navigating perilous pathways and gearbox control.
Yet as is the case in some aspects of life, it’s not about the size of it but you do with it that counts. It’s not just about grabbing goods from point A to take to a bastardly awkward B, it’s also about actually grabbing the goods. Most vehicles, bar the Scout type, can be fitted with trailers (or mounts for bigger trailers) and even cranes. Some mission tasks require you to literally pick up the cargo, be it from a depot or found on the open road, so you’ll need to park correctly and manipulate whatever attachment you’ve fitted your ride with.
Trailers are pretty self-explanatory: you line up with it and select the “Attach trailer” prompt from the functions menu. I know, talk about rocket surgery. Cranes though, that’s a whole new art in itself. Honestly, it’s about as fiddly as a claw machine you find at a pier, but instead of money it costs patience. Yet when you do manage to load or unload successfully, it is so satisfying. Conversely, get it wrong and you’ll end dropping your cargo, or worse, watching it tumble downhill and create more hassle for you.
Not all missions and tasks are an exercise in precision and frustration, though. Some are quick little runaround jobs in your Hummer, that can be accomplished easy enough to earn some renown (SnowRunner’s version of a level system) and some cash. Why would you need cash and experience in an off-roading delivery sim, you may be wondering…?
What Do You Mean “Warranty Voided”? What Did You Think I Was Using It For?
When I said about unlocking new vehicles, I may have given the impression that you gain this through progression, like weapon unlocks in Call of Duty. Sadly, and as you may have gathered by now, it’s not that easy. Vehicles do become available at a certain level, but they also require cold hard cash transactions. Snowrunner wants to make sure you’ve got your big boy pants on before you take on a massive ride.
Or, if you’re lucky enough (and chances are you will be, as some are task-based), you can find them out in the wild. Keep an eye on your map region when you activate a watchtower, as it may highlight a new ride for you to discover. It’s not just vehicles you can go off the even more beaten track for though, as vehicle upgrades are dotted about the landscapes too.
Customisation in SnowRunner is fairly comprehensive, but not to the extent of being able to fine tune your motor. Engine upgrades add more power, naturally, whilst swapping out a default gearbox for a snow-optimised one will see less top speed gears, but a few extra low gears for more control in heavy snow. Raising your suspension will keep you above boggy areas that a low clearance would normally get stuck in, whereas an engine snorkel can mitigate water flooding and stalling your engine. Tyres come in a variety of flavours, from standard road tyres to wider, mud-orientated ones for better traction. As time goes on, you unlock more variants to swap out for the job ahead, giving you some control over the route you intend to take.
You’ll find yourself equipping different layouts for a handful of vehicles: you could have a Scout with some all-purpose tyres, whilst your mid-range truck has some mud-favouring tyres for smaller deliveries, whilst your freightliner has some heavy duty chained wheels for those really tough conditions that just need to be done. If you find an upgrade out in the world, that becomes available permanently for any compatible vehicle you own. The rest of the upgrades need to be either bought when your level is high enough, or found through mission progression.
There are cosmetic upgrades available too, but honestly, who are you going to show them off to? This isn’t Need for Speed Underground: your mates are here for convoys, not chrome fenders. But, it’s always nice to add a bit of spice and give your 4×4 a fire red if you feel like it, just because you can.
It’s Oh… So… Quiet
One thing you’ll notice as you drive about the three regions, each of which has four different areas to unlock and complete, is despite the beautiful looking landscapes there’s no one else in this world. You don’t pass any other cars on the road, nor see any townsfolk, or even any radio stations to listen to. It’s a very bare world, really emphasising that this game is about the vehicles and what you need to do with them.
The thing is, though, that once you get rolling, you won’t care. If the beauty and realistic terrain physics come at the expense of not seeing any other traffic, that’s fine with me. Saber have focused all this effort on beautiful mud and snow, and by golly are you going to appreciate it. Besides, other cars would just get in the way when you’re trying to navigate a massive trailer around an uphill hairpin corner. Nobody wants that hassle.
There may not be any radio stations or background music to listen to but really, that’s not a dealbreaker. If you’re that bothered, you can put your own music on. There’s no dialogue or story narration that you’re missing out on.
Yet sadly, as I have to find a complaint somewhere, it would be nice to have a bit of character to it. Missions and tasks do have little text expositions to give you direction, but it feels a bit hollow without any enthusiasm behind it. Challenges, this time activated in-game as opposed to a separate menu in the previous game, have no real life to them other than just to be completed for money and experience.
Spintires and MudRunner had this problem too: massive open area to get lost and/or stuck in, yet no life to it. As I said earlier, the impetus is on you to get the job done, and that’s great. But the absence of any life besides marginal texts does make it a somewhat hollow experience at times. Not that we need instant gratification for doing remedial tasks, but it’d be nice to know your efforts to help rebuild a town would get some recognition. Having just lugged a shedload of pipes halfway across the sodding map, for one.
The weirdest comparison this game has drawn, that even Saber have played up to, is Death Stranding. I didn’t see it at first, but the parallels are there: you’re rebuilding an area, but it feels lifeless and void of anything going on until you do the legwork. Well, truckwork, in this case. Again, that can either be praise or damning insult, depending on how you feel about Death Stranding.
We’re On A Road To (S)nowhere…
In summary, SnowRunner isn’t going to be a game for everyone. It requires patience and a modicum of strategy and forward thinking. It doesn’t have the most gentle or flowing of starts, more of a drop into it, but once it gets going it really starts to shine.
There’s the feeling of an actual job well done when you’ve taken the best part of an hour to navigate some absolute bastard of a route, or fixed a fallen powerline to make your return trip easier. It feels like an actual day’s hard work, just without a numb butt and trucker tan (you know, only on one arm as it rests on the window).
It’s not an easy game, per se, but then it never claimed to be. Once you get your head around the time and patience aspect, SnowRunner is going to engross you. It won’t win any Game of the Year awards for being niche, but then neither does Train Simulator. If you can convince some friends to join you, then even better. But even as a solo experience, there’s some absolute joy to be had when you get stuck into it.
And you will get stuck into it, in more ways than one.
It may not have the easiest of starts, but persevere and there’s a massively satisfying game to be had in SnowRunner.
SnowRunner is available from April 28th on PS4 (reviewed on PS4 Pro), Xbox One and PC.
Developer: Saber Interactive
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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