I like to think that I’m a fairly good driver all things considered; I’ve never had a speeding ticket, I make sure to indicate early and I can reverse parallel park with the best of them. Now could my mad skill behind the wheel be transferred to any vehicle other than my little Holden Astra? Fuck no. Every time I see a truck or even a big ute make a tricky sharp turn, or reverse into/out of a spot I would struggle with in my sedan I’m amazed. How can you be so accurate with such a wide load (hehe)? So it’s safe to say that when approaching SnowRunner, an off-road simulator, I was a bit stressed that I would be bending fenders left, right and centre. Despite not being my usual go-to genre, SnowRunner’s physics, terrain and scope did hook me in, though, like the mountain ranges you drive through, there are plenty of bumps along the way.
Firstly let’s take care of some housekeeping. Developed by Saber Interactive, SnowRunner is the follow-up to the popular off-road sim MudRunner which launched back in 2017. Now as I said, the driving sim genre isn’t my forte and I haven’t played MudRunner, though I did go through plenty of gameplay footage to get an understanding of what SnowRunner was building on. With that out of the way let’s get into it.
She ain’t much, but she gets the job done
In SnowRunner you’re a truck driver, that much is probably obvious, but you aren’t cruising down a highway, stopping in at the nearest servo to snag yourself a meat pie, you’re closer to those crazy folks on the show Ice Road Truckers, who seemingly have a death wish. You start out driving a regular ute as you’re introduced to the game’s controls and features, such as activating All-Wheel drive and using your winch to get out of mud (more on that wonderful tool to come).
Following this you’re introduced to your first truck, a stock-standard hauler – this fella isn’t too flash or pretty, but it will get you started. In control of a larger vehicle now, you are given your first task, to bring timber from a nearby lumber yard into the adjacent small town. You’re rewarded with cash and experience for delivering the cargo that can be used to buy new vehicles and upgrades. And that’s the meat and potatoes of SnowRunner; accept a contract or task, pick up cargo from point A and deliver to point B. Though that really is underselling it a bit as getting from A to B isn’t quite that simple.
Mud, snow, ice, water and rocky terrains are all between you and your destination, and each obstacle requires a different approach. So you aren’t jumping into a situation blind, scout vehicles such as the aforementioned ute are used to explore the map, surveying the terrain and eying off possible obstacles. Watchtowers help in this regard (lookout points that uncover previously blacked out parts of the map), but getting in there with a smaller, more nimble car is really the way to go. If you don’t do this and just pack up the bigger, heavier trucks and hope for the best you’ll find yourself stuck, flipped or otherwise screwed, so preparation is king here.
Stuck? No, I’m just resting
In fact the scouting is actually far more entertaining than the actual delivering. The utes and smaller trucks are more responsive and fun to drive, able to bound over rocks and work their way through mud with relative ease, whereas the big haulers can be a real chore to drive on anything but a flat surface. The amount of times I got irreparably stuck while lugging supplies in the bigger trucks was infuriating. You can instantly send the vehicle you’re in back to the garage, but that forfeits all of your cargo, undoing possibly hours of effort. I know that this is a simulator, but a little more leniency (at least in the early stages) would make things far more enjoyable, as I actually found myself needing to take breaks out of frustration.
That’s not to say that the obstacles themselves aren’t great though. When it comes to rivers, bogs and rocky mountain passes, the game’s physics are something to behold. Tyres spinning violently without traction in mud, your car bouncing around like a carnival ride as you drive over rocks, it’s all top notch. Equally as impressive is the size of the maps. There are three different locations, each with their own terrain. Michigan (the starting area) is hilly and wet, Alaska, which is covered in snow and chock-full of icy lakes and Taymyr (Russia), a dense forest area. Each map has multiple areas with linking tunnels, giving you nearly 30 square kilometres to explore. The variation is excellent and the difference in terrain keeps things fresh.
My biggest problem with SnowRunner is unfortunately a pretty vital component, the steering. I get that the trucks you’re driving in the game aren’t as dexterous as a regular car, but the general steering for all of vehicles is sluggish and unresponsive. Oversteering was rampant during my time with the game, even when on proper roads, just because the trucks took an age to respond to my commands. You get used to it after a while, but I would have preferred if I didn’t have to.
When you get stuck (not if, when) you aren’t immediately up shit creek, as every vehicle has access to that marvellous winch I mentioned. This bad boy can be attached to any nearby point (a tree or pole for instance) and then pulled in to wrench you out of sticky situations. It’s not a get-out-of-jail free card, but it does work most of the time. If you are really in a bind you can even switch to another owned vehicle to come and lend a hand. The winch is the easiest feature in the game to use, which is handy because trust me, you’ll be using it a lot.
You mean to tell me that a town with more mud trails than streets has a bowling alley?
There are 30 different trucks to unlock throughout the game, each with their own pros and cons. The vehicle variation is fairly vast and the later, more advanced trucks allow for some good off-road fun. Some trucks you will find in the wild, others you need to buy from your garage with money you earn from contracts. You’re able to sell any of your trucks for the same price you purchase them as well, so don’t be afraid to try out a few different rigs.
The game also supports up to four players in co-op, with the host’s game progressing as the others help out. This is absolutely the way to play the game. Not only do you have some company, as playing solo can be lonely, but you also have a support system for when shit inevitably hits the fan. Get stuck? No problem, you have a mate to lend a hand. Don’t get confused, the deliveries are still busy work and blasting around in utes with friends is way more fun, but a convoy of trucks is better than a lone hauler.
Cold, secluded, very few people, it’s just like Tassie
Games like SnowRunner definitely aren’t for everyone. The slow nature of it might be boring for some, but plotting your route, preparing your rig and setting out on a long trek can also be pretty soothing when it goes well. It’s when it goes poorly that leads to frustration, and with the game’s lethargic steering, things go south frequently. Don’t get me wrong, the variation in vehicles, customisation and location are great and the physics are next-level, but the act of delivering goods just gets old quickly. I do see the appeal for those looking to meticulously simulate this crazy profession, just be sure to know that like the terrain, it isn’t all smooth driving.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher