Some years ago I owned an in-car GPS device. For the most part it worked well, a few right turns here and a few left turns there and before I knew it I had arrived at my destination. But on some occasions this particular GPS would be overcome with the spirit of adventure and exploration. I’d be driving along in my car, which at the time was a lowered little hot-hatch, innocently following the directions being given, everything going as expected. Then one more turn and I’d be directed down a seemingly forgotten road that had been traveled by neither man nor machine in a very long time.
What had been a smoothly surfaced regular road soon transformed into a pot-hole ridden dirt track or a muddy obstacle course. Several times I had to outright abort the effort to traverse the route I’d been sent on, nearly getting my poor little car stuck at times. I mention this because I’m greatly reminded of those misadventures while playing SnowRunner. While it may not place you in the driving seat of any low-riding or souped up speed machines, it absolutely will send you into treacherous terrain that may be more than your vehicle can deal with.
SnowRunner will be somewhat familiar if you played MudRunner, both are games from Saber Interactive but this is my first venture into either game. The idea is that you have to run deliveries and perform other tasks using heavy vehicles from 4x4 wagons up to huge big-rig trucks driving around, over and through all sorts of difficult and dangerous geography. One mission might have you hauling a trailer full of logs down a mucky old farm road or perhaps task you with pulling a stranded truck out of a marsh. It sounds a simple enough concept but it’s not as easy of a task as just opening the throttle and powering through. Such a plan of action is likely to get you into far more trouble and you’re going to need to practice patience and some planning to prevail over SnowRunners harsh environments.
Featuring a very impressive roster of vehicles from relatively humble 4x4’s up to huge trucks from companies like General Motors and Ford to name a couple, you build a fleet of vehicles and expand your supply networks as you provide your special brand of delivery services to clients in Russia, Michigan, and into the frozen lands of Alaska. Different trucks are, of course, suited better to some tasks than others and you’ll have to choose carefully before committing to a task; try tackling an icy road in a vehicle not equipped for the job and you’ll be going nowhere at all. It isn’t just the long list of vehicles to consider either as there’s a whole host of upgrades available for each from tires better suited for mud or chained for snow and ice, snorkels to help defeat flooded areas, or perhaps upgrading the entire engine and drive train.
The challenge becomes apparent immediately in the opening area which serves as a tutorial which has you drive from firm ground, though wet mud and then over rocky ground. As mentioned previously, you can’t just open the throttle and hope for the best, that’ll just see you digging a hole to sit in. SnowRunner demands you take more time and pick a route carefully. Beyond that, vehicles have a low gear which slows you down greatly but also helps you find traction and keep moving when the conditions get rough. Some vehicles also have All-Wheel-Drive you can switch on or off and sometimes a lockable differential, which will go a long way towards finding that all important traction.
You might be thinking you would just keep all of that switched on all the time, but doing so has its drawbacks. AWD will help you over difficult areas but will also burn your fuel much quicker. Locking a differential makes your vehicle turn wider where engaging a low gear increases your turning capability but slows you down so much that you’ll never get to your destination, so picking and choosing how your vehicle is set up to match the conditions is really important.
Another invaluable tool at your disposal is the winch. Find yourself stuck and you can always attempt to anchor on to something with this and pull yourself free but it has a limited range and not every anchor point is as sturdy as the next. If you’re driving a smaller 4x4 then hooking up to a very small tree might just be enough to wiggle out of a tricky situation, however that same bit of foliage is never going to hold fast if you are trying to pull a truck and trailer out of a swamp. The winch can be attached to various points of your vehicle to allow you to pull in different directions and is used to hook up to other vehicles that you might be trying to tow. There’s definitely something very satisfying about slowly pulling yourself free from a stranded condition, inch by agonizing inch.
The pace of SnowRunner is something I found very relaxing, it’s a slower more thoughtful experience than a lot of driving games and is more akin to a simulation. Each area is an open world affair and you’re free to drive about at your leisure to discover things and take in the scenery. Even when I was clearly stuck with no hope of escape, I never encountered the dreaded gamer rage, instead being accepting of the fact that I only had myself to blame for the situation and would have to fall back to the games auto recovery option, which dumps you back at your base of operations for that area.
The game looks really nice too as you drive around in the wilderness. It isn’t Forza Horizon 4 but has a more muted and rustic tone and environments are impressively expansive while vehicle models are well detailed, I particularly liked some of the more subtle effects like water rushing to fill tire tracks. It’s just as well that the game is pretty to look at, as you’ll have to go looking for different types of trailers, like the service trailer that allows you to repair vehicles or the gas trailer so you can refuel trucks out on the road and you’ll have to go out and find some of the available vehicle upgrades; very little is just handed to you. Audio design is also satisfying and a particular mention should go to the ambient sound effects, the rustling of leaves as you brush past or gravel being kicked up are very well executed. I did end up reducing the engine effects volume a little as that got a bit overbearing when trying to escape from a tricky spot.
Controls are a bit jarring at first and take some getting used to, these are not racing vehicles we’re dealing with here. Instead these trucks have weight to them and take a lot of room to turn, requiring you to rotate the virtual wheel a lot to get them going where you want them to and you won’t be making quick adjustments with the slightest flick of the thumb stick. The trucks want to tip over if you’re driving over uneven ground and more than once, I managed to have trailers topple over, spilling cargo and resulting in me having to break out the trusty winch once again to pull it back right side up. The control scheme in general is a little more complicated that you’ll find in most driving games but it doesn’t take long to figure it all out and soon starts making sense. Vehicles have their own characteristics and feel to them, engaging All-Wheel-Drive or the low gears makes a clear difference to how your ride moves and the various upgrades also have a definite impact on how it feels when driving each truck.
Basically, if Forza Horizon 4 and American Truck Simulator got drunk and hooked up one night then SnowRunner is what I imagine the result would be. A slower paced game that challenges throughout and stays fresh with a good range of vehicles, upgrades and locations to explore and a great deal of customization.