When I was a kid, I loved getting dirty. Much to the dismay of my parents, most of my summer days were spent rolling around in sand piles and digging in the mud around my house. Although I feel bad that my family had to deal with a smelly kid for three months out of the year, I don’t really regret it. In fact, the only thing that I do regret is that I can’t go and play in the dirt anymore unless I answer those recruitment emails the Army keeps sending me.
This is where SnowRunner comes in. As the third game in the weirdly long-running Spintires franchise, you play as a truck driver who also doesn’t like to stay clean. Instead, the nameless man that you take control of has decided to make his money driving the muddy roads of desolate locales all across the Northern Hemisphere.
From the start, the premise of SnowRunner is a lot more intriguing than that of other driving simulators. Unlike in those games, the challenge here doesn’t come from staying awake or using your turn signal, but instead it’s all about navigating the hazards that you’ll encounter while driving. Be it roads that are worse-paved than those in Central Africa, mud that runs up to the chassis of your truck or streams that flow in between two barely existent bits of pavement, you need to get around all of these dangers to complete your objectives.
These things all may seem simple, but in reality these challenges make SnowRunner feel less like a simulator and more like a puzzle game. Every peril that you come across has a specific way to get through it. You get through mud by winching your truck to trees and lowering the gear of your engine. To get around streams, the solution is to drive as fast as you can without stopping. In order to deal with ice, you need to drive slowly and steadily. It can take up to twenty minutes to get across any one of these, but once you succeed, it feels like you finally figured out how to use the Portal Gun.
This is good, too, because it helps make the simulation bits of the game feel a lot less repetitive. Although the game may feel like a puzzler, at its core, SnowRunner is still a truck game. Every job you take on involves choosing which of the fifty or so purchasable trucks you need to bring, attaching the proper modifications from a selection of thirty per vehicle, then driving to a location to pick up an item. Once you have the item on your trailer, then you drive to another place to drop it off. Occasionally there may be additional challenges added to your mission, like a time limit or a need to avoid damaging your vehicle, but these are few and far between.
In addition to this, the only other thing you can do is to explore the world in a scout car. There are eleven maps in SnowRunner for you to traverse and each has a number of Far Cry-esque things for you to do. There are watch towers that reveal the map, trucks that need to be pulled out of the mud and roadblocks that need to be repaired. Although these tasks allow you to do more of the game’s excellent off-roading, they almost always feel like busywork. You need to complete most of these as soon as you get to a new area if you want to be able to do the main missions effectively, so they end up serving as little more than a box to check before you can start to actually play the game.
These tasks are made worse because they slow down the game’s already sedated progression. For each task that you complete, you’re granted some experience and money that you can then use to buy new trucks and equipment. This is par for the course in almost any game, but the problem is that here it takes forever to unlock anything. In the early game, you’re given fewer than 5,000 credits per mission, and because new trucks cost at least 60,000 credits, you’re forced to use the terrible beginner vehicle for hours before being able to buy anything new. This does get better the further you get into the game, but it’s such an obvious problem that it dampens the overall experience.
The other obvious problem with the game is how empty the world feels. The game takes place in Alaska, Northern Michigan and Eastern Russia, so it does make sense that there aren’t many other people around. What makes this a problem, however, is that there are no other people at all. You spend the entire game trucking in between outposts and towns, but there’s not a soul in these anywhere. You accept jobs from computers, your truck is magically loaded up and then you drop off your trailer at job sites where invisible elves take it before you return with your next load. It makes the world feel like Death Stranding but without any of the charm.
Fortunately, these problems are somewhat offset by a few convenience features included in the game. Gas and repairs are both free, you can recover your crashed vehicles with the tap of a button and vehicles can be sold for the same price they’re bought at. All of these things may seem minor, but they’re important to note because they help alleviate some of the annoyances of the game’s slow pace and they make the trial-and-error gameplay a bit less frustrating.
Taken as a whole, then, SnowRunner is a solid enough game with some obvious flaws that should’ve been caught in QA. There’s a wealth of content for you to experience and the actual gameplay is surprisingly engaging. But in between getting stuck in the mud, there’s nothing else to do but check boxes and wander an empty world.
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