Remember how much fun it was to sit in a sandbox and play with Tonka trucks? If you’re hell-yeah’ing, and you’ve graduated to video games, SnowRunner is for you. The same goes for train set kids. I was both. I downloaded SnowRunner last week, have barely been logged off, and have a lot left to do.
(Full Disclosure: The PR company representing Focus Home Interactive sent me a code to download SnowRunner onto my Xbox One early so I could review it for you. The company also provided screenshots.)
This official gameplay clip gives you a better idea of what SnowRunner looks like than the provided screenshots. The release date is April 28, 2020, so it’s probably downloadable by the time you read this. It will play on PlayStation 4, PC, and Xbox One as of this writing. I played it on my non-enhanced Xbone for this review.
I will say it’s a little smoother and sexier in this clip than I found it to be on my base-model XBox One and 4K TV, but the graphics are still damn good to my eyes even without the benefit of a gaming PC or a higher-trim console.
Mud flinging, water, and vehicle renderings are the true graphical standouts.
After you make it through some tutorials, you find yourself with a map. Strewn about it are problems (downed power line, rockslide, unbuilt bridge...), vehicles, (some are broken, some are stuck, some just need to be found...), and services (gas station, repair garage, factories to pick up building materials...).
Game objectives look something like: “Tow X trailer out of a bog, then bring Y materials to location Z but first, you need fuel.” Meanwhile, a bunch of the world is blacked out and can only be lit up by first-person exploration and getting to watchtowers which reveal more of the map.
You’re going to need that map, too, because there are no easy routes between objectives, and not every vehicle in your fleet is even an off-roader. In fact, you start with just a Chevy GMT400 pickup and a humble GMC rear-drive medium-duty flatbed on road tires.
Herein lies what makes the game fun: You get to use your whole fleet as a team to get around the variety of terrains and obstacles SnowRunner has put out for you. For example: That GMC truck struggles in mud, so maybe use the Silverado to scout safe routes. Or maybe one of your rigs is already bogged, then send another to get the winch out and yank it free.
And of course, through all of this, you need to be cognizant of how to drive through different terrains. Mud, dirt, rocks, snow... each have their own characteristics. They’re mostly close to how such things feel to drive on in real life.
The game’s cinematic trailer explains that “you are an off-road trucker,” but I’d say that’s a bit of an undersell. It’s more like, you’re the god of trucking, and the virtual world of SnowRunner is your sandbox. Trucks need to move cargo around the map and tow each other out of bogs, and you can warp around between them to get that accomplished.
Also, despite the title, there’s a multitude of terrains to drive through. Like I said, I’ve been playing for days, and I’ve barely even made it to the snow.
For people who have played MudRunner this game takes the same concepts there but adds more of everything. More vehicles, more terrain types, more cargo, more challenges... It’s an epic sequel in every way, and if you liked MudRunner you’re going to love SnowRunner even more. (I did download the old game for comparison, though I don’t imagine I’ll be playing it much more now that I’ve got this new one.)
SnowRunner is slow so calibrate your brain for a puzzle, not a race. And be prepared to have your heart broken when you spend ages tediously shunting a rickety old cargo truck through slop only to get hopelessly mired in the middle of nowhere.
Like RPGs or other games in which leveling-up your player is a big factor, this game is a bit of a grind at the very beginning when your equipment is really weak and even small obstacles are a struggle. I’d recommend prioritizing unlocking vehicles; the first cargo truck you get with all-wheel drive and a locking differential feels like a godsend after plodding around in a GMC MH9500.
The map also gets a little easier as you progress. Hitting watchtowers opens up visibility while some of the missions, like cleaning up rockslides or building bridges, actually result in roads being cleared or complete for the rest of play. Some obstacles get removed altogether as a result of your efforts. Neat!
Speaking of obstacles, a big part of this game’s appeal is “realistic physics” and I think it does a pretty good job of getting there. The way vehicles slide, get dragged, and spin in mud is probably about as realistic as it could be while still being fun... if that makes sense.
There’s also fuel level you need to keep tabs on, and the weight of it, along with anything else you might be carrying, sloshes around as you go over bumps and creates instability if you’re not careful.
Here’s a little scenario I enjoyed getting myself in and out of: The mission was to fetch the fuel tank trailer from a muddy road. My GMC was nearby, so I took it down to collect. We got hooked on OK, but the extra weight was just too much for the rear-drive cargo truck. So I switched over to my International, with six-wheel drive and a locking diff, drove it down the path, yanked the GMC and its trailer out of the bog with my winch, left the weaker truck behind, and finished the haul with the beefier truck. Later, I respawned the GMC in the barn to get ready for a mission better-suited to its abilities.
In real life, “feel” is such a big part of off-road driving that it was always tough to replicate in a video game. And a lot of it is too arduous to be any kind of fun in a simulation at all. SnowRunner gets around this by giving you the key elements of off-road driving without making you suffer through the truly miserable parts.
For example: Sometimes you need to use winches to get unstuck! But the winches are magical and can attach from several points on your vehicle. Your vehicle takes damage! But the trucks are a lot heartier than they’d be in real life... you can barrel your way through some stuff that’d break axles in real life for sure. And if things really go pearshaped and you end up stalled at the bottom of a river, you can always respawn in mint condition with a full tank of gas back at your garage. (But some times that’s really, really far from where you wrecked... there is no true cheat-escape.)
SnowRunner includes many pieces of off-road driving which make it uniquely entertaining. Or educational, if you’re not familiar with what it takes to get a 4x4 through bad terrain. You have to manually engage four-wheel drive, locking differentials, and winches. Truck customization options are numerous and have real effects on vehicle performance.
The winching physics makes getting stuck actually one of the best parts of the game. Like the recovery I just described, these moments turn your failures into fun–you have to strategize in regards to which trucks can rescue which, and where to winch from without getting the second rig stuck. Just writing about this makes me want to go play right now!
There’s also a multiplayer mode I haven’t even been able to test yet that should take the whole multi-vehicle fleet cooperation to another level. In fact, that’s probably a whole other experience we might want to review separately (Sidenote: Hit me up if you download SnowRunner and want to play!)
SnowRunner boasts about 40 vehicles to start and has already announced a downloadable content with “four phases of new content with one massive expansion... New maps, vehicles, customization items, activities, add-ons, whole features, additional modding tools, and much more” in the future.
The vehicle selection out of the box is already glorious, though. All the vehicles are officially licensed, rendered in great detail down to patina, and customizable in fun and meaningful ways.
I’m not sure how the Hummer H2 SUT made the cut, but I was blown away by how perfect the other pickup (a single-cab flareside Silverado) and SUV (a freaking IH Scout!) options are.
As far as “appreciable differences between the rigs,” it seems to be a mixed bag. The Scout and the Silverado, for example, don’t seem to drive all that differently and they certainly would in real life. But the GMC MH9500 and International Fleetstar, two six-axle cargo trucks, feel nothing alike in power or capability.
You don’t have to spend all that much time in the civilian-sized rigs, either. Most missions in SnowRunner require moving heavy cargo which requires a big truck–these are cumbersome to get used to, but satisfying to master. As you progress, you end up having to equip rigs with trailers and cranes to get work done.
There’s a lot to keep track of, and things like crane operation require a lot of button pushing that can be a little tedious. But these details keep the game interesting by continuously giving you new skills to learn.
- The loading screens slip little trucker lobbying quotes in. Stuff like: “Truckers pay X taxes but only account for Y road use.” Not sure what the objective is for this.
- I hope it starts getting easier to earn in-game money because I really want to start driving the International Paystar now!
- The rescue missions are my favorite. When I get my second truck to the crash site I like saying “look how badly this idiot got themselves bogged,” then turning to my wife and adding “that idiot was me.” (No reaction from her so far.)
- I like that you can repaint/refuel/repair your vehicles for free while upgrades cost money. That feels like a good balance of gratification/gotta work for it.
- I have been loving listening to podcasts while playing this. Might switch to books on tape. If you’d rather rock and roll while you haul, I recommend the Spotify playlist: Country’s Greatest Hits: The ’80s.
SnowRunner is simultaneously casual and hardcore. It’s a nuanced and intricate execution of: “Here’s a sandbox, go push some trucks through it” that’s satisfying to play for anyone who’s intrigued by problem-solving and cool trucks. But it also moves slowly and quietly enough that you can successfully play while you’re on the phone with a friend, stuffing your face with chips, sitting through a 10-party conference call, or not totally totally sober. Or some combination of all the above.
As a simulator, it’s a decent primer on how different functions and accessories help trucks get through various terrain elements. As a driving game, it keeps finding carrots to dangle in front of you to pull you in for another hour of play. SnowRunner is constantly encouraging you to press on through mud and snow to unlock more powerful vehicles, fix the towns, and find out what’s over the next ridge.
I can’t wait until work is over so I can play it again.
Why not read some more driving game reviews? They’re fun!