I don’t know a great deal about farming, I don’t suppose that many of us really do. We just accept that it happens and food and materials make their way from where they’re grown and eventually land in some form on our supermarket shelves. Even through my youth with regular visits to an Uncle and Aunt who ran a dairy farm hasn’t given me the greatest insight into the world of crop rotation and animal husbandry, only that cows are noisy and smelly, and the food was always hearty. However, if I’d ever had a hankering to don wellies and a chequered shirt and leap behind the wheel of immense machinery, I can at least now do it virtually. In its latest instalment of the surprisingly successful series, Farming Simulator 19 continues to bring the thrills and spills of cultivation and harvesting to the masses… but could it keep me engrossed?
This is going to sound obvious, but the game is exactly what the title says. It isn’t a tongue-in-cheek pastiche or port of a mobile social game. It’s an open world sandbox that lets the player take charge of managing crops, animals and trade within the limits of the map. Do the jobs on hand, recognise the harvests that offer the highest return, upgrade equipment to make things faster and more efficient, rake the money in, re-invest into better gear and a more diverse portfolio – there’s a lot of depth on offer rather than the initial impression it gives in the tutorial where it teaches the basics of driving a tractor. That said, the key selling point of Farming Simulator 19 (and previous) is the variety of licensed machinery on display and what’s available to scamper across the fields in; and for those without any notion of what’s needed to run an efficient and productive operation, it’s a bit of an eye opener.
Lying at the heart of Farming Simulator 19 is the core belief that the player just wants to drive up and down a field in something big whilst having a physical impact on the environment. It turns out that there’s about 100 different pieces of kit (slight exaggeration, but only slight) needed to take a field from barren to fruitful and most of them have only one purpose. Taking a stock tractor, the first action is to cultivate a field – essentially ploughing it by dragging a mass of churning metal across it to break the soil up. The cultivator then gets swapped for a sower which may need specialised types depending on the crop, then a fertiliser and possibly a weed killing run before letting time do its thing. Once the crop’s grown it’s time to get in the biggest, baddest machines and harvest the s*%! out of it. It’s not over there though because certain yields will leave residue to be baled and cleaned up before the next batch can be planted. A single field can take hours to get through with just a couple of actions, and there are dozens to get to grips with on the map.
Fortunately there’s the option to hire an AI character to do the job – just start off with what needs doing and hit a button to let them take over. They won’t be as fast, and they’ll tie up that particular piece of equipment until they’re done, but they will be thorough, and most importantly it takes away some of the tedium involved. There isn’t a way to sidestep the fact that most of the game mechanics revolve around driving slowly in a straight line before turning 180 degrees and doing it again. It compensates for it with the level of interaction within the vehicles being quite impressive, from things like controlling turning indicators to manipulating every single accessory that hooks on to the front of back; the cockpit layout view looks great and the radio has enough variety to keep things interesting for a while; and there’s a rewarding feeling seeing row after row of wheat succumb to the harvesters cycling blades until the area is completely clear. It’s still a slow game though, so bear that in mind.
Alongside the static crops which are the meat of Farming Simulator 19, there’s the option to rear livestock and see whether pigs, cows or horses are more fun to take care of. They’ve got the same level of depth to them where feeding, cleaning and taking care of their well-being is crucial to their output or price. Take horses for example, the healthier they are the more they fetch when sold, and taking them for a ride each day helps build stamina and increases the value. Equally, feeding and grooming become essential to the upkeep, so there’s no letting them take care of themselves. Going down the animals route is a commitment of time and resource, and not least in purchasing the pricey enclosures they need. If funds are low then food may need to come from the fields in rotation, and that means more time focusing on the agriculture side… and there’s only so much one person can do. The likelihood is this won’t be an issue though unless all the settings have been set to full simulation rules or the hardest difficulty setting. Gluttons for punishment can have it dialled all the way up to 10, whilst those who want a more sedate and carefree life can drop everything down and just enjoy some of the tranquillity that’s on offer.
With a full day and night cycle (including user controlled speed), and weather systems that impact crop growth, it does manage to break up some of the monotony. There’s a need to think and plan ahead, and really understand what has to happen immediately, and what’s better being left until later. Trying to plough a field at night isn’t easy and needs much more concentration than usual, especially if the lights are tricky to figure out (L1 + Circle for PS4 players… that would have been a handy button prompt to have), but actually could the time have been spent more productively moving the grain from the silo to the store? There’s usually more money in selling than there is in completing some of the tasks available. With little to guide you through the open world, taking on contracts is a good way of tackling some of the basic activities and learning the ropes. Equipment isn’t an issue either as most can be leased at a reasonable price per hour so there’s the chance to try them out without committing large amounts of cash. It’s worth remembering that the “hour” is based on the player controlled speed, and you’ll continue to move at the same pace regardless of what that’s set to (i.e., slow down time to a crawl when leasing to get the most out of the machinery).
Having more equipment available does have advantages though because a tap on the D-pad teleports you to the cockpit of the next one in sequence, so it’s entirely possible to jump around the map instead of driving from place to place. Of course, there are many times when driving is needed, like transporting goods to sell, but for quick trips between places it’s very handy. Trains circle the area too and have a massive amount of storage capacity, so make good options for transporting bulk sales when the silos are overflowing. It’s one of the ways that Farming Simulator surprises – it’s never just about working a field, it’s all the economic activity and infrastructure going on around it that needs consideration. Then it layers on some light construction elements too so you can really build up your own slice of country life in one or both of the maps on offer. Throw in mods (which currently includes a reworked map from a previous game, as well as lots of other tools to pick from) and a multiplayer mode that lets friends work the land together, and it’s not only deep, but has longevity as well.
So it’s all coming up smelling of potatoes then for Farming Simulator 19? Well… yes… but only if you’re a fan of this genre, or are obsessed with John Deer and New Holland. What it does, it does very well, yet it’s clear there’s a specific audience in mind, and that’s namely those who’ve bought into the last few games. Nowhere is this more obvious than when you start a new game and want to buy some land. There’s nothing anywhere that tells you how to do it, even though there’s an almost encyclopedic help section in the pause menu. It’s a bit like switching the lights on, I needed to Google that because it just wasn’t listed anywhere. In that sense it’s very insular and that makes it a difficult game to break into and hard work to find the bits you’ll love. If it grabs you in the first 15 mins there’s hours of meticulous play to be had, though if it doesn’t you’ll probably spend a lot of time dragging your tractor out of a bush after falling asleep at the wheel.
A PS4 review copy of Farming Simulator 19 was provided by Giants Software PR team, and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One, PC and (for a change) Mac.