Trucking at low speed across the wilderness of Russia might not have initially been a great idea for a game, but Sabre Interactive managed to make it compelling when they released MudRunner back at the end of 2017. The blend of heavy machinery, treacherous roads and wild countryside captured audiences imagination enough to spawn DLC for that game, and then a follow up this year in the form of SnowRunner. This time the emphasis is on tackling even more varied terrain across the US and former Soviet Union, has a more involved “story”, deeper systems and – as you’ll have guessed from the title – snow. Can it follow in the tracks left by the games that have already forged this path, or will it end up being a stick in the mud?
The first thing that needs saying about SnowRunner is that, well, there’s actually not that much snow… at least in the beginning. With the play areas split across Michigan and Alaska in the USA, and Taymyr in Russia, and each having 3 or 4 maps for the region, there’s a lot of ground to cover. In the beginning though, and with the tutorial firmly underway, it’s Michigan that will be the stomping ground for the vast majority of the early hours, and that place is mainly mud. Deep, squelchy, cloying, hungry mud. Recovering from a powerful storm that’s hit, the aim is to support the local towns and businesses by running errands and delivering much needed essentials to get them back up and running. From helping rebuild bridges to pulling vehicles out of swamps, every task helps. Most of the infrastructure has been damaged or just didn’t exist in the first place, so heading down dirt tracks or fording rivers is essential to getting supplies through.
Maps feels massive to begin with as moving from one place to another can take a lot of time when navigating the tough terrain, though it’s not long before access to the other areas and regions opens up. This really brings the scale of SnowRunner to bear and it can’t be underestimated just how much there is to do across these areas. The maps are all open world and ripe for exploring, and each has different resources and items. It’s not long after learning the environment and passable routes of one that it’s time to start all over again somewhere else. That said, the countries themselves aren’t locked off, only moving to another map in-country requires finding the right exit point. At any point it’s possible to pack up the trucks and jet off to somewhere else for a different challenge. So those craving the full snow experience from the beginning can do that, just be aware that experience and money are needed in abundance and the opening region offers the most straightforward place to earn them.
What’s easy to forget in SnowRunner is that it’s actually a trucking game, it’s just that it has a good focus on off-road scouting and exploration. The vehicle types give a clue to what’s useful for each scenario, with the smaller, lighter ones used to figure out which roads will cause problems, and the great behemoths used for dragging the weighty stuff around. With only a smattering of tarmac roads, much of the gameplay is about getting over rocks, through mud or snow, and across rivers. Every truck has strengths and weaknesses as well as varying degrees of mechanical assistance. There’s not a manual gearbox as such, yet there is a selectable low range on all which limits wheel spin and maximises the traction. Some vehicles have optional all wheel drive (pretty much essential) and locking differentials (really definitely essential), though the vast majority can be upgraded by finding the parts in the wilderness or buying from the garage. Don’t worry if your off-road knowledge goes as far as a Fast Show sketch, the adage in this game is slow and steady, as well as don’t be afraid of avoiding difficult routes.
The garage is a great place to discover in each map though as it’s the hub for storage, upgrades and fitting specialist equipment. With the cargo transporting business moving everything from bricks to oil drills, there needs to be a huge variety of trailers and accessories for the trucks. Most obvious are the flatbed trailers that need high or low saddles in order to connect, and these are joined by fuel tanks, repair stations or even a seismic monitoring kit. Every vehicle class has different options and there’s a need to equip them all at some point, just make sure the right connectors are installed or it could be a lengthy journey back to get changed… or not. At any time there’s an option to recover to the garage and be repaired and refuelled instantly. It’s handy if you’ve rolled a scout and the engine’s shut off, and the option of launching a rescue mission seems daunting, but cargo will not fast travel. Lastly, the garage acts as a hub for travelling to the other regions and it’s where you’d store that fancy Hummer you found in Alaska if you want to take it for a spin around Taymyr.
With the selection of licensed trucks there’s a gentle push towards trying them all, and the number of garage slots encourages collecting, yet it’s likely there’ll be a couple that click most in the way they handle. These become the workhorses that get gravitated towards and draw the cash for upgrades. Given that there’s a lot of time spent in those vehicles earning experience and money, it’s no wonder that it gets spent on them. I can’t say it’s not a grind to make progress – the XP rewards are quite low, and the good kit isn’t available till the higher levels. Likewise cash is meagre and a decent set of mud tires can wipe out the bank balance. Don’t overlook the multi-wheeled assets on hand though, they’re worth quite a lot and selling them is easy. It’s a good ploy for getting something that can do the tough jobs earlier on. If hording is more your thing then at least there’s no shortage of tasks, contracts and challenges to go after. Even uncovering the map rewards small amounts of experience.
One of the things that’s appreciated in SnowRunner from the off is the way it looks and the amount of detail that’s in the physics of the terrain. It’s got a realism to the design that brings the world to life, and it’s always satisfying to see the effect massive tyres have on swathes of mud and snow. When driving through those boggy parts the surface gets churned up and pushed aside; wheels sink and struggle to break free; and if it’s a river then the water flows around the protruding parts until you’re deep enough and it lifts the buoyant bits of the truck. Suddenly you’re floating downstream. Of course, the underpinning mechanics make handling tricky and driving slow, but that’s what this game is all about. Besides, if things get really bad there’s always the winch that can pull you free, assuming there’s something stout in range. There’s a subtle surround sound in effect too that really does come into its own if you’re lucky enough to have a home cinema system, and it helps sell the illusion of taming the wilds on your own.
There are a few things that will be off-putting, first and foremost is the steering. If you’re new to this series, or even if you’ve not played the others in a while, trying to wrestle with the fact that this is rotating the actual steering wheel and not turning the tyres can be frustrating. This will mean lots of unnecessary excursions off course. Then there’s the camera which is great for the scouts and cabs of trucks, but can be horrendous when towing any type of lengthy trailer. It’ll also swing around to an unfortunate angle at the sign of any type of high scenery, leaving you in a ditch because of the steering and losing visibility of the direction of the wheels. It’s entirely possible to use the cab view, though visibility is restricted so it’s not the best idea. I had hoped that wheel support would have been there from launch to try and alleviate some of the issues, but that’s not come to console and is only patchy at best on PC. I’ve had a fair few system lock ups and crashes to XMB on the PS4 too. Clearly the meeting of the release deadline vs the world restricting virus has had an impact.
Despite that last paragraph, there’s an awful lot to like in SnowRunner, and it’ll appeal to the methodical as much as the subject matter enthusiasts. It has a tranquillity to it that you don’t generally find in games with V8’s and massive amounts of horsepower, and it’s easy to find yourself just getting drawn in to the challenge of working out if you can get a fully laden 18-wheeler up a mountain side. It ends up being especially satisfying when a challenging job makes physical changes to the map, like opening up blocked roads. The foundation of the last game has been built upon with a more comprehensive offer that will take hours and hours to see through to the end. In fairness, only the most dedicated are going to get to that point, the vast majority of us will just enjoy making it through a swamp without rolling over. Don’t be worried by the titular white stuff missing in the first few hours, it’ll come eventually and heading out as a rookie on the ice will simply highlight how much there is to learn. It pays to always be prepared in this game.
A PS4 copy of SnowRunner was provided by Sabre Interactive’s PR team, and the game is available now on PC, Xbox One and PS4 for around £45 depending on retailer and platform. Modding support is available on the PC version, and will be coming to consoles in the future.