As I enter my fourth consecutive hour of pulling trailers slowly through Michigan mud, my partner walks up behind me to see what I’m doing. In my bleary-eyed near-catatonic state, I inexplicably mutter the words, “I’ve become very intimate with this truck.” She laughs, walks away, and I continue playing SnowRunner.
A week ago I didn’t know what a differential lock was, or that trailers jack-knife at a 45-degree angle, or that taller suspension is great for off-roading but really bad for staying upright. The lessons learned in SnowRunner are plenty, but the most important of all is just this: patience.
Most of the game’s time is spent looking like an ad for a Ford truck, or maybe some really good offroad tires. Beautiful vistas, autumn leaves, and wondrously squishy mud make it eye candy for anyone who takes time to soak it all in. Incidentally, this is everyone, because none of it will be going anywhere quickly. You’ll learn to appreciate how cool that rock looks. Yes, that one, right there. Are we there yet?
The first hours of SnowRunner are by far the most harrowing. Equipped only with a highway truck and asked to haul cargo across muck-ridden roads using tires smoother than a baby’s bottom is just short of maddening. But through perseverance, I finally made enough cash to buy the glorious International Paystar 5070, a rugged off-road truck that let me move materials from point A to point B at a blazing four miles per hour.
SnowRunner is an undoubtedly niche game. I don’t typically enjoy simulations or racers, but I’m absolutely hooked on it. I think I can explain why, as the person who gave Death Stranding a five out of five. SnowRunner isn’t a driving game — it’s an adventure game, and much like Kojima’s divisive delivery simulator, it’s one which asks you to keep your eyes on the terrain rather than on minimap markers.
Driving a big rig across four-inch deep water takes an eye for detail. Roots can get caught up on the tires, and a dip in the ground can cause you to tread water. Winching yourself out is a good solution, but only if you’ve put yourself near enough to sturdy anchors. Lots of little decisions go into tackling a small obstacle like this, and it’s the reason SnowRunner’s meditative gameplay clicks with me so much. My brain, like my tires, was finding just enough to latch onto.
There’s an absolute deluge of content to be found in SnowRunner, with multiple maps spanning three giant worlds to trek through. There are also trucks. Lots of trucks. Big trucks, small trucks, trucks with four wheels, trucks with six wheels, and trucks that look like tanks. Getting a new truck can take hours of work, and getting it to function just right with upgrades is warm, gooey videogame satisfaction.
Jobs in SnowRunner mostly consist of delivering X number of Y supplies to Z location. These can range from small crates to 50-foot long construction trailers stuck in the backwoods of a swamp. The varied locations and types of cargo mean no two missions are the same, and even the smallest decisions as to the route to take can mean drastic differences in difficulty. Taking a “shortcut” through some woods, for instance, once meant getting my quarry stuck on a single tree for over two hours. Smart planning and a lot of free time are requirements to making tangible progress, and said progress is slow, even when you know what you’re doing.
But that’s the charm of SnowRunner to me. Whereas other games are obsessed with providing dopamine hits every few moments, it feels like an actual reward to earn something after hours of simulated labor. There are some issues, like the unintuitive quest system and buggy camera, but this sort of game caught me at just the right time to consume the better part of my last week. There’s not much here that’s going to surprise prospective buyers: it’s what it says on the tin. The trucks sound great and feel like they should (besides some dodgy physics on roads).
There’s an oddball rustic American theme that can be easily done away with by turning off in-game music, putting on your favorite podcast, and just cruising (or sloshing) along. Progress comes slowly, but is all the more rewarding for it, and overcoming the terrain can take some real puzzling at times. Like I said before, it’s basically Death Stranding, but for trucks. Add in some functional online multiplayer and you have yourself a wonderful little stay-in-and-eat-soup kind of game, the kind I can’t recommend enough for anyone struggling right now. Chin up, rubber duck, we’re going to see this through.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided by Focus Home Interactive.
SnowRunner is the stay-inside game we need right now. Slow, rewarding, and providing just enough resistance to keep the player sharp, it's a singularly zen experience that's made for a particular kind of person -- even those who avoid more genre-standard titles.