A Song of Ice and Tyre
Niche games are great, aren’t they? They go against the cookie-cutter design of modern games in favour of doing something different. Sure, they don’t get as much of an audience as ‘Generic First-person Shooter 69’ but the audience they do get is far more favourable. After all, you’re unlikely to buy a game where you drive trucks through snow and mud on a whim, it’s more likely because you’re well into it. SnowRunner is that niche game.
SnowRunner is essentially Ice Road Truckers: The Game but featuring a hell of a lot more mud. How much mud? Well, if you’d ask my Dad he’d say that you’re up to your ballacks in squadd (it’s very muddy). The core gameplay loop in SnowRunner is picking up cargo, delivering it to someplace and getting rewarded in cash and XP for doing so. The more cash you get, the more vehicles you can purchase and the more XP, the higher your driver level. Increasing your driver level unlocks upgrades for your vehicles which in turn allow you to tackle other missions such as pulling unlucky drivers from swamps using a tow.
The game takes place in fairly sizeable open-world playgrounds spread across three varied locations — Michigan, Alaska and Tamyr. These interconnected playgrounds each come with their own unique obstacles and sets of contracts (missions) and tasks (mini-missions). There’s a surprising amount of content on offer here albeit fairly similar in scope. The act of collecting and delivering miscellaneous items is only periodically broken up by exploration tasks so if the thought of spending hours going from A to B isn’t enthusing you, it might not be for you. If it is for you, however, and you have up to three friends, you can do all of this in co-op!
SnowRunner features a large array of vehicles (40 in total) spread across a number of different licensed manufacturers (CAT, Chevrolet & Ford, to name a few). And each of the game’s vehicles handles differently depending on their stats. Early on in the game, the smaller vehicles tend to be better suited to off-road tracks with the bigger trucks playing better on the tarmac. The problem is that there’s barely any tarmac in this game. Seriously, Michigan is all kinds of screwed up in this world with mud, fallen trees and rocks removing any trace of roads that lay before the apocalyptic storm hit. But the lack of decent roads turns SnowRunner into a pseudo-puzzle game. You’ll often find yourself plotting routes based on the state of the roads leading to a destination. You could take the main road but that’s currently blocked by a power line. It’ll pay to get that removed but in order to do so you’ll need to navigate dirt tracks to pick up a piece of equipment and that’s no mean feat. There’s a lot of planning before setting off from your garage but it’s essential to ensure success. The novelty of tackling your way through the environment soon wears off once you’ve failed a simple task of picking up bricks for the umpteenth time (trust me). You can spend many hours in SnowRunner not actually achieving anything other than contributing to the world’s emission count by pissing away gallons of fuel whilst scratting in a rut. It’s a brutal, relentless and often fruitless experience. It’s essentially a game for that person who wakes up in the morning and thinks ‘you know what, I fancy sticking my dick in a mangle’. But despite all this, it’s weirdly addictive (the game, not the mangle).
Whilst SnowRunner is an incredibly difficult game it can also be kind of calming. Sure your vehicle will slide into a ravine as easy as spag bol from a plate whilst simultaneously acting like an untamed toddler when driving down a tarmac road but when it clicks, it’s great fun. Splashing through mud and snow taps into that childlike playfulness but there’s a genuine sense of achievement once you’ve finally navigated your way through a particularly volatile area. You make use of the vehicle’s low gears, AWD drive (if it has it) and locked DIFF (if it has it) to get through these areas but you always have your trusty winch to fall back on if you become stuck. Your winch attaches to trees and similarly vertical objects to help pull you unstuck and once you’ve mastered it you’ll be blasting down dirt tracks like Spider-Van, swinging from tree to tree. It does come with limitations, though. You need to be in the range of an anchor point and hope that the tree doesn’t get uprooted under the strain of pulling out a 40-ton truck from the mud. If all else fails and you are well and truly stuck, you can pull yourself out with another of your vehicles or ask to be recovered and return to your garage. Recovery will require you to unhook any attached trailer and abandon your cargo so it really is a last-case bailout. But you’ll likely use it a lot.
SnowRunner introduces new environmental hazards in the form of cold stuff, also known as snow and/or ice. In truth, snow handles in a very similar way to mud — if it’s too deep you’ll get stuck whereas ice will catch you unaware and cause you to slip from your path. Traversing these two can be made easier by adding chains to your tyres for extra grip. Speaking of which, this game has a ridiculous amount of tyres available to customise your vehicles. I’d even go as far as to say it’s an offensive amount. Other customisation includes upgrades to your engine, gearbox and winch or are purely aesthetic — colours, bumpers, lights, rims etc. Some unlocks can be purchased after attaining a certain driver level but others are found dotted around the in-game playgrounds in the form of collectable pickups. It’s these pickups, alongside Watchtowers which reveal points of interest on the map, that gives you an excuse to explore the game outside of completing contracts and tasks.
All of this is wrapped in a genuinely impressive-looking skin. Each of the game’s 40 vehicles are perfectly modelled and the environment in which you play in is really quite impressive. The environment often takes a backseat in games like this but the varied landscapes, atmospherics (fog, snow, rain, etc.) and detailed mud and snow effects make for an impressive looking game. It’s not without its flaw, though. The camera can be finicky especially when traversing narrow paths with objects blocking your surroundings and I also experienced a couple of crashes whilst playing on the base PS4. These were fortunately in menus so no progress was lost but it’s still not ideal. There has since been a patch released so fingers crossed it’ll have ironed out some of the issues. SnowRunner also allegedly features realistic physics but they feel somewhat exaggerated to me. Full disclosure, I’ve not done a huge amount of off-road driving and never in a massive truck but everything feels ramped up to 11. Even driving in a straight line down a straight road can be difficult as you’ll end up swaying from one side to the other being glad that there are no other people on the road.
As you progress through the game you’ll be expanding your fleet of vehicles to help make the game a little easier. Larger trucks designed for battling mud are a godsend and the customisable utility vehicles allow you to transport fuel to abandoned vehicles and carry out maintenance in the field. Tie these with co-op mode and you have an unstoppable delivery network that would make even Sam Porter Bridges crack a smile.
When all is said and done, SnowRunner isn’t a game for everyone and that’s perfectly fine. It’s difficult and you don’t do a huge amount other than drive through rough terrain and deliver items. If the thought of struggling your way through mud, snow and rocks to deliver items in an exaggerated but fairly grounded simulation is your jam, you’re gonna bloody love SnowRunner warts and all. If you prefer your games to be more forgiving, have a bit of variety of gameplay and steer towards a more arcade-style of play, this won’t be the game for you. I’m personally quite fond of it.