They say that hard work always pays off in the end. Whether you’re striving to become a great professional when studying in school, or simply trying to do something really well by applying yourself at it with your all, success tastes great after going through all that effort. Six years ago, I got to review a game called Spintires, which put me behind the wheel of gigantic vehicles in the middle of the Russian muddy wilds, with the task of hauling lumber around, or rescuing other trapped vehicles, all under a pretty realistic set of rules when it came to driving, and most importantly, getting stuck in that damn mud. Back then, it felt like nothing I ever played before, and I was absolutely hooked from beginning to end.
Since then, the original developers of Spintires have gone their separate ways — some are still releasing DLC for the original game, while the rest started their own series, starting with MudRunners in 2017, which to all accounts is an expanded and more polished version of the original Spintires. In comparison, their newest game SnowRunner, feels a lot more varied, and is even more playable thanks to that and a host of UI and gameplay improvements. SnowRunner doesn’t limit its scope to merely throwing you in the mud, but as its name suggests, you’ll also be trudging along in the snow and up and down slippery icy slopes as you haul cargo around and help the local folks with just about every obstacle that nature has up its sleeve.
Structurally, SnowRunner might seem a little confusing which can sound a little baffling at first considering there’s nothing more straightforward than taking stuff from A to B in the back of your rig. Thing is, there’s a lot going on in the game right from the very beginning. Starting out in Michigan, you play through a pretty fast tutorial that does somewhat of a good job easing you into the game’s mechanics, like driving your truck, this case a Chevy pickup, and how you can get out of a jam by using one of the series’ best features, the winch, to pull you out of the mud. Once that’s over with, the game immediately takes you to Alaska and ushers you to keep going, mildly suggesting that you could go back and try to play around Michigan first. Well, my friend, you most definitely want to do that, because the game isn’t kidding around when temperatures start dropping below freezing.
You can freely move between the initial maps out of four that you can unlock for the three territories in SnowRunner, Michigan, Alaska, and Taymyr, Russia. The initial Michigan map is a good introduction for anyone who’s taking on this game as their first foray into the series as it encompasses a lot of the difficulties you’ll run into when playing through the game, as well as working as a playground to test around all of your vehicles as they’re added to the fleet, be them scout-, off-road-, heavy duty-, or simply highway-class trucks. It’s important to know which of these fit best the type of job you’re about to tackle, and in that you should spend as much time as needed in Michigan tooling around. It’s also extremely useful when it comes to getting some much needed experience points in order to level up and unlock new upgrade parts like engines, suspensions, and most importantly, the godly tiers of tires, which happen to be the single most important item you can get in SnowRunner.
While most driving games tend to offer very slight differences to controlling your rides by tuning them, that most certainly matters here, as the right set of modifications on the right truck can make your job that much more possible to complete. I would have hated to use the word ‘easy’ back there because nothing in SnowRunner feels easy, and even early activities can be downright a pain to get through, although once completed they can be really rewarding. But most importantly, you have to keep in mind that nothing in this game will come quickly. That might sound like a knock against it, but it’s not — this is a slow game in all regards, be it in gameplay or in unlock progression.
Climbing up a dirt road which was just recently rained on driving a 4×4 as you tow a haul up to a particularly nasty site of a rockslide, crawling inch by inch, finally managing to get out of the mud pit you somehow got yourself into feels cumbersome and at the same time absolutely demanding, but it’s totally possible if you take your time. Maybe it’s just my time in pandemic time quarantine I currently find myself in along with most of the world at the moment — here’s to you reading this later when it all got better, or in an Internet archive of sorts after the world’s ended and started back up, take your pick — but SnowRunner is the sort of thing I’m having a great time getting into since it requires concentration and limited thought, a combination that helps keep me distracted in these tense times.
When it comes to in-game goals, SnowRunner is also superior to what came before it in the series. Each map features a host of tasks and contracts to get through, tasks being usually tied to clearing the way for roads and unpaved paths, or to unlock new vehicles and upgrades, while contracts are the big boy missions that give the most experience, usually involving a lot of coordination and numerous stops along the way. It’s normally to your best interest to try and get tasks out of the way first in order to both clear the map and learn its shortcuts and layout so things are slightly more manageable during a contract mission. But by far the best thing that you can do when first starting out a location is to explore it and find all of the watchtowers. No, this isn’t a Ubisoft game, but there are towers in it! They help open up the map and discover all manner of activity icons to help you navigate it, as well as the location of handy upgrade unlocks and even new trucks just waiting for you to recover them.
It’s a lot to handle when starting out, but it’s all much more clearly presented than any of what Spintires or MudRunner tried to go for. It makes all the difference having a clear objective marker on your on screen HUD even if it doesn’t chew everything up and points your way as a GPS would in other games. Still, you can do so yourself and chart your way by pinning your own markers that appear as blue gates that you can drive through, or just make it even more adventurous and dangerous and commit it all to memory. I always do the former, and even then my runs are more than prone to failure, which makes it all the more exciting or positively annoying, take your pick. I felt both at similar spots while playing SnowRunner. It’s just that kind of game.
Another aspect that SnowRunner has going for it that’s pretty impressive are its physics model, especially when it comes to terrain deformation and how it influences your driving. Depending on the weight of your truck and its cargo, the roads you drive over can change and make things ever more miserable for yourself, making it well worth taking it slow and pay attention to what you’re driving over and mind the multiple paths you can take over the same stretch of land, like say, going over the sides of a mud pool instead of taking the straight path through it. That’s not always the key to succeeding, though, since some vehicles don’t negotiate with delicate turns as well as others, forcing you to know your rig well before committing to potentially disastrous decisions.
In that regard, SnowRunner manages to also be surprisingly varied. The amount of choice when it comes to choosing the right truck for the job is quite large, and the game makes it easy to swap them around by allowing you to sell extra unused rides and buy them back without any extra cost. There are all manner of trucks to choose from under the various classes mentioned before, and none are exactly pigeon-holed into locked roles, giving you plenty of flexibility, even more so as you level up and buy more upgrades, turning initially limited vehicles into versatile options. Later on, more specialized trucks eventually turn up, but by then you’ll have gone through the grinder enough with making due with the set of tools you’re given that using these will feel more like a victory lap than anything throwaway.
SnowRunner is somewhat mixed when it comes to presentation. Everything relating to nature looks downright fantastic, be it the particle effects as you trudge through places no truck should drive across, or simply the light rays shining in as you climb up a mountain as the sun is setting. The trucks also get a lot of love and are very detailed when it comes to their modeling and behavior when being driven, with a ton of options for you to customize them both cosmetically and functionally. Then there’s the weird proportions between your vehicles and town buildings you’ll drive next to making you feel like you’re driving way too big of a car through a miniature city, or how manically your in game driver model spins the wheel around when driving in first-person mode. For the most part, SnowRunner can be a spectacle just driving and handling what nature has in store for you.
If you find yourself too deep into trouble, you can employ the help of three other drivers in co-op and have them winch you out, as well as share delivery objectives, making SnowRunner the closest a game can come to becoming a truck party without having to deal with all the country music an actual truck party entails. But in case you can’t wrangle any friends to play, you’re more than welcome to bring out a bunch of your trucks and take turns playing imaginary roles with them. No one’s judging you! And then again, that’s a really good approach when playing solo, one that’s totally possible in the game, even when playing on separate maps at once since SnowRunner constantly saves your progress and vehicle in-map locations, even when switching around or quitting to the main menu.
Like its predecessors, SnowRunner strikes gold by making seemingly menial tasks so engrossing. By taking just the right amount of liberties when it comes to realism, mostly around how cheap everything is when it comes to getting supplies and the material you haul around, it makes slowly pushing a truck up a hill a blast, for as ridiculous as that might sound. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ll be playing a whole lot more of this game — just so I can get to see all of the maps or cross out the entire list of jobs in it, I think I’m likely to still be under its spell for quite a while.