SnowRunner Review: small speed and big thrills in an off-road Utopia

Published: 16 December 2020

► 40+ vehicles and 5 different regions to explore
► Out now on Xbox, PlayStation and PC
► TLDR: 8/10


For those that love cars but aren't necessarily into racing, it's fairly slim pickings on the video game front. Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport, iRacing – the clue is in the name – they're all about driving as quickly as humanly possible. And a great job they do of it, too. But they're not for everyone.

Which leads us neatly onto SnowRunner – a tactical, slow-paced mud and snow-plugging adventure where you'll rarely exceed 10mph... if you're lucky. Sound boring? For some, it will be. Yet for others, this is the driving game they've been crying out for.

Pick your route carefully

Having not played the title's MudRunner predecessor, I was coming into SnowRunner with eyes wide open. Sure, I love a good racing game but I was intrigued by the decidedly pure premise of SnowRunner. You pick objects up at point A (concrete slabs, oil drums, logs – you name it) and ferry them across the map to point B. A noble task. And how hard can it be, right?

SnowRunner

Well, the answer is very hard, actually. Just getting my little pickup truck to the first location was challenging enough, thanks to the route being littered with deep mud baths, collapsed bridges and hilariously steep inclines. And this was just the start. Developer Saber Interactive has created an advanced physics engine that allows for a huge range of variables out in the wilderness.

For example, unlike in MudRunner, each surface has varying 'viscosity' – higher viscosity makes the ground harder to pass and is indicated by darker ground. Pick the wrong route and end up in a 'hidden extrusion' (massive ditch in the road) and you could find yourself hideously stuck or – worse – the wrong way up. And trust me, when you're on the other side of the map from the garage with no other vehicles nearby, this is incredibly frustrating.

40 + vehicles

It's important, then, to pick the right tools for the job. There's a choice of 40 vehicles on offer (more since various updates that we'll discuss later) and each is customisable using XP and cash earned from completing tasks and contracts. Upgrades include different tyres (road, off-road, chained etc), engines, transmissions and body attachments, the latter allowing you to change a flatbed truck into a fuel tanker or repair truck etc.

Regardless of upgrades, some trucks will always be better suited to driving on large, fast (er) roads with little challenging terrain, yet will prove themselves hopeless on narrow rutted tracks where a smaller, more versatile vehicle is needed. And, while you may not be racing, deft throttle and steering inputs are still key to effective driving.

SnowRunner

The controls themselves take some getting used to, especially the steering, with far less immediacy (on controller) than you'd be used to on other driving games. Wheel support is present, although we're yet to try this.

Each vehicle has an appreciably different feel with various strengths and weaknesses, yet you'll likely find yourself finding a core selection of trucks and shipping them around various maps to carry out missions. And talking of maps, the scale and variety on offer is deeply impressive.

Three primary locations, plus more to come

Again, hopping into the game for the first time I was aware of three locations – Michigan, Alaska and Taymyr, Russia. However, what I didn't initially realise was that there's multiple maps per location. In Michigan for example (the introductory location), the already sizeable Black River map connects onto three additional maps, meaning there's hours upon hours of scenery and routes to explore. Upgrade locations, vehicles and various tasks can all be found by taking a drive through the scenery.

Snow Runner

It's a pity the game doesn't have a photo mode because there are some truly astonishing vistas to be enjoyed as you travail the wilderness. Granted, the graphics aren't quite as sharp as on your finest AAA title, yet there's an appreciation of the general environment that goes beyond making a muddy playground for your off-road vehicle.

However, if that's not enough then extra content is being made available. Split into four different 'seasons', you can buy additional maps and vehicles (plus other extras) separately or opt for the one-off season pass that gets you all four bundles of content. So far, we've had the Kola Peninsula region in Russia, plus Yukon in Canada. Wisconsin is set to follow in 2021, as is the final (and biggest update) that has yet to be confirmed. And, if I was a betting man, I'd reckon sand will feature prominently...

What's the multiplayer like?

As yet, untested. Yet, four-player Co-op multiplayer is, on the face of it, very well suited to SnowRunner. Need someone to right your upside-down Derry Longhorn? No problem. Want help getting concrete from the Quarry as your 18-wheeler won't make it down the narrow road in. Got you covered.

Any issues?

I spoke before about the slightly awkward control scheme and it's joined by the occasional glitch, shadow/trees popping in at close range and rough edges to the general presentation that you might expect from a game of this ilk. It doesn't have the slickness of say, a Forza Motorsport title. It's also a shame that there's no other vehicles driving around the map to make the environment feel slightly more 'alive'.

There's an argument too, that, when it comes down to it, you are repeating a variation of the same task over and over again. And of course, some may find this, along with the slow pace, tiresome. However, there's enough nuance in the physics engine, vehicles and environment that no two challenges feel exactly the same – there's always a new obstacle to overcome. Plus, you'll often find that to carry out one mission, another needs solving first. So there's always going to be plenty of game time to enjoy.

Verdict

SnowRunner

SnowRunner is a video game that won't be for everyone. Why carry bricks and oil drums around at 2mph, people will ask? Where's the fun in that? Well, there's plenty, actually. The enjoyment comes from the sheer challenge it presents and the world that the developers have created and allowed you to explore.

It's an imperfect, difficult and hugely frustrating game at times, yet there's no denying that if you 'get it' and can nail that killer five-part delivery with seamless logistics, the sense of victory is that much sweeter. It's an honest, open and surprisingly tactical take on the driving game genre and – I for one – am really rather pleased it exists. 8/10.

By James Dennison

Head of automotive video for CAR magazine and our sister website Parkers.co.uk

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