SnowRunner is the follow on from Spintires: MudRunner (a game that thankfully got a name change and is now known simply as MudRunner) - a sim that focuses on traversing different types of terrain in a variety of trucks, trucks that come in all different shapes and sizes. As the name suggests, mud has made way to snow for this sequel, yet despite the change of terrain, we had a hell of a lot of fun taking to the icy wilds and getting into all sorts of wheel-spinning trouble.
We also had the pleasure of reviewing the American Wilds version of MudRunner last year (you can find our review right here if you're intrigued) and when we first approached that four-wheeled adventure into the wilderness we had no idea about what we were getting ourselves into. It took us a while to really understand exactly what it has to offer and what makes it unique - it's a driving game where slow and steady wins the race, except it's a race that doesn't really exist.
This enigmatic series is all about precision driving, completing objectives that stretch over huge maps and choosing the right vehicle for the right job. It's about slowly navigating difficult terrain, with muddy tracks, undergrowth, and now snowy landscapes to cross as you work towards making it to your final objective.
And so, when we started the ignition on SnowRunner for the first time, we knew exactly what we were in for. Starting off on a snow-free map very similar to the ones we've seen in its predecessor (almost disappointingly so - but the white stuff does come), there's a tutorial that teaches you the mechanics you need to master ahead of your career in the cabin of a huge truck, and thus your first few hours are spent driving through a muddy forest.
Happily, the game's tutorial is informative and well-designed, which is great for newcomers to the genre. It teaches you subtle things such as how and why you should change between low gears or four-wheel drive, for example. Once you've taken a pick-up truck across the map you get into a second, bigger truck. Then you get to attach a trailer and haul wood and metal to build a bridge, which in turn opens up a new part of the map. It works well.
It's not a complicated game on the face of it, and its basic set up has you completing tasks and mission objectives while traversing some truly obscene terrain. Along the way, you also have to visit watchtowers. In true open-world Ubisoft-style, doing so results in a spinning map reveal similar to the ones in Assassin's Creed whenever you open up fast travel to a new area.
It all sounds pretty simple, right? Hauling deliveries and picking up stuff that you need to take to new locations? Essentially yes, it is. However, the challenge comes from mastering your vehicle and applying that mastery to the different types of terrain, and in this respect, there's a bunch of depth.
Getting caught in the mud can turn into one of the most intense battles you'll have had in some time. If you get it wrong, you might be stuck so deep that you'll never get your ride out of trouble and back on the road. Luckily, you can restart your vehicle from its point of origin, or you can grab another truck and use it to tow them out. You can even try and winch yourself out, but try not to damage any trees while you do so, please.
Given the name of the game, as you'd expect the mud effects were almost perfect in MudRunner. After you've completed the tutorial you can - unwisely, we might add - head to Alaska where you'll also take on snow and ice. It looks like Niffelheim out there! It not only looks great but the frozen landscape also has major gameplay implications and soon enough you'll be sliding around on the ice, weaving from side to side in a delightful way, just like a moose on roller skates (or maybe that's just us).
It's nearly impossible to hold on to the road, but that's also where the fun comes from. Cadence braking (where you pump the brake pedal to both steer and brake on treacherous surfaces) makes it slightly more doable and helps you avoid getting stuck in the snow. However, even once you've mastered the controls it's still a constant battle to keep things under control and at times the challenge can feel a bit brutal - we also thought it was huge amounts of fun.
What's more, you've got to be mindful of so many things, not just the terrain that you encounter. The petrol gauge, for example, is ticking down all the time, and the harder you push it, the quicker you'll burn through your precious fuel. If that happens, your truck stops and you have to refuel it with another truck or via a fuel trailer.
Through the course of your snow-running adventure, you'll head to several maps based on three different locations - two in the States and one in Russia. The maps all look incredible with mountains and forest landscapes that look incredibly realistic (despite the lack of wildlife), although while authentic-looking they did feel a bit empty and bleak at times. We did, however, love the textures and the designs of the various trucks. There are so many different vehicles to buy with the money you make from completing jobs, which adds longevity for collectors.
Then there's the audio: the roar of the engine sounds like your TV has turned into a monster truck, creating a soundscape that captures the atmosphere of driving through unique environments and adverse conditions. The controls, while fairly standard for a driving game, feel responsive and connect to the audio to create even greater immersion.
There is also a multiplayer mode where you and three friends can complete maps and missions together, but sadly we don't have any friends so we didn't get to try out this part of the game. The bright side of having no friends is that we had plenty of time to look for technical flaws and limitations, and we didn't notice any major glitches, just a few missing shadow effects every now and then (for example, when driving over a bridge). We hope this will be fixed soon in a patch, but otherwise, it was a smooth experience.
All in all, SnowRunner is a great addition to the driving-sim genre. Snow was well and truly what the doctor ordered and this is a hugely entertaining outing that lets you get to grips with some truly adverse terrain. While at times it can feel a little lonely and bleak when played alone, we still highly recommend this one to driving-sim fans and those who enjoyed MudRunner, and we can't wait to see where the series goes next. SandRunner maybe?