SnowRunner Review (Switch)
Release Date: May 18, 2021
File Size: 5.0 GB
Publisher: Home Focus Interactive
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
Did you know that the ‘first documented use of the word “Truck” was in 1611, and [that] it referred to the heavy duty wheels on the cannon carriages of ships’? Or that ‘Alexander Winston invented the semi-trailer in Cleveland in 1898’? Or how about the statistic that ‘only 6% of truck drivers are women’?
Fascinating stuff, right? Let me at least blow your mind with this piece of useless trivia: ‘If you could line up all U.S. trucks, they would reach the moon.’ The moon!
These were some of the more interesting takeaways from the 170-plus hours that I sank into the blackhole of futility and boredom known as SnowRunner. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s the self-described ‘most advanced terrain simulation ever’ from developer Saber Interactive and publisher Focus Home Interactive that puts you in the driver’s seat of one of the game’s vast array of officially licensed, heavy-duty vehicles. Your primary task is to wage battle against its enormous environments as you aim to deliver cargo across extremely treacherous—and monotonous—stretches of road, mud, swamp, and snow.
Let’s not mince words. It’s a ‘delivery-sim,’ albeit one with huge sandbox worlds to explore, a multitude of missions to acquire, and a progression system that resembles your typical modern-day RPG with XP, LVLs, and a host of vehicles and upgrades to unlock and purchase as you complete more objectives.
Unfortunately, SnowRunner is also a time-sink which grows terribly dull and repetitive rather quickly.
‘But wait a minute,’ perhaps you’re asking yourself, ‘didn’t Nestor write back in June that this was a game “definitely worth checking out,” even invoking The Witcher III in the same sentence?! Didn’t he even describe SnowRunner as ‘fun’?!?’
Honestly, you weren’t really thinking that and you probably didn’t read that piece. But yes, it’s true. I did write those words. And though I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to assume that anyone actually purchased SnowRunner as a result of my early impressions, if you did… I sincerely apologize. I mean it. I’m sorry. (On the contrary, if you’re happy with your purchase as a result, then… you’re welcome!)
Us game reviewers and writers often make mistakes. To once again appeal to the Witcher series—hey, there actually was a connection to be made insofar as Saber Interactive ported The Witcher III to the Switch—many months ago I wrote about Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales that ‘it is a pretty niche title that I imagine could only really appeal to people who liked Gwent or enjoy playing card-based video games.’ Then, in my review last week, I basically retracted this, proclaiming that ‘in revisiting Thronebreaker I’ve come to suspect that its appeal extends outside the niche of card-battlers.’
See? My opinion changed.
Add SnowRunner to the list. My early enthusiasm, based on a couple dozen hours of gameplay, regrettably proved to be more premature than I could have anticipated. To understand why I must take you along for a ride… This is a trip through snow, yes, but also sludge, rivers, valleys, peaks, and near-game breaking bugs. I considered that the most accurate review I could offer would be one that perfectly replicated the tediousness and sleep-inducing effects of the game itself, but short of just inserting lines of HTML or some other gibberish in hopes of conveying the brain-deadening repetition that a complete run of SnowRunner’s main objectives involves, I’m afraid I can’t do it justice (or maybe I can? You’ll have to be the judge).
Instead, I’ll guide you through the process that led me from a place of genuine curiosity and excitement to a belief that this is a game I never again want to touch with a thirty-foot crane.
Buckled in? Alright! Let’s start with the ‘Story’…
Actually, there isn’t really a story. SnowRunner begins in the fictional county of Black River, Michigan, informing you that recent weather events have upturned the lives, and the terrain, of the area’s (nonexistent) populations. You don’t ever meet or see any of the disaffected persons who require your driving skills, instead coming upon ‘contracts,’ each of which bears a brief description of some problem to be solved. These usually entail something like the recovery of a lost vehicle or trailer, a bridge in need of repair, or the construction of a building.
That’s basically it where ‘Story’ is concerned. You’re a man (there is no option to play as a woman driver) with a truck and… a good heart? There isn’t really any other context for the jobs you enlist, besides the short explanations detailing their goals and the required materials.
Thus, there isn’t much more to say in this regard as the game itself doesn’t say much. A 100-plus hour RPG with no story might be a strike against it but as this is first and foremost an off-road delivery sim that revolves around obtaining and customizing a suitable fleet of trucks rather than a merry band of party members, the absence of an overarching impetus for the expedition beyond the particular quests you come by is somewhat excusable. The real insult here, in keeping with the comparison of SnowRunner to other RPGs, is the 100-plus hour grind to which 95% of the gameplay amounts.
Before I delve into the gameplay, I want to briefly highlight what SnowRunner does well, and that is chiefly found in the game’s ‘Presentation.’ As I noted in my piece from June, the environments in SnowRunner are outstandingly crafted. Whether it be the snowy, wooded peaks of Alaska or the rundown, rainy backwoods of Russia, all of the game’s maps are immense and crammed with spry details. Despite visuals that appear a bit dated on the Nintendo Switch, and which include massive amounts of pop-in, the lighting effects that alter between SnowRunner’s day and night cycles look fantastic and becoming fully immersed within the game’s expansive sandbox worlds is as natural as its countrysides are beautiful.
The game’s physics, such as the weightiness of the vehicles you commandeer and how the various topographies affect wheel traction, also superbly reproduce a sense of what (I assume) it must really be like to steer these mighty industrial trucks through all manners of wilderness. Arguably, your wheels get stuck far too often in SnowRunner, turning the game into more of a chore than a delight (but more on that later), but all in all, controlling any one of the game’s numerous real-life vehicles feels just as good as the game generally looks.
Three major points of criticism that I have with the game’s presentation are its lackluster soundtrack, its bugginess, and how it handles online play.
Other than a soothing, acoustic main menu tune that sounds like it was borrowed from The Last of Us, SnowRunner’s audio production, outside of the deafening noises of truck engines, is minimal. It’s both disappointing and baffling as an option to toggle between music tracks during the dozens (or hundreds) of hours that you’re expected to spend on the open road could have made for a far more stimulating driving experience.
In terms of bugginess, I was occasionally confronted with glitches that would result in things like a total loss of sound or, more incredulously, my truck getting permanently suspended in mid-air, hurling itself against mountains, tossing itself into lakes, and other hilarious, chaotic maneuvers that I would have found more egregious did they not prove to be both genuinely funny and a short reprieve from what was in other respects a mostly joyless endeavor. The more problematic bugs, which could have been game-breaking were circumstances slightly different, came towards the end of my playthrough. I’ll touch upon those further below.
My issue with online play is that the game offers no chat features. For a multiplayer experience that requires some level of cooperation should anything of merit get accomplished between players, how Saber Interactive came to a decision that omitting even predetermined text messages, leaving complete strangers who happen to find themselves in a game together with no way to communicate, would result in a worthwhile game mode is beyond me. Sure, you can use Discord or some other third party app to talk with others, which I suppose is to be expected with the Nintendo Switch these days, but still I found that the total lack of any chat features killed all desire I had to jump into a random online session.
I also want to throw out that there is neither cross-save nor cross-play options available. Lastly, while by no means the developer’s fault, SnowRunner would have been a game that benefited tremendously from controller technology which utilized pressure-sensitive shoulder triggers, such as the… GameCube controller had. Nintendo’s exclusion of this feature from every subsequent piece of hardware, including the otherwise flawless Pro Controller, is a blemish that becomes most woefully apparent in games such as SnowRunner.
With that, let’s turn to the real meat and potatoes.
Gameplay can be summarised as follows: Drive around. Stumble upon upgrades or errands. Locate the necessary items needed for said errands and deliver them to some faraway destination via your truck of choice. Get paid. Repeat.
The same mundane formula plays out over and over again in SnowRunner’s other regions too, i.e. Alaska and Russia. Insofar as I am going to gloss over certain gameplay mechanics like: the ability to set beacons on the map, essential for navigating its near endless maze of winding roads and forking paths; multiple gear shifts, allowing you to better manage your vehicle’s all-important fuel consumption; or different operable cranes, all these being neat inclusions but largely insignificant to the extent that my overall enjoyment wasn’t affected by them, I’m admittedly oversimplifying some things. Besides, I said that this review was going to be an excursion through my experience with SnowRunner. The easiest way to communicate my change of heart that occurred—at first believing SnowRunner to be a ‘Good’ game before my feelings devolved into what they are now—is to proceed with a breakdown of the gruelling hours I spent with it.
Initially, I was more than intrigued by SnowRunner’s premise, and it’s dense open-worlds blew me away. I don’t want to retread the same ground that I covered in my ‘first impressions article’ mentioned above, so I’d encourage you to read that if you want to fully understand my state of mind at this early juncture (if you don’t feel like scrolling up, click here).
To sum it up, the game began exceedingly slow, my two starting vehicles getting stuck in Michigan’s flooded backroads every few minutes. Those two trucks being all but useless, I had to repeatedly winch my vehicle to the trees around me, pulling myself forward to practically get anywhere. Needless to say, it wasn’t very much fun, but I remained optimistic that this would all change once I earned enough money to buy myself a more reliable ride.
When my in-game bank account finally had the prerequisite funds, I traveled over to Taymyr, Russia to acquire the Azov 64131. It was mind-numbingly slow, as most trucks in the game are, but it was vastly more dependable than my former vehicles. With my fresh set of wheels, decked out with all of the best assets then available, I imagined myself enjoying SnowRunner for many hours to come! The Azov also allowed me to help my brother (whom I had convinced to purchase the game so that we could play online together), himself mired by difficulties similar to those which I had encountered at the start of my adventure. Sadly, this would be the only online gaming session we would ever play together. He more hastily came to the conclusion about SnowRunner that I would only arrive at much later on. As far as I know, he got rid of his copy of the game shortly afterwards. Apologies, brother.
Each of SnowRunner’s three primary regions—Michigan, Alaska, and Russia—consist of four huge maps. The regions themselves don’t connect in any way and to go from Michigan to Russia, for example, you must fast travel by way of a ‘Garage.’ A garage serves as your home base of sorts, the place where you can store vehicles, tailor them to your liking, shop for new trucks and upgrades, and so on and so forth. The four maps that comprise a single region have various roads that join them and each of these immense areas are littered with missions. Of these there are three basic types: Contracts, or the game’s ‘main quests’; Tasks, which amount to ‘sidequests’; and timed Challenges. There are also Watchtowers that, when reached, uncover sections of the map which are otherwise greyed out unless previously explored, as well as abandoned vehicles and upgrades scattered about that become unlocked once you discover them.
My approach during this point was to tackle each objective as I came upon it, barring the timed challenges which I figured would be easier to complete once I had obtained a decent selection of trucks. However, I was again beginning to grow weary of the game’s snail-paced tempo, even my Azov inching through SnowRunner’s adverse terrains while other trucks often failed to move at all. Finding that nothing I procured along the way could justify spending more time in this particular section of the game than was necessary to ‘complete’ it, I decided to simply focus on the contracts, i.e. the main objectives.
Mind you, up to now, I was still working through the first of Michigan’s four maps, Black River.
It was during this span that I began to develop a swelling hatred for SnowRunner. The core gameplay was already wearing ever so thin but what really triggered me was the following contract:
Aside from the fact that moving your vehicle from a garage to the sawmill—or wherever the logs needed to be picked up—and then finally to one of the logging destinations, could take anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours, depending upon your efficiency, SnowRunner wanted me to repeat this trip 4-5 times! For one trucking mission! You see, ‘Logs x3’ = three bundles of packed logs, and for all intents and purposes no trailer can carry more than one bundle at a time. In theory, you could winch another truck or trailer to your transport vehicle, allowing you to deliver two bundles at once, but that would both reduce your speed and greatly increase your chances of screwing up, like turning a corner near a ravine too sharply and causing your winched trailer to tip over, spilling (and losing) an entire bundle of logs.
(There’s also a more efficient workaround that I only discovered online after finishing the game, though even given these instructions the entire process remains a major hassle.)
To make matters worse, when you toggle between trucks on the map, the game automatically shuts off the engine of the truck not being driven. If you have a truck winched to another vehicle, then switch between them, it will not only shut off the engine of the other vehicle but unwinch them too. When you toggle back to the truck that is no longer running, the ‘attach winch’ option that normally appears on your vehicle’s menu screen when its engine is running reads as ‘detach trailer’ if the engine is off. If you detach the ‘The Log Carrier Rear’ trailer, the one required for transporting long logs, then due to the trailer’s design all of the logs become unfastened, falling to the ground… meaning you lose them and have to return to the sawmill to pick up more.
This poor menu configuration resulted in me inadvertently detaching my Log Carrier Rear trailer and losing all of my logs multiple times. It turned an already horrendously tiresome exercise into one that was probably 2-3 hours longer than it should have been.
This mission, while slightly more demanding and obnoxious due to that particular trailer, is basically representative of the headaches involved for every other objective you receive.
Having ‘completed’ Michigan, I next set my sights on the Alaskan contracts. The major change between the two regions is the introduction of snow and ice as a new hazardous surface that you have to overcome. Like Michigan, the winch is your best and only friend here. The scouting vehicle known as the ‘TUZ 420 “Tatarin,”’ a military grade tank that was able to pull my other trucks out of just about any situation, also proved especially handy. As with most of the other rides, it’s slow as hell but it always keeps moving, which is more than can be said for 75% of the trucks in the game.
I also made multiple attempts to convince my wife to try out SnowRunner. The game doesn’t support local co-cop but I figured if we had two copies of the game we could play online together since she has her own Switch! That sounded a lot more fun than my present toils!
Unsurprisingly, she always responded with the same line: ‘This game looks so boring.’
I fell asleep with my Switch in hand while trying to deliver some fuel tanks. Nothing else to note during these hours.
At last, I had made it to the last leg of the game’s contracts: Tamyry, Russia, here I come!
As there’s virtually no soundtrack to enjoy while soaking in SnowRunner’s lovely landscapes (which really are lovely but less rousing after 100 hours of looking at them), I realized that playing the game had more or less become an excuse to catch up on my favorite podcasts, such as—come on, do I really even have to say it?—the SwitchRPG podcast, of course! Anything to nullify the utter disinterest that I felt whenever playing the game at this point.
I also tried to tell my friend back in Michigan (the actual U.S. state) about this exciting new driving simulator that I’d been playing the past several weeks, about how we could play online together, the whole purpose of the game being to deliver cargo and the experience perfectly capturing the laborious routine of a job without the reward of an actual paycheck.
‘That sounds so boring!’ was his retort.
The tail end of this time period represents the final turning point in my feelings of aversion towards SnowRunner. Before the 160-hour mark, I agreed that perhaps it was the ‘most advanced terrain simulation ever’ but also that it made for a rather mediocre, unpleasant video game. That all changed for the worse when I was hit with one of those ‘The software was closed because an error occurred’ screens. This had happened in the past, across several games, and even a few times while playing SnowRunner. It’s usually no big deal, especially for a game that auto-saves every couple of minutes (which SnowRunner does).
This time was different.
When I reloaded my save file, I came to discover that every single one of my trucks which were on the map at the time of the software error, in addition to all of my trailers, were missing. They were just gone. They weren’t in my garage and the truck shop, which marks the vehicles you’ve already purchased, didn’t show them as ever having been in my possession. When I checked my profile, which lets you view stats like the percentage of missions you’ve completed or the vehicles you presently own, they were absent there too. I simply lost over a hundred
years hours worth of investments that I had put into these trucks, which not only equalled half of my entire fleet but were also all of my best ones.
I researched the problem online and despite locating nothing quite like this, many others appear to have run into similar bugs that caused their trucks to vanish (this is different from the multiple instances reported wherein people merely misplaced their trucks). What’s worse is that though the game regularly auto-saves, there’s no way to load earlier save files, meaning should something more abysmal than this go awry you’re just trucked. There is no recourse to get your progress back other than to email Saber Interactive themselves. Conveniently, they include their email address on one of the long loading screens so that you can report any bugs you might come upon, but I didn’t bother. I sold off the remaining crummy trucks in my garage to purchase a few decent ones that I thought would be necessary to finish the game and pressed on.
This wasn’t the first glitch that I met during my time with SnowRunner but it was by far the most notable, and really soured whatever goodwill I still had for the game. It wasn’t the last of the game’s shenanigans either.
During the remainder of my torturous expeditions, I primarily relied upon the Tayga 6436. It’s compact, relatively fast, and durable. One evening, as I was driving my Tayga along some forested section of Russia, I came across another Tayga 6436. Remarkably, it was the same as mine! The same blue color, equipped with the same upgrades, even pulling the same trailer that I had been using the night before! It was a stretch of road that I had driven on numerous times before, including the previous day, and it became apparent that I had reached a new low point in the game’s internal instability: trucks were duplicating!
To confirm all of this, a third blue Tayga appeared in my garage out of nowhere the following week! Perhaps the game was trying to make up for the swift kick in the balls it had delivered to me when half of my armada were summarily eliminated from existence? Whatever the case, I tried to wrap up the last remaining contracts as quickly as possible for fear that an even worse, potentially game-breaking bug would diminish all of my progress.
In the end, around hour 173, I eventually made it to the final delivery, the last I would happily ever have to make in SnowRunner. I dropped off the cargo and… was awarded the typical amount of XP and money that I had received from every other mission. That was it. No congratulatory message. No end credits. Just the same bluesy guitar jingle that had accompanied every other successfully completed mission. A rather anti-climatic conclusion to a game that should have been about one-third of the length that it turned out to be.
I have another record to correct. A few months ago, in my review of Divinity: Original Sin II, I stated that ‘you don’t pour 150 hours into a game, in two weeks no less, unless you’re having a good time.’
As it turns out, if you’re me, you do. I surrendered 170-plus hours of my life, over the course of two months, to a game that I think kind of sucks. Part of this, no doubt, has to do with my conviction that, generally speaking, writers have no business publishing full game reviews for projects they haven’t seen to their proper conclusion. I’m also pretty OCD when it comes to games left unfinished in my collection. Alas, whatever my condition, I’m pretty sure it’s the same sickness that compelled me to read the entirety of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica as a philosophy undergraduate. If you don’t know anything about the scholastic monk’s work, let’s just say its a rather hefty volume consisting of about 1.8 million words that never gets more exciting than this.
In truth, the smothering task of seeing SnowRunner’s main quests from start to finish actually was an experience that I’d compare to reading the Summa Theologica. There are definitely some people who relish that kind of challenge, but these are few and far between, and less who will see the point of investing the insane amount of time required to endure the bulk of the ordeal.
I do sincerely appreciate the attempt by the developers to make a driving/delivery simulator more approachable to the average player by incorporating core RPG elements. Unfortunately, the verdict that I have reached, after the unforgivable bug I ran up against, is that unless you are a glutton for pain or possess a saintly abundance of one virtue in particular, steer clear of SnowRunner.
My wife’s best friend put it well. She barely speaks a lick of English but when she came by a few weeks ago, I let her play a mission, hoping to convince someone—anyone—to buy a copy, giving me a further excuse to take my exploits online(!) as well as a partner in my misery. ‘What do you think?’ I asked her. Then, in her thick Japanese accent, she replied:
‘It feels like work.’