As a kid, I spent countless days outside my house on a pile of dirt. On this pile, I operated my miniature heavy equipment operation where I put my Tonka trucks to work moving dirt and transporting other toy trucks to my imaginary job sites. Those days helped train me for a career of equipment operation that never happened. As fate would have it, I ended up working for a video game website, but this life path serendipitously provided me the opportunity to play SnowRunner. Part mud-bogging sandbox, part load-hauling adventure, and part logistics puzzle, SnowRunner put me in charge of the operation I spent my childhood training for. The pure joy it delivers is nearly impossible to describe to someone who has yet to play, but SnowRunner is pure digital crack and makes a perfect companion to the masses cooped up at home this year.
A bigger, better pile of dirt and rocks
At its core, SnowRunner is an expansion of an idea first realized with the release of Spintires nearly a decade ago. Spintires was little more than a tech demo littered with a few monotonous objectives centered around hauling logs through the mud. However, the mix of its unmatched mud physics, difficulty curve, and slightly unsettling vibe propelled it to the top of Steam’s bestseller charts.
SpintIres' primary developer, Pavel Zagrebelny, had a falling out with publisher Oovee over money and eventually landed with Saber Interactive. Once legal issues surrounding Spintires were worked out, Pavel and Saber released MudRunner in 2017. MudRunner was a more polished version of the original game with additional trucks, maps, and official mod support via the Steam Workshop. Following its success, Pavel and company went to work on a true sequel, which now arrives in the form of SnowRunner.
SnowRunner keeps the same outstanding vehicle and terrain interactions and builds a proper game around them. Instead of dragging logs around similar looking maps, players are now put in control of their own truck services company. The game spans across three main regions — Michigan, Alaska, and Taymyr, Russia. In each region, road obstructions, inclement weather, and other problems are preventing local industry from operating. Players will take on contract jobs ranging in complexity from vehicle recoveries to restoring infrastructure and operation to oil drilling operations.
Multiple new trucks, types of cargo, and objectives litter the assortment of new maps in SnowRuuner. Some contracts require road repairs and load deliveries that span across multiple maps. Tunnels allow players to haul or drag stuff to and from adjacent areas and it goes a long way to making SnowRunner feel much larger than its predecessors. It is also possible to pack up owned equipment into garages and instantly travel between the three main regions whenever players see fit. You may find yourself without the proper equipment needed for a Michigan job, so you can quickly travel to Alaska to earn some more cash or experience that can unlock access to new gear.
The right tools for the job
At the outset of SnowRunner, you will be given a simple scout truck (in the form of a Chevrolet K1500 stepside 4x4) and a 2-wheel drive GMC MH9500 work truck originally built in the 1970s. These vehicles are really only capable of the most meager of tasks present in the game world, but with some clever operation and dedication, they will begin to earn money and experience that will unlock bigger and badder equipment. Also new for SnowRunner is a vehicle modification system that greatly improved over the rudimentary system seen in MudRunner. Each piece of equipment has a variety of available drivetrain parts, tires, and accessories. A simple paint booth also allows for color customization should you want your fleet to share a similar appearance or if you want to have each truck be unique. This is the first time the series has used licensed North American trucks and I love it in no small part due to my previous ownership of a Chevrolet K1500 of the same vintage found in-game (that I absolutely adored).
New parts are unlocked via experience level progression and can be purchased in the customization shop. Some upgrade parts are scattered around the various maps and must be found and picked up directly before they can be used. This helps to foster exploration of the maps and is an excellent reward for navigating rough terrain, as many of these upgrades require some real work to even get to. Bonus trucks are also sprinkled throughout the maps and can be repaired and refueled for addition to your fleet. Buying and selling trucks and parts is an integral part of SnowRunner.
There is no value depreciation on purchased or found equipment, so you get back whatever you spent on every truck or item. You’ll find situations where you need an expensive tool for a job and will have to sell some of your fleet or parts to facilitate the purchase, but you’ll be able to buy them back with no issue once the jobs are complete. The freedom to experiment with trucks, trailers, and parts is a welcome design decision and opens up opportunities to complete contracts in a variety of ways, helping replayability as well as satisfaction from solving problems with your own ideas.
No guidance is the best guidance
The maps and contract jobs in SnowRunner are simply problems that require solutions. You are told which type of cargo needs to be transported to a specific location, but no other explanation or guidelines. In the early hours of the game, this can be frustrating when you pick the wrong equipment or take a problematic route on a contract, but the pleasure you enjoy from getting a job done on your own terms is a reward as satisfying as any in gaming. I referred to SnowRunner as digital crack in my opening preamble and this sense of accomplishment is the hit I keep coming back for.
Make no mistake, though, the high you get from a completed job is the result of problem-solving as much as reaching the end of some grueling journeys. While you may complete some tasks in as little as fifteen minutes, it is not out of the ordinary to take on what seems to be a simple contract that turns into a multi-hour test of mettle. Fans jokingly refer to this franchise as “The Dark Souls of mud bogging” for a reason — you will fail spectacularly along the road to victory.
Your trucks will become stuck in the mud, stuck on logs hiding under the mud, stuck on inclines littered with huge rocks, stuck in between giant rocks, caught between trees, and more. Sometimes, even getting your truck to the cargo can be a major pain. Once you endure that, you must get the truck back out of the same area, except you will also be dragging an additional ten tons of concrete with you. Even if you pick the right truck for the job, things can go wrong. The physics system that allows for the wonderful mud interaction also simulates vehicle suspension stress and the effects of loaded beds and trailers on tractors. A simple pothole you passed with no issue fifteen minutes earlier now has the ability to send your freshly-acquired top-heavy load teetering over a narrow mountain pass, potentially dragging your truck down the mountain with it.
You can bring in a rescue truck from your fleet to come winch out the first truck and then begin the process of trying to recover the toppled cargo. Using boom crane attachments to lift loads out of a ravine and back onto a recovered trailer is just as dangerous as the initial trip through. The act of pulling a load over 150 feet of dirt road can turn into an hours-long nightmare requiring the combined force of your fleet. You never really know what sort of trouble can happen, leading to wonderful moments of emergent gameplay. Tough jobs can become great stories to tell, especially to your friends who think you are crazy for playing a mud-bogging simulator.
The pain never looked so good
The folks over at Saber Interactive have given the franchise a serious facelift for SnowRunner. The team ported the mud physics, vehicle simulations, and moreover to the engine that was first used for the Studio’s World War Z last year. The end result is a visual upgrade for nearly all parts of the game. The biggest difference is the size of the maps and the draw distance. Where in previous games you could not see more than a couple of hundred feet before a thick fog occluded your view, SnowRunner can draw trees, mountains, and waterways as far as your video game eye can see. Reaching the top of a mountain or overlook often results in some outstanding views, particularly during the dawn and dusk hours.
Light shafts can peak through the dense trees, fog will roll in on wet mornings, and night operations gain additional difficulty as 40+-year-old truck headlights attempt to cut through the volumetric haze. The lighting system has also been upgraded to a physically-based rendering solution, allowing for various materials to look more realistic. Steel looks more like steel and wood more like wood. Water quality gets a huge bump in SnowRunner, with attractive, translucent liquid replacing the skim milk ponds of Spintires and MudRunner. Trucks get covered in mud and slop, adding to the overall immersion.
There are still issues here and there. While headlights seem to offer a dynamic light source during night hours, the various running lights, orange reflectors, and spinning beacons do not emit any light, which is a bit of a disappointment and would have gone a long way to making evening hauls even better. There is rain in the game and the particles look okay, but it does not affect the gameplay in any way, nor does it make pavement look wet. The UI does see some improvements from previous games, but could still use some work. The sound design is underwhelming as the engine sounds are not truck-specific and rev sounds don't match player input. All tires sound the same on asphalt, which is disappointing as one of the defining characteristics of giant offroad tires is the unique sounds they make. The in-game music is a weird mashup of country rock and ambient guitar that adds nothing to the overall presentation.
Some elements are hard to see or read against certain backgrounds and the crane operation UI is often in the way during tense moments. The cooperative mode UI is missing any way at all to communicate with other players with either text or via waypoint markers. Coordinating any complex task in this mode without using a third-party voice chat program borders on impossible. You are unable to see what contract or task the host player is working on and have no way to know what type of equipment is needed or what type of cargo should be transported. This makes random pub games especially frustrating.
Returning to the garage
With its outstanding mud physics, vehicle simulation, and moment-to-moment gameplay, SnowRunner is easy to recommend to anyone with a passing interest in the subject matter or fans of quirky sim games. That being said, it does feel like the game could have used a few more months in the oven. You will run into a number of bugs while playing. Trailers will disappear, physics will bug out, trucks will fall right through bridges (with the attached trailer not falling through), and much more. You will sometimes bring the correct cargo to a dropoff and the game will not recognize it. The lack of a sequential gearbox also drives me nuts, as the automatic gearbox has caused me to lose momentum and lose loads more than once.
Multiplayer works, but many users are reporting connection problems and save game corruption. I only got the cooperative mode to work for the first time last night after trying multiple times a day for the last week and a half. Cooperative players are also prevented from multi-winch operation, which is very disappointing in a four-man game. With the game moving to Epic Games Store exclusively on PC, Steam Workshop support for mods is gone but has been replaced with Mod.io integration. I was unable to get it working during my time, but the development team aims to have mod support on consoles as well as PC through the service.
SnowRunner has its warts, quirks, and frustrations. I have wanted to break my controller while playing multiple times, but I cannot stop playing. I go to sleep thinking about moving oversized loads up a mountain. I wake up thinking about winching a cherry picker out of a bog. Knowing that I get to do these things with three buddies has me giddy. I have more than one hundred hours invested so far and I have yet to complete the first region. The amount of things to do is staggering and the near-total lack of restrictions means anyone can spend countless hours inventing their own fun in this sandbox.
While playing, I am reminded of the feelings I got from Minecraft, Euro Truck Simulator, Portal, and SimCity 2000. Simultaneously relaxing, infuriating, perplexing, and rewarding, SnowRunner is on my shortlist for game of the year. If I could show this to my six-year-old self, he would give birth to a litter of puppies on the spot due to sheer excitement. If you need a path cleared, a load hauled, or a vehicle rescued, I am the man you call. 9/10 38-inch Super Swamper TSLs
This review is based on the PC Epic Games Store release. The game key was provided by the publisher for review consideration. SnowRunner was released for Xbox One, PS4, and PC on April 28, 2020.
- Outstanding vehicle physics simulation and terrain interaction
- Upgraded visuals over predecessors
- More than one hundred hours of content available
- Cooperative play
- Sandbox design allows for emergent gameplay
- Licensed trucks
- Equipment customization and upgrades
- Mod support
- Underdeveloped UI
- More than a few bugs
- Lackluster sound design
Chris Jarrard posted a new article, SnowRunner review: Dumping the biggest loads