Halfway up a mountain with no signs of civilisation through your windows, threading your way through the trees as stones dangerously scrape the bottom of your vehicle; there are times where SnowRunner reminds me of a Welsh misadventure in my old, beaten up Peugeot 206. This a game that forgoes the general sense of what makes a video game by presenting you with realism. Rather than embellishing it, Saber Interactive have presented it as is, and in doing so, may have just given us one of the most transcendental driving experiences of the year.
SnowRunner is a game about exploration, it’s Breath of the Wild for truck drivers. If you’re the kind of person who spends their time climbing to the top of every vantage point in Assassin’s Creed, or driving from one side of the Forza Horizon map to the other just for the sheer hell of it, SnowRunner will scratch that same free-form itch. The key difference is that it’s methodical, it’s unrelenting, and you’ll be close to sobbing over the discovery that you’ve taken a batch of planks to the wrong place.
It shouldn’t be fun – if we’re being honest, there are times that it’s not – but its predecessor MudRunner already taught us the wisdom in a game that pits you, not just against the elements, but against your vehicle and, ultimately, yourself. SnowRunner refines and distils its strengths and then amplifies them, wrestling the game into a more defined form, taking the tiniest edge off the difficulty, and giving us the slighted touch of sweet sunshine in the more vibrant Western setting.
So you’re driving. You start the game off with a plucky Chevy pick-up truck and set out on the road. The first thing you’ll notice is that this is a driving game that doesn’t handle like any other driving game you’ve ever played. The wheels don’t just point in the direction your analogue stick is pointing, you have to nudge them back and forth. If you simply hold left or right, you’ll careen off the road, and into a ravine or a mud pit from which you’ll never escape.
It doesn’t take long for it to make sense. The way you have to nudge the controls, cautiously trying your best just to keep your truck going in a straight line means that you don’t suddenly start to treat it like some kind of dune buggy. You’ll feather the accelerator, going at a slow and steady pace for much of the game, because the only thing you’re really aiming for is to keep going and eventually get to where you’re headed.
It’s workmanlike, it’s necessarily dull even, but the last thing you want is to fail. SnowrRunner will ensure you do. Repeatedly. Once your truck is stuck, there’s two options: drive another vehicle out there to help lift, push or pull you out, or Recover it to your home garage and try again. It’s genuinely crushing to have made it through everything a muddy road has thrown at you, only to fail at the next hillside, but something keeps you going. You reset. You reassess. You start again.
There’s a clear sense of progression, despite the near-constant setbacks. Your little Chevy pick-up truck is a surprisingly versatile tool for exploring the various extensive landscapes, taking in Michigan, Alaska and Taymyr. As you explore you’ll come across Watchtowers that illuminate a portion of the map, exposing tasks, trucks and upgrades nestling amongst the trees that you’d never have found simply driving along the roads.
As you find new vehicles and trailers or complete tasks for the local populace, you level up, gaining access to new parts for each of your trucks. Primary amongst them are the engines and the tyres, both of which can be utterly life-changing, but SnowRunner makes you fight through the opening to get to the good stuff. It teaches you not to take even the simplest things in life for granted, and it’s a lesson worth learning. Things do ease up for a while once you’ve got a new part fitted, but there’s soon a task or stretch of road that will remind you to remain humble.
And yet, there’s euphoria. You’ll find yourself shuffling forward in your seat, willing your truck up the mountain or through the mud. You’ll watch avidly for it to move mere inches, just to give some indication that the tyres are finding some small amount of purchase to get you moving again. There are few games that will have you punching the air and yelling at your success quite like when you get across that patch of ground you were struggling with or reach the summit. SnowRunner isn’t your regular sort of game though.
This time out you can share that euphoria with another trucker, with a full co-op mode allowing you to bring a friend to hook (your truck) up with. It’s actually almost intrusive given how solitary the rest of the game feels. Playing on your own, you’ll see no other cars or trucks on the road, and barring the bark of a dog or cry of a bird, there’s no sign of life beyond the written missives of the locals. It’s like driving everywhere at 5am on a Sunday morning, but rather than loneliness you’ll find kinship with the road and keeping your wheels upon it.
The atmosphere that SnowRunner creates is ably assisted by the incredible ambient music that plays throughout your journey. Chilled blues guitar lays across reverb-heavy tones and methodically timed kick drum beat to beckon you into this strangely welcoming and comfortable world. It’s worth driving up to the top of a hillside, switching the engine off, and closing your eyes for a few moments to sink into it. If you’ve got a cowboy hat or baseball cap, just rest it across your face. You’ll get the purest sensation that way.