The Pain And The Pleasure Of Hardcore Off-Road Sim SnowRunner

SnowRunner is miserable, painful, and frustrating—but it's also brilliant. That's the mud-splattered contradiction at the heart of this realistic off-road sim by Saber Interactive. It's a game about driving a variety of gas-guzzling vehicles through the worst terrain imaginable, from the snow-caked mountains of Alaska to the slop-sodden woods of Michigan. A mission might sound simple when you accept it. Deliver some planks of wood to a town a few miles away? Easy. But it's the obstacles in your path that make every job in SnowRunner, no matter how trivial, a gruelling, often hopeless battle against the indifference of nature.

When you're stuck in a muddy, half-submerged valley, wheels spinning in the sludge, you might question why you're playing a game that is so determined to make your life hell. In the US heartland it's treacherous mountain paths, dense forests, and areas that have suffered extreme flooding. In the rugged wilds of Russia and Central Asia it's tyre-sucking swampland and ravaged, rock-strewn, barely visible paths that might have been roads once. In Canada and Alaska—where the 'snow' part of the title comes from—you have to deal with frozen lakes and deep, powdery snow. These landscapes hate you.

But the sheer joy of conquering their seemingly insurmountable challenges is what makes SnowRunner so weirdly compelling. You'll struggle, curse, and toil as you try to get those damn planks to that damn town. It's about as brutal and uncompromising as sims get. You'll wedge your truck's trailer on a rock, drive your wheels so deeply into a patch of fresh, wet mud you can't move, and flood your engine trying to cross a swollen river. But there's usually a way to claw your way out of these predicaments—either by using the winch attached to whatever you happen to be driving, or by calling in another vehicle to help.

If you have a winch (not all vehicles do) you can attach it to nearby objects in the world and attempt to pull yourself free—whether it's a tree, an electricity pole, a rock, or something else that can take the weight. A thick, sturdy tree is your best bet: you'll just uproot smaller ones. This won't always work, but when it does it's hugely satisfying seeing your vehicle emerge from the mud or water. But if that doesn't work you can use the game's neat vehicle-switching system to take control of another truck and try and winch yourself free that way. Of course, there's every chance that vehicle could get hopelessly stuck in the mud too.

There are times, however, when you're beyond help. You can always respawn back at your garage, fully refuelled and repaired, but hitting that button is difficult when you know it'll lose you an hour of progress. There's nothing worse than struggling halfway up a mountain, only to end up in an unrecoverable position. I've rage-quit SnowRunner more times than I can count in situations like these, cursing the developer for not respecting my time. But I always come crawling back, looking for other routes to my objective. Every journey is a puzzle to be solved, and dreaming up your own solutions to them never stops being rewarding.

Most simulators are pretty chill. I play the likes of Train Sim World, Euro Truck Simulator, and Microsoft Flight Simulator to relax. In comparison, SnowRunner is pure pain—but with sharp, intoxicating bursts of pleasure when you overcome one of the many laborious trials it delights in throwing at you. The game has been out for over a year now, and most people seem to have stopped talking about it, but I still come back to it regularly. The environments are beautiful, it's super atmospheric, and those big, filthy, fume-spewing off-roaders feel great to drive. The misery is worth enduring for the moments of air-punching triumph.

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