Now playing: Stuck in the mud with SnowRunner

I’m stuck on the side of a hill and I’m raging. After what feels like hours of slow progress – getting my truck trapped in a quagmire for the umpteenth time, using my winch and careful blasts of acceleration to untrap myself, only to get trapped again – I’m well and truly stranded this time. I can’t drive forward; I can’t reverse; even lashing my trusty winch to a nearby tree doesn’t help. By now I’m shouting at the screen quite a lot. And then I realise that, in the midst of my frustration, I’ve accidentally engaged my handbrake. I turn it back off with a dab of the right button, and I suddenly realise I’m not quite so stuck after all. Ahem.

So goes my first hour with SnowRunner, the latest in Saber Interactive’s series (see also: Spintires and MudRunner) that has long made a feature out of slow, painful progress. Rather than hurtle around tracks, you trundle, grind, and skitter your way from point A to point B. There are missions to complete – in my first, I have to find a bigger haulage truck, then find materials to fix a bridge – and successfully finishing them requires skilful navigation of the rough, all-American terrain and careful deployment of the tools you have available to you.

Because this is a driving sim, those tools are basically whatever’s equipped in your current truck: the aforementioned winch is ideal for pulling you out of lakes of slippery muck, but you’ll also need to learn when and where to employ all-wheel drive (which gives you more power, but at the expense of fuel), low gear (which helps you navigate rutted tracks at low speeds), and when to simply throw your vehicle in reverse and choose a different course.

Whip the camera around, and you’ll see your driver. Look at those dead eyes. This guy’s seen a lot of mud.

Although the tone couldn’t be more different, SnowRunner shares a bit of DNA with Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding: both are about the minutiae of reading terrain and getting from one place to another, often at an incredibly slow pace. There’s also the contrasting interplay between frustration and mild exhilaration: there are the moments of knuckle-gnawing irritation as you realise you’ve chosen a horrible path that’ll take ages to manoeuvre your way back out of, but these are often followed by the low-key thrill of freeing yourself from a grimy prison or completing an objective.

And you know what? It’s gripping. More gripping than the slippy tyres on my battered old haulage truck, at least. So gripping, in fact, that my initial frustration at my slow progress and constant mishaps (like accidentally engaging the handbrake without even noticing) gave way before I’d consciously noticed it. It was only towards the second hour that I realised the muscles in my shoulders were tense from gripping my controller as I tried to guide my fragile truck up the side of yet another hill.

It’s telling that, unusually for a driving sim, there’s no speedo in SnowRunner. Your progress is measured in the vast quantities of fuel you gobble up.

By this point, I’d gotten a better handle on the basic controls, and finished my first mission. Having gotten to a watchtower, I uncovered the location of the big haulage truck I’d need to pick up the steel and wood required to fix up a nearby bridge. But after getting infuriatingly stuck between two trees, and noticing that the day was drawing to a close, I decided to take a shortcut down the side of a steep bank, which resulted in some wince-inducing damage to my engine and suspension, but meant I got to the big truck I needed without having to take a longer route around some winding, rutted tracks.

By the time I’d hopped into my hulking flatbed truck and driven over to the small town where the steel girders awaited, night was beginning to fall, and it struck me just how pretty SnowRunner actually is: it’s a modest sort of pretty, granted, but there’s something soothing about the way the sky falls from pale blue to purple as the sun sets, or how the mist and fog plays on the trees as the bright lights of the town give way to rural Michigan’s rocky landscapes. (It was around this point, as I admired the boulders and trees jutting out of the mist, that I realised I had no idea how to turn the headlights on – fortunately, an on-screen prompt saved me from navigating the byways of Michigan in pitch darkness.)

A few trips back and forth and I’d repaired my first bridge – an act that opened up a bit more of the map, prompting an invite from the game to claw my way to a garage somewhere on the other side of yet more rugged terrain. Letting off an inward cheer, I set a marker for said garage, headed down a dirt track, and… promptly got stuck in another bog. Lashing my winch to a nearby tree, I gritted my teeth, tensed the muscles in my back, and started grumpily dragging myself out of yet another grotty mire. Ah well. Here’s mud in your eye.

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