I’m stuck. Not ‘where do I go next?’ stuck or ‘I can’t beat this boss fight’ stuck, but absolutely, and apparently irrevocably, stuck in the mud. The wheels of my truck are sunk so deep in the silt that covers this churned-up farmyard that every press of the pedal results in nothing more than a few futile wheel spins and a spray of sludge. I won’t be going anywhere fast – not under my own power, at least.
One of the first things strikes you about Snowrunner is the lack of speedometer. Depending on my choice of vehicle, I have control over 4-Wheel Drive or my differential, a gearbox perfectly suited to driving in difficult terrain, and a fuel gauge so detailed I can see exactly how much petrol I’m using per minute on a moment-to-moment basis, but no way to tell how fast I’m moving. Snowrunner isn’t a game that’s interested in how quickly you can reach your destination. It’s one that wants to know if you can get yourself there at all.
Snowrunner begins in the flood-ravaged town of Black River, Michigan. Thanks to the weather, bridges are out, powerlines have toppled, and dirt tracks have become quagmires. Even the few actual roads that criss-cross the map are part-submerged by swollen mountain streams, their slick surfaces making even the relative safety of tarmac a place where speed is punished rather than praised, my truck skidding wildly at what I considered to be relatively modest speeds. Thankfully, much of the ‘action’ takes place off-road, on dirt tracks so churned up by the weather that Michigan starts to look more like the Western Front than the Midwest.
It’s in those swamps, where your back wheels spin uselessly while those at the front swivel desperately in an attempt to find some kind of purchase in this sea of mud, that Snowrunner must get its make-or-break moment. Despite the rural setting and extreme weather being reminiscent of any number of Dirt Rally or Forza Horizon titles, fans of traditional racing games will find almost nothing for them here. Rather than power, the key to success is patience and problem-solving. Going fast isn’t just dangerous, but for much of the game it’s almost impossible, and instead you’re forced to wrestle with the elements. Often, the elements seem to be winning, but if you can learn to work with your limited mobility instead of railing against it, your reward is one of strangely cerebral exploration.
Snowrunner is a vehicular Metroidvania, cutting off access to vast swathes of its map until you’ve got the tools to traverse them. At the start of the game, the 4-Wheel Drive and relative lightness of my pickup allow me to clamber clumsily over some of the trickier terrain without worrying about sinking too deep. That car’s limited size, however, means it doesn’t have the power to move fallen obstacles and that water more than a couple of feet deep represents an impassable obstacle. To advance, I need a fully-fledged truck, one with enough cargo space to haul the resources I need to rebuild the fallen bridge and open up more of the map, but which will be axle deep in sediment if I take a wrong turn. Apply the right vehicle to the job, however, and you might find a way to a flatbed that can move through mud, or find an upgrade to boost your pickup’s horsepower and pull that fallen tree off the road. Over time, more and more space opens up, and you can explore further and further afield.
If you’re truly stuck, you can call Recovery to dig you out, but I’ve found that the joy of Snowrunner comes from solving your own problems. With my truck bogged down in that farmyard and its ample fuel supply quickly evaporating thanks to all that wheel-spinning, I decided to bring the pickup into play. On its own, my Chevy was too light to pull the truck free, but with 4WD on, the accelerator firmly on the floor, and a winch on my bumper straining to take the weight, the larger truck slowly slid free from the quagmire. Overall, the whole process felt a lot more like solving a puzzle than speeding across a finish line, but the satisfaction it offered goes to show that when you’re behind the wheel, speed isn’t always everything.