SnowRunner is a trucking game where your only enemy is earth

By Julian Benson, Contributor

The wheels of my Fleetstar F2070A spin uselessly in the Michigan mud. I switch from high gear to low gear, I toggle on the differential lock, I try accelerating slowly, I alternate between first gear and reverse to rock my truck backwards and forward in the muck. In other words, I try all my usual SnowRunner maneuvers—but nothing works. I am well and truly stuck.

I drove down this road half an hour ago with no trouble. The belching engine of the Fleetstar spat out enough torque to effortlessly carry me over the mud, and this ease gave me a false sense of security for the return journey. I didn’t think about the fact that my truck now hauled a trailer loaded down with logs. The vehicle itself was light enough to drive over the mud, but with the added drag and weight of the freight? I sank into the soil.
SnowRunner Mud Stuck 1
Other haulage games, such as Euro Truck Simulator, become predictable over time, letting you drive across a continent on mental autopilot. This can be their joy, turning driving into meditation and allowing you to switch off for a couple of hours, listen to the radio, and reduce the natural world to the greenery you see on the verges of Europe’s motorways.

SnowRunner isn’t that kind of simulation. Nature is everywhere, and it punishes complacency.

“The one and only enemy in this game is the terrain,” SnowRunner’s game director Evgeniy Sorokin says. The team at Saber Interactive designed SnowRunner around the challenge of driving on earth that collapses and deforms under your vehicle's tires.

In each of the different terrain types, the engine is “simulating a real-life interaction between car wheels and terrain,” Sorokin says. That data is drawn from the weight, speed, and shape of the vehicle you’re driving, as well as the load you’re hauling. The snowy road you have no trouble traveling in your 4WD Scout becomes a morass when you attempt it with a heavy-duty truck.
SnowRunner Truck Haul
In many simulation games, all roads are virtually identical, with the main differences being the number of lanes or the junctions that connect them. In SnowRunner, you must navigate waterlogged roads that seem to want to eat your vehicle whole, ford fast-flowing rivers that can cover your truck’s hood and drown your engine, and climb mountainous, snow-covered roads where your tires find little purchase.

“We work meticulously on every inch of the terrain in order to provide a challenge for the players that traverse through the map,” says Sorokin.

As you spend more time in SnowRunner’s three maps—Michigan and Alaska in the USA and Taymyr in Russia—you see this design sensibility, of the earth as your enemy, in action. You learn which roads are impassable in particular kinds of vehicles, what routes to take when hauling heavy loads, and what mixture of equipment to use to avoid getting stuck in the mud. It gives you a tangible relationship with your vehicles and a respect for the world you’re driving them in. You can’t switch off, or you'll run aground.

If the world does get the best of you in SnowRunner, you can sometimes use it to get yourself out. In addition to all-wheel drive and differential lock—both of which give your vehicle more purchase on difficult terrain and can sometimes get you out of a sticky situation—you have access to a winch. This retractable cable can be attached to nearby terrain to act as an anchor with which you can drag yourself out of the mud or deep snow.
SnowRunner Mud Stuck Winch 2
As Sorokin mentioned though, SnowRunner is a real-world simulation. If you pull too fast or your vehicle is too heavy, you may end up wrenching the tree out of the soil, leaving you stuck in the mud.

If you hauled a trailer full of goods up a tricky mountain pass for half an hour and then get stuck, you may feel like you’ve failed. But it’s in moments like this where SnowRunner (and its predecessors, MudRunner and Spintires) come alive.

While you could reset your vehicle, sending it back to the nearest garage, that would undo all your hard work on the journey so far.

Instead, it's time to launch a rescue mission. If you swap to a different vehicle in your garage, your original truck will remain wherever it was in the world. You can then customize a second truck with a powerful winch or crane to travel out to and rescue your stuck vehicle.
SnowRunner Customization 1
In this way, missions emerge from your failures, offering an opportunity to save the day. “We figured it out back in early MudRunner days,” Sorokin says, “and we definitely wanted to have more emphasis on [these emergent moments] in SnowRunner. We want players to have freedom in finding the solution for any kind of situation in the game, which includes both logistical tasks and minute-to-minute driving decisions that need to be made.”

The core technology underpinning the terrain simulation and driving physics remained the same between MudRunner and SnowRunner, but Sorokin explains that “the engine was changed significantly” to “include huge maps and varied regions, snow as a new kind of terrain for vehicles to interact with, and overall proper progression with a variety of objectives, rewards, car upgrades, [and] exploration mechanics."

Those additions supported emergent play. The deeper into SnowRunner you get, the more of its trucks and equipment you unlock, the more upgrades you purchase, and the more tools you have available when it comes to solving problems the terrain throws at you. In some ways, SnowRunner becomes easier as you play—but only because you have more options for how to tackle a problem, not because the world becomes more forgiving.

Saber Interactive has continued to expand that toolbox for the series’ next entry, the upcoming Expeditions: A MudRunner Game. Now your winch is powerful enough to rappel a truck down a cliff face, you can deflate and inflate your tires to achieve greater traction on loose surfaces (such as deep gravel), and you can place temporary bridges to help you cross rivers with strong currents. You can see it all in action in the new gameplay trailer:

If you’re growing tired of simulation games where the driving is predictable and the worlds feel static, SnowRunner and the soon-to-be-released Expeditions push you to reembrace driving and foster a new relationship with the road—even if, after getting three rescue trucks caught in the mud while trying to save your stranded Fleetstar F2070A, that relationship is spite.