What use is the daily grind without something to work for?
‘Farming’ is a term used in videogames to describe the targeted collection of valuable resources. It’s often the boring bit that we just put up with in order to get a reward: a new set of armour, or a more powerful weapon, perhaps. Playing Farming Simulator 17, the inspiration for that term becomes clear. In more ways than ever before, the latest in this series from GIANTS Software is all about perpetually collecting things – though whether the rewards for doing so justify the boredom is the biggest question prospective players will need to ask themselves.
Something else we should ask: if videogames are meant to be about escapism, who is Farming Simulator 17 for? There is so much work involved that it’s hard to imagine the layman finding much enjoyment in the endeavour. It appears that somewhere, people intimately familiar with farming equipment want to live out the fantasy of owning a Lamborghini tractor. I call these people “actual farmers”. What are they getting out of simulating their own lives by playing this series of games?
That’s their business I suppose; I ought not to judge. For those that see the appeal, this year’s release includes new, bigger environments in which to run your farm, with more choice of the kind of farm you want to run. An expanded road network and functioning town demonstrates the increased scale, while the addition of a rail network (with drivable trains) is a welcome concession to laborious transit of goods, otherwise exacerbated by the large working area.
For a novice farmer like me, the increased scope isn’t so helpful. Even in the virtual sense, farming is hard. A short tutorial delivers the basics of ploughing, sowing and harvesting, but the implied assumption is that you won’t need any help. After all, you wouldn’t be playing this unless you knew the difference between slurry and fertiliser. After being abruptly left to get on with it, the first thing city slickers will do is furrow their brow in confusion.
There is a ton of stuff to do. A bank loan sets you up with a selection of low-end tractors and enough attachments to work your three starting fields. Beyond that, there are dozens of fallow fields waiting for someone to buy them…if only one could make enough money to do so. That bank loan charges daily interest, and every piece of equipment attracts a maintenance bill. Seeds, fuel and staffing costs all add up until, before long, costs begin to eat away at any profit.
If the objective of a farming simulator is to reproduce the crushingly long days and terrifying financial insecurity of a farmer’s life, then GIANTS Software has pulled it off. Working all hours to sow, harvest, and sell your goods is the sole measure of progression. And I do mean all hours – without any option to sleep (at least, I couldn’t find my bed anywhere), each night left me as a crazed bumpkin surveying my fledgling crops, shrouded in bleak, deathly twilight.
What makes the task harder to take is that it is so very hands-on. Given the scale of the job, you might imagine some kind of remote, birds-eye map management. Not so: beyond employing AI helpers (or co-op players if you know any farmers) to automatically continue working a specific field that you’ve started, all major tasks must be done personally by hand. Any cash you make is truly earned through donkey work, so it’s especially heart breaking to see your bank balance drip away with each passing hour.
Even then, physical labour is not enough. An astute mind for the market is necessary to moderate supply in accordance with demand. Make too much corn, and it will sell for nothing. Stockpile it all for later, and make no money at all that day. It’s a tricky, long term endeavour to balance the risk and diversify your farm’s output so you always have something profitable to sell.
That diversity comes in the form of different crop types (sunflowers and soy beans being new additions), but also livestock. Chickens, sheep and cows return, joined by pigs which can all be bought to bring in regular revenue (as long as you’re prepared to look after their wellbeing and, for chickens, manually picking up every single egg if you want to sell them).
Farmers can also get involved with forestry, which was added back in Farming Simulator 15 – trees can be planted, grown and cut down, to sell either as logs or chippings. What really stood out with this feature was the peculiar physics that are specific to this iteration. With the option to cut trees at specific angles, you would imagine there are some reliable physics in place to manage where a tree will fall. Not so: trees topple in strange spinning movements, and often they don’t topple at all.
Despite adding variety in gameplay terms, this broad set of tasks inevitably requires lots of specialised equipment to carry out (with a huge range of real licensed brands). The complexity of the production chain and its associated machinery can be overwhelming, not to mention very expensive. I have no idea how much this stuff costs in real life, but if it’s anything like this I understand why farmers get upset at the price of milk in Tesco. There’s massive risk in investment here, which discourages experimentation.
Without the confidence to commit to investing in a particular revenue stream, the opening few hours of the game are fallow in terms of progression. It’s a slow process towards attaining enough capital that one purchase won’t wipe you out entirely, forcing you into more costly loans.
There are functional weaknesses too: those expensive tractors can get utterly stuck if you aren’t careful. Hit a fence in the wrong way and there might be no unsticking it when the axle rolls over a post. More generally, the control systems for each vehicle feel needlessly confused. Regular functions require obtuse button combinations, leading to mild annoyance if not mistakes in execution. The simple task of getting around is also obfuscated, with no route finding available and a map that either gets in the way or is barely useful.
While this review might drive Farming Simulator 17 into the ground in a lot of ways, I don’t know if the criticisms are all necessarily negative for its target audience. The game is so resolutely focused on being a perpetual, punishing grind that one must assume it’s a deliberate play for its fans. That it doesn’t do enough to appeal to a new audience is the most strident complaint I would make, but in the end that might be missing the point. I suspect GIANTS Software have reaped pretty much what they intended to sow.
Farming Simulator 17 was provided to us by Microsoft via a download code for Xbox One.