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SnowRunner review: This is the zen of digital muddin'

The latest entry in the Spintires series takes MudRunner to new heights. Getting sloppy on four wheels never felt so good.

It's no secret that I'm a driving game aficionado. I've played 'em all and I love 'em all. If you were to ask me for a list of my favorite driving games of the past few years you'd see a lot of hardcore racing simulators on there, but there'd be one entry distinctly unlike the others: 2017's cargo-haulin' work sim MudRunner. Its sequel is here and, despite the cleaner-sounding title, things are messier and better than ever.

MudRunner, part of the Spintires series, was a hardcore sim in its own right, but where games like iRacing or Assetto Corsa focus primarily on wheel-to-wheel, circuit-based racing, MudRunner embraced the art of hauling heavy cargo across impossible terrain. Progressing through that game meant delivering ever-trickier loads through ever-deeper mud and, eventually, water deep enough to test the tallest of snorkels.

I adored every sloppy minute of it, but then it was a bit more than just a simple diversion for me. If you'll forgive a personal aside, MudRunner hit the Xbox One at a key time for me. I was a few months into my recovery from a major concussion. Most games were still too intense for me. Racing games delivered an instant, skull-cracking headache. I was going a bit crazy without my fix.

And then I found MudRunner. It was slow enough to not give me headaches yet challenging and strategic enough to be oddly compelling. And so, with the brightness turned down on my TV, I proceeded to slog my way through every rutted, barren route the game had to offer, and hauling all the virtual cargo I could find. When the American Wilds expansion dropped, I played the hell out of that, too.

SnowRunner, which is out Tuesday for Xbox One, PS4 and PC, picks up pretty much exactly where MudRunner dropped off, ramping the scale and scope of things up massively. It starts with three areas: Michigan, Alaska and Taymyr in Russia. All are open to begin with, but with the limited vehicles at your disposal at the start, you'd best spend some time exploring Michigan's Upper Peninsula and earning some upgrades before heading any further afield.

Each geographic area contains multiple, interconnected maps, so the overall amount of terrain has expanded massively. So, too, the complexity of the tasks. Where the last game primarily focused on hauling raw materials like timber from one corner of the map to another, in SnowRunner you'll be hitting lumber yards, factories and even research centers picking up everything from bricks to seismological equipment.

In schlepping materials and equipment from place to place, you're earning experience and money. Experience opens up new vehicles plus upgrades and, you guessed it, all of that costs money. But, many of these missions actually make your life easier. Your first task in a flood-riddled Michigan is to get to a watchtower and survey the land. From there you quickly find your first heavy truck. Using that heavy truck you can bring materials to rebuild a bridge, a bridge that opens up access to the rest of the map.

SnowRunner review
Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Yes, missions in SnowRunner effectively boil down to heavy-duty fetch quests, quests that can take hours to complete thanks to the size and complexity of terrain. This would quickly become tiresome were the core mechanics of the gameplay not so fundamentally compelling. Whether scrambling up goat paths in an International Harvester Scout or bombing through ruts with a Freightliner M916A1 tractor-trailer, each of the 40 vehicles on offer has its own charm.

And, should you find their charm lacking, enter a new suite of unlockable upgrades. Some, like paint and bumpers, are purely aesthetic. Others are very functional indeed. That Scout, for example, is lightweight and narrow and frugal, but decidedly lacking in power, meaning it quickly falters in mud. Search the map and you'll find an engine upgrade that adds a fair bit of pep. Match that with a lifted suspension, bog-ready tires plus a roof rack with extra fuel, and you're ready to explore whatever the game has to offer.

And it has a lot to offer. Maybe too much. The maps are huge and the upgrade path slow, which can make the whole game feel a bit daunting. I found that to be especially true the first time I tried to explore the Alaskan areas with my lifted, upgraded 1988 Chevrolet C/K Fleetside. I was quickly sent back to Michigan with my tail frozen between my legs to unlock a few more upgrades.

Four-player co-op changes the formula fundamentally, meaning the bigger, multipoint challenges become collaborative joys rather than messy traveling salesman problems. The lack of split-screen couch-co-op is unfortunate, however.

SnowRunner review

Big brick energy.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

That, though, is really my only complaint. SnowRunner is a remarkable follow-up to a game that broke out of the work simulator genre by having such incredible fundamentals. That MudRunner was an important step in my personal recovery means it'll always have a special place in my pantheon of great games, but SnowRunner improves on it in nearly every respect.

SnowRunner is an amazing sandbox full of engaging toys, the closest thing we have to an automotive strategy game incarnate and an amazingly good low-paced, low-stress way to destroy an afternoon.

First published April 27.