What is it? A complex sim about running and managine a farm, or many farms.
Expect to pay: $50/£35
Developer: Giants Software
Publisher: Giants Software
Reviewed on: Windows 10, GeForce GTX 1070, Intel Core i7-9700 CPU, 16GB RAM
Link: Official site
There are those who twist the lands of Farming Simulator into an arcadian paradise, producing endless pallets of foodstuffs every season like a terrifying Monsanto baron. There are also those who play this game every day as a way to depart from the monotony of their day jobs, fostering a patch of reliable happiness by tending the cows and weeding the corn.
I belong to neither of those camps, which is crucial context for a review of the most recent game in the series titled, with a hilarious Madden-ish flair, Farming Simulator 22. At best, I am a filthy casual. I have three fields and a simple life subsisting on the bare edges of the agrarian economy. My plow is inherited from the bronze age, my cultivation skills cannot nurture anything more fragile than the hardiest of cereals, and I frequently sell my labor to the richer neighboring homesteads. And yet, here in this yeoman muck, Farming Simulator has finally clicked in my brain. There is so much joy in scraping by.
Farming Simulator 22 is somehow the 11th entry in this franchise. All of the games are developed by the Swiss studio Giants Software, which lovingly renders a punctilious, businesslike interpretation of heartland warmth. Unlike the abstract bucolic fantasies of Stardew Valley or My Time At Portia, Farming Simulator has always aimed for those who are genuinely fascinated by the modern technology wielded by smallholders all over the world. Upon beginning a campaign on the easiest settings, you will be gifted a barn, a house, a handful of equipment, and a trio of pastures. From there, it's up to you to determine what kind of farm you'd like to build. An endless expanse of soybeans? A tightly-packed meadow of sugarcane? A flock of sheep? Let your empire unfurl across the map.
Every day, your farmer wakes up at the crack of dawn and immediately gets to work on a laundry list of chores. The canola plot needs weeding, the wheat needs to be harvested, and a fresh payload of cotton seeds ought to be put into the ground. You carry out these actions through brutal, hardscrabble toil. Jump in the tractor and drag the tiller across the fields, back and forth, over and over again, leaving mounds of freshly aerated dirt in your wake. Once that's complete, step into the seeder, and repeat the process. Daylight is burning. Like all simulation games, the player is instructed to find euphoria in the heuristics of a life that doesn't belong to them. But that is also the genre's constant deterrent. Once at cruising altitude in Microsoft Flight Simulator it becomes brutally apparent that flying is flying—long, boring, mostly uneventful. Likewise, if you do not possess some sort of envy for rural glamour, this game will likely leave you cold.
I had only dabbled in Farming Simulator once or twice before I took on this review. The premise intrigued me, but I was perpetually deterred by the plastic graphics, the methodical controls, and the sheer limitlessness of my options.
But as I got my feet wet in the latest edition, I slowly began to uncover the sublime peace that others have found in this world. The mechanics reveal themselves to be parsable and fairly forgiving as you learn the ropes—especially compared to how you and I might white-knuckle our way through IL-2 Sturmovik. In particular I recall a distant sunset where I was sitting on my tractor, turning over my acreage, listening to a podcast off my phone. It was strangely one of the most immersive experiences I've ever had in a videogame. If I was growing wheat for a living, that's exactly how I'd operate.
The biggest addition in Farming Simulator 22 is a brand new seasonal system. Leaves fall in the autumn, snow blankets in the winter, and farmers must make sure they are only putting new crops in the ground when conditions are right. (Barley must be planted in the fall, and it won't be ready for a harvest until the next summer.) This also affects the economy, as some products sell at higher prices during certain parts of the year. Giants Software have also added the ability to clear out the forests from the land or dig up the stones in your fields, which adds a faintly Animal Crossing-esque verve to the proceedings. I am far too much of a Farming Simulator novice to contextualize how those wrinkles deviate from the prior games in the canon, but from a purely aesthetic perspective, I do appreciate how an idyllic little homestead can glow through the cold air.
Of course, that gets to the greatest lingering complaint I have with Farming Simulator 22—a complaint that's persisted through even my earlier brushes with the series. Giants Software has obsessed over every possible detail that could concern a humble farmer, but from a pure gameplay perspective, there remains a thick layer of unpolished chaff clinging to the fundamentals. Attaching your tractor to a towable piece of equipment is finicky. I often found myself backing into my fertilizer sprayer at every possible angle before I was prompted with the hitch function. The physics logic occasionally freaks out. I'd be driving my truck down a peaceful highway, wind in my hair, before suddenly tumbling into the forest. The waypoint system is muddy and imprecise; at one point I needed to Alt-Tab and watch a video to figure out where in town I was supposed to sell my products.
What I'm saying is that Farming Simulator simply still lacks a certain intuitiveness that could considerably broaden the appeal of the franchise. The series has sold over 25 million copies throughout its lifetime—this is no longer a rough-and-tumble indie game—and yet there are so many fussy hangups in both its interface and its engine that actively push newcomers away. If just a few of these creases could be smoothed over, Farming Simulator would become much easier to recommend.
That said, oftentimes I get the sense that the Farming Simulator community enjoys the jank. The franchise went viral for its uncanny, antiseptic style and dogmatic approach to its source material—which I suppose are the tenets you'd expect for an offbeat videogame about planting vegetables. I sorta get it. I remember hauling a payload of grain to the mill and passing by a handful of nondescript NPCs on the sidewalk, all of whom looked like they were plucked out of some open source asset depository from 2007, which did bring a smile to my face. Amid the aureate military shooters and indominable open-world adventures, Farming Simulator certainly does occupy its own lane out of time. I was susceptible to its curious magic, I just wish others could more easily fall under the spell.