What if I told you could be a farmer but didn’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn and could almost completely avoid the smell of manure? [Ed: What do you mean almost?] Sounds much better than regular farming, right? Well, it won’t be for everyone but digitally recreated farm life does have a wonderfully strange appeal. The Farming Simulator series has a pretty avid and active fanbase and the 2019 edition promised a lot of improvements including “a complete overhaul of the graphics engine”.
Farming Simulator 19 is undoubtedly a big step up from previous editions. And longtime fans of the series will love all the additions and plethora of options. In fact, once you get the hang of it, it actually provides a comforting (if a little repetitive) gameplay loop. Unfortunately, it also stubbornly continues to be a game that feels like it’s actively discouraging new players from engaging with it – adding layers upon layers of complexity with virtually no way for new players to quickly access them. And with the Platinum Edition, it also confusingly tries to package what could’ve been a downloadable cosmetic DLC pack as a brand new edition.
Tut tut tut Tutorial
Right from the outset, I should admit that I had never tried a Farming Simulator game before. It’s a series that gets its fair share of snide comments but it also has a community that simply love the games. So with an open mind and a spirit of adventure, I wanted to find out for myself. After the quite fantastic Americana-styled opening cut-scene and the upbeat country tune, I donned my checkered shirt, stuck a piece of straw in my mouth and I quickly decided to look for any tutorials available – so I could get some sort of introduction before starting the game proper.
After several hours it actually provides a comforting (if a little repetitive) gameplay loop. It just takes too long to get there.
In the main menu, you have access to 6 short tutorials that give you a brief introduction into the basics of the game: Land needs to be cultivated, seeds planted, soil cared for and fertilized and eventually, crops need to be harvested. I got to try out some vehicles, learn some of the unintuitive controls and even bale some hay. Unfortunately, during my final “Forestry” tutorial, while learning how to chop trees and logs, I somehow got stuck and either couldn’t figure out how to proceed or experienced a bug that did not allow me to go on.
It was a bumpy start – but all in all, I thought the tutorials were reasonably straightforward and by the end (or at least 5/6 completed tutorials later) I thought I had some idea of how this would all work. I mean it seemed to be a very simple process: Get in your tractor. Attach the available weight at the front. Attach whatever tool you are provided with at the back. Turn on the machine. Drive tractor forward. Repeat with new tool. I felt I was well-equipped to take on the Career campaign.
I, of course, was wrong. Very, very wrong.
This isn’t even my farm!
The Career Mode offers three options: New Farmer, Farm-Manager and Start From Scratch. I chose the ‘easy’ New Farmer mode and was then given the option of two farms to choose from: Ravenport, a typical US, dry and dusty looking farm, and Felsbrunn a beautiful mountainous farm situated in what looked like a picturesque Swiss countryside. Having missed the text that casually mentions how Ravenport should be used by new players (which in my defence is about the size of the barely legible small print at the end of TV commercials) I happily chose Felsbrunn… and spent the next hour and a half irritated and lost.
It also stubbornly continues to be a game that feels like it’s actively discouraging new players from engaging with it.
I had vehicles and beautiful wide-open spaces but no clue what to do. After aimlessly wandering everywhere I finally managed to access a menu. The menu included an intricately detailed map, as well as an impossibly complicated accounting ledger, a list of vehicles and tools which I didn’t know how to equip and a list of faces and names offering me work contracts. I had no idea whether I should accept one of these – but decided I had run out of other ideas.
Figuring out farming – realistic to a fault
I eventually realised my text mishap and restarted my career in Ravensport. And while it started substantially better thanks to a short career tutorial (which provides some essentials like indicating important map locations and store buying processes), again and again, I was frustrated at how the game feels like it actively wants to alienate new players. I understand that most of the blame for my early mistake lies with me. However, inserting very important text within long-winded paragraphs which are hidden behind layers of menus and scrolling indicates a lack of understanding about how new players access a game. And it’s a theme that plays out again and again.
I had vehicles and beautiful wide-open spaces but no clue what to do.
While it promised more tutorials along the way – that four or five-minute starting-career tutorial is all you get. And after an hour or so the frustration I experienced in my first playthrough quickly returned. There is just so little guidance about how to do anything; How to purchase vehicles, do anything new on your land, access and complete contracts – all are basic processes in the game and yet you are basically left to figure out how to do this yourself. Add in the just ridiculous amount of different branded vehicles, tools and additions, herbicides, farm buildings and more and it often feels like the game expects you to remember or even just already have the knowledge about what each does and how to use it.
I get that real-life farming is tough. It’s probably one of the toughest jobs out there. However, this game takes the ‘simulator’ moniker to the extreme. It seems to shout out – “You want to be a farmer, hey? Well, City Boy figure it out!” And because of it feels like this and then overloads you with the multitude of overly-detailed menus, a strange complicated control scheme and so much hidden or hard to access information I couldn’t help but think that this is probably one of the most unintuitive games I have ever played. I desperately wanted an “I’m stuck what do I do now?” button. Even a hint… a reminder icon… Anything. But no. “This is real farming, kid. Figure it out, or get out.”
The harvest should’ve been a happy one
Yet, for all these serious faults I stuck with it. There is so much content in the game. So many options to get to. And after hours and hours of play, I had a basic idea of how to run my farm and was even starting to very slowly make some money. I had begun expanding my farm to include animals and I had barely scratched the surface of all the Forestry mechanics. I tried to add Mods the community had created and had even started to feel confident enough to try to access the multiplayer mode and play with some fellow digital farmers online (although I was not successful on the latter point and every time I tried to connect with anyone else I got a failed server notification). And the longer I played – the more bearable and dare I say it – the more enjoyable it got.
It seems to shout out – “You want to be a farmer, hey? Well, City Boy figure it out!”
And so, just before the review, I checked on what trophies I had unlocked along the way. One stuck out: Over 10-hours spent on a single campaign. I immediately noticed that not even 50% of players had managed to achieve this trophy. It was classified as a ‘Rare’. The scope of the game really means is shouldn’t be – but I could understand why. This game thrives on the idea of repetition. It’s not a game that will thrill you. However, not every game has to do that. There is definitely something to be said about doing something calming again and again. It’s undoubtedly this relaxing and often rewarding gameplay loop that brings lovers of this game back every year. However, it takes too long to get to that point. Early on, the repetitive game design feels slow and is further burdened by clumsy menus, overly-complicated procedures and many new players will just give up.
And while, eventually, I did start to appreciate the game’s monotonous charm I couldn’t help but think that I could’ve easily gotten to that point three hours into the game with a better and more ‘hand-holdy’ difficulty option. The ridiculously high barrier to entry and inexplicable lack of accessibility means the game remains a niche title that may have some longtime fans waxing lyrical, but will leave most feeling confused, irritated and sadly bored enough that they’ll give up before it gets any better.
The Platinum Edition is a woeful, mostly cosmetic DLC that as far as I could tell brings nothing more than another brand to an already brand-heavy game.
Finally, it feels odd to say but unless you have a strong affection for Claas farming equipment (virtually the sole inclusion as far as I could tell for the Platinum Edition) there is absolutely no reason to get the newer addition. Sure, some of the vehicles are pretty cool looking in their green Claas glory.
However, in a game with over 380 vehicles, so many great community mods and considering that in a playthrough in which even after more than 10 hours I could only afford to purchase a grand total of 1 Claas vehicle and only did so for the review – the Platinum Edition is a woeful, mostly cosmetic DLC that seems to bring nothing more than another brand to an already brand-heavy game.