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Farming Simulator review

Against the grain.

Farming Simulator isn't nearly nerdy enough, and that's the last criticism I expected to make of this console version of the ironically championed budget PC series. It's got the word "simulator" in the title - nerdiness should come as standard.

There are obvious flaws here, many of which have been made infamous thanks to hilarious (and unsafe for work) YouTube videos. Farming Simulator's cut-price production values don't so much poke through as parade around, stark naked, inviting you to ogle their wobbly bits.

There are two maps on which to simulate your farming. One is set in what sounds like Germany but could well be a generic theme park version of any rustic European backwater town, while the other - added for the console edition - is a rootin' tootin' American map.

Gameplay consists largely of driving slowly up and down in straight lines. You plough the field this way, you sow the seeds this way, you harvest the crop by doing the same thing, and then you cultivate the soil back into a sowable state by driving up and down once more.

You can hire workers to complete tasks for you, but all this really does is put a vehicle on auto-pilot until it finishes what it's doing.

That's not a criticism, by the way. A certain level of monotony comes with the simulator territory, at least when viewed from the outside. The joy comes from the immersion - the minutiae of a very specific task, recreated as closely as possible.

To begin with, Farming Simulator seems like it might hit the spot. There are around 100 farm vehicles to buy, and for the first hour or so there's something charming about consoles more used to bloody slaughter and frantic action being used to let you pootle up and down while looped birdsong plays and a rudimentary sunrise turns the world a bucolic orange. It's genuinely different, and there's an attractive perversity in its slide over to the Xbox and PlayStation.

The charm doesn't last long, sadly. The game world is utterly stiff and lifeless, and ruled by bizarre physics that allow a fully laden wagon full of grain to be driven head-first down a cliff without spilling (the grain is a flat texture painted inside the wagon), while driving over 10mph with a plough results in stark warnings of calamity. When that calamity comes, the plough simply falls off and must be reattached. In the town, rigid cars toil endlessly and pointlessly along, bouncing off your tractor or driving straight through you.

Yet this plasticky stiffness ultimately isn't that damaging. It gives the game an odd toy-town feel that fits nicely with the essentially childish notion of what it means to be a farmer: brumming a tractor up and down and operating big machines that make cool clanky noises. That's hardly the worst fantasy a game can indulge.

The combine harvesters are very smart. You can drive them through fields of unripe crops, blades threshing away, and they magically won't touch them.

That's as deep as the fantasy goes, however. Anywhere that the game might earn its "simultator" title, it doesn't bother to make an effort. The vehicles handle slightly differently, but control is so simplistic that it really does feel like you're playing with Tonka toys rather than the real thing. Nor does the game's economy come close to even approximating the financial side of building an agricultural business.

There are numerous points around the map where you can offload your harvests. Each offers a slightly different price, but since none of the map markers tell you which station is which, there's no reason to chug slowly across the map to find the best price when you can get an adequate deal from the one around the corner. Wherever you turn, shallowness reigns. You don't buy a particular seed, for example. You just buy generic seed, and then decide what you want it to be once you're ready to sow.

This is a farming game with no seasons. That's like having a flight simulator with no airports

It's here that Farming Simulator's ramshackle chassis finally collapses. This is a farming game with no seasons. That's like having a flight simulator with no airports. There's weather, but no indication of how that affects your crops. It literally doesn't seem to matter what you sow, or when. Everything grows. Crop rotation? Pest control? Nope. None of that matters. As long as you put seeds in the ground, they'll grow perfectly and harvest without a problem. Just like real farming!

Once you start to slip down this rabbit hole of puddle-deep systems, the whole experience unravels. The game's economy is superfluous at best, and often downright broken. You can alter the speed of the game, so you don't have to wait around for crops to mature, but this means it's not only possible but downright essential to game the system, doing the laborious jobs at super-speed to minimise your expenses, then twisting the flow of time up again so you can plant and harvest entire fields in less than a day. Again, unless Doctor Who has taken to agriculture, there's nothing here to warrant the word "simulator".

Higher difficulties start you in debt, and dish out money less generously, but do nothing to deepen the gameplay.

The cherry on top is the inclusion of missions. These are bizarre little odd jobs that pop up and send you trundling around the map, making deliveries and mowing grass. It's got nothing to do with farming, yet the rewards are so stupidly unbalanced - thousands of dollars for a few minutes' work - that you'll make more money from dropping off party balloons than you will for selling your entire harvest. Since there's no purpose behind the game beyond the accumulation of wealth, it renders the actual farming aspect functionally redundant.

It's all rather tragic. You might say this game was never going to be good, but I don't mind admitting that I was genuinely excited to see it come to consoles. I've always loved this point in a platform's life cycle, as hardcore eyes look to the next shiny thing, allowing the offbeat and left-field niche titles to move in.

Even with its limited budget and bargain basement production values, Farming Simulator should have been one of those games. All it had to do was actually simulate farming. That, apparently, is too much to ask from a game called Farming Simulator. In its own weird way, the complete lack of ambition shown by this underdog has disappointed me more than any lacklustre blockbuster ever will.

3 / 10