Doubting "Greg" Thomas got his first article on our front page on August 15, 2014. This week, he returns to his roots with a farming sim.
Since joining the front page, he's shown himself to be a lot like a good dog. Reliable, helpful and surprisingly eager to roll in all sorts of things, DT has become a constant companion on the front page. Thanks for a great year, Greg. I'll be sure to slip some scrap for you under the table.
Sponsored By: From Software
Time played: two hours, give or take a stalk of wheat
Farmer's Digest review
A fascinating and completely opaque game. One I would have been completely lost in, had I not spent the previous weekend playing six hours of Farming Simulator 14 on my 3DS.
Farmers Almanac Review
I'm pretty sure this review constitutes the culmination of a journey. A journey I started when I bought Goat Simulator.
I'm going somewhere with this, so bear with me.
Goat Simulator was my first foray into the mundane simulator genre. Sure, as simulators go, it wasn't much of one –, but it was the foot in the door, the camel's nose under the tent, the first step on a slippery slope that leads to a game where you literally watch grass grow.
From Goat Simulator I went to Viscera Cleanup Detail (thanks Aaron!), where I spent over five hours trying to get that space station spotless. After that experience was exhausted, I moved on to the less parodic versions of the genre: Euro Truck Simulator 2, Trainz, Bus Driver and SpinTires. The appeal to these games was no longer merely theoretical to me. I was getting it. I was enjoying it. I wanted more.
So when I picked Farming Simulator 15 as my game of the week, it was a heartfelt choice. I went out on day one in search of a copy (something I never do anymore) and hit two GameStops before I found a copy to buy. It warms my boring, little heart that the other stores actually sold out, even if the stores did only receive two copies each. I rushed home with the last copy of the PS4 version within fifty miles of my house, finally ready – eager, even. I fired it up that evening, having nearly choked to death on an oyster cracker in my haste to finish dinner (which was odd, since we were having chicken parmesan), and watched the opening cinematic.
It seems bizarre to talk about a simulator title being beautiful – or it would if you haven't played SpinTires – but Farm Simulator 15 is beautiful. That opening cinematic is all in-engine stuff, and I could watch it all day. The only reason I don't is that if I did I wouldn't be able to play the game, and I do so like playing this game.
To get an idea how much I like this game, consider that on Memorial Day Weekend I took a trip to visit the in-laws out of state, and since I couldn't play Farming Simulator 15, I plowed six hours into the 3DS version of Farming Simulator 14.
Those six hours were very instructive. The 3DS port is kind of a training-wheels version of the game. A lot of the detail has been removed, but it got me acquainted with the basic flow of the game and the various equipment available for purchase.
Before I continue, a brief note about said equipment. Like many mundane simulators, Farming Simulator 15 is from Europe. When it comes to video games, European bluenoses feel about violence the way that American bluenoses feel about boobs, so there aren't a lot of, say, military First Person Shooters. Plus, it's illegal to show a swastika in many European countries. Hence, when a European game developer gets lazy, they can't just make a game where you shoot Nazis. Instead, they make games where you drive diesel trucks instead. The result of this little quirk of origin is that you'll find no John Deere tractors in Farming Simulator 15, but you will find Husqvarna and Lamborgini tractors.
Did you know Lamborgini makes farm equipment? You do now! This is just one of the many interesting and completely useless things you'll learn playing Farming Simulator 15.
On the PS4, controlling the farm equipment is handled through contextual control mapping. Some controls are common across vehicles: The accelerator and brakes are mapped to the triggers, and hiring a worker will always be the circle button (more on this later). The D-pad is for swapping quickly between vehicles and controlling the camera's zoom level. Everything else depends on the vehicle. A harvester, for example, will have buttons to raise and lower the thresher, extend and retract the dispenser pipe, toggle the headlights, toggle the safety blinkers, and honk the horn.
You may be counting the buttons on your DualShock®4 and wondering how they have all these controls. The left and right shoulder buttons are modifiers that change what the face buttons do. Pressing square will exit the vehicle so you can navigate the farm on foot, while holding both L1 and R1 and pressing square will set the cruise control so you don't have to hold the right trigger down to accelerate.
It sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is, and the game offers a handy on-screen legend that tells you what the face buttons will do based on which shoulder button you're holding. This is good, because the game itself offers a lot of complexity without the controls obfuscating things. Farming Simulator 15 allows you to cultivate wheat, corn, canola, barley, sugar beets and potatoes. You can raise cows for milk, chicken for eggs and sheep for wool. While you're at it, you can sell grass clippings to a biofuel plant, build a solar cell or wind-farm, and run a logging operation.
Logging is new in Farming Simulator 15, and to someone new to the series, it feels a bit like gilding a gold-plated lily. Suffice it to say that when Giant Software tells you that they're giving you an open world to play in, they mean the hell out of it. You can do anything you want, provided what you want to do involves farming.
It must be said, though, that straight-up farming isn't all that different whether you're farming wheat, barley, corn or potatoes. You plow your field, seed it, fertilize it and, eventually, harvest it. The difference comes mainly through which equipment you use to do it. Corn, for example, requires a different harvester than wheat, even though they both get delivered using the same kind of truck.
Oh, did I fail to mention that you have to drive your harvest to market yourself? Sorry. You have to do a lot of things yourself in Farming Simulator 15. At least, you have to do a lot of things yourself until you build up enough of a bank account that you can afford to hire workers. Once you do that, you no longer have to fuss about plowing, seeding, fertilizing and harvesting. Just get the equipment you want positioned by the field you want to work on and press circle. You'll be able to watch the AI play the game for you as your bank account decrements.
A jaded person would make a joke about the game being so boring that even the developers don't expect you to play it, but honestly, hiring a worker is less of a "win button" and more akin to the Coach mode in games like Madden. Hiring a worker frees you up to think about the bigger picture, like managing your shipments or getting another worker started on a second, third or fourth field. It's not about the cow or the plow at that point; it's about the farm.
The point of Farming Simulator 15 is not to drive a glorified lawnmower, but to expand. Make money, buy better equipment to expand your farming capacity, so you can make more money, so you can buy even better equipment. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
If you're not into that, I totally get it. For me, though, there's something compelling about the progression. A mere two hours in, I've barely finished seeding my first field. It will be some time before I get to animal husbandry or forest management, but I'm very keen to get there.
Astute readers of this feature will note that there are two kinds of reviews I like to write: goofy ones and informative ones. Usually I lean toward goofy, especially on games you've all played before, but sometimes I like to try and introduce something that might slip under the radar of the average Goodjer.
There are games that deserve your attention. Games that deserve to be read about and played. Farming Simulator 15 is as fine an example of craftsmanship in game development as I've seen in years. Everything from the way the tractors handle to the way the stalks of wheat sway in the wind feels lovingly and deliberately crafted.
In short, yes, I will keep playing. In fact, I'll go so far as to say Farming Simulator 15 is the leading contender for my game of the year.
Is it the Bloodborne of agricultural simulators?
Simulators in general tend toward high levels of complexity combined with low levels of explanation. It's like they want you to figure it out on your own. Farming Simulator 15, while it has a decently expositive tutorial, has a whole lot of depth hidden under the tractor-driving mechanics. I would not, however, say the game is difficult in any conventional way. The core mechanic of plowing, seeding, spraying and reaping is challenging only from the perspective of an endurance test. You will not find yourself wanting to throw a controller because you died seven times while fertilizing a corn field.
If we consider the realm of mundane simulators ranked on the Bloodborne scale, with SpinTires at one end and Bus Driver at the other, I'll put this one at a six, which is below SpinTires but above Car Mechanic Simulator.