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Yes, sim-based agricultural video gaming is a thing. In fact, it's sort of a big deal. The genre leader—Giants Software’s aptly-titled Farming Simulator—recently sold over a million units across multiple platforms (Steam, PS4, Xbox One) within a month of release. Not to be confused with the Zynga’s cartoonish mega-hit FarmVille, Farming Simulator is a glamor-less and rather complicated resource management experience. The learning curve is high and your standard "video game action" is literally non-existent. None the less, the FS series has been successful enough to inspire its share of clones, including Real Farm, Pure Farming, Farm Manager, Cattle and Crops, Farm Expert, and the particularly cringe-worthy Professional Farmer.
What is it like to play a farming sim, and why on Earth would anyone play a video game about doing work?!? The fact is that once you get the hang of things, the whole concept is actually kinda brilliant, and even (gasp!) enlightening. FS is definitely not for everyone, and your mileage will vary depending on your views of farming and gaming in general. If your idea of a great video game involves wiping out waves of combatants on a remote isle or starting up a digitized crime spree at a local convenience store, then Farming Simulator is perhaps not your cup o' tea. But if the concept of driving your virtual pickup truck to the virtual feed store to purchase virtual canola seed for your freshly-plowed virtual plot of land sounds enticing, congratulations. You’re halfway there.
Let’s discuss the farming first, as it is obviously the core of the FS experience. As a burgeoning farmer, it is your basic responsibility to cultivate and harvest your crops on a routine basis. You sell your harvest for profit and the cycle begins anew. From there, things become much more complicated. You’ll need to know what types of crops you’ll want to sow, when the soil requires plowing, when to lime and weed your fields, where to store your harvest and when to sell it for maximum profit. The amount of tasks thrown your way—not to mention choosing the appropriate equipment to complete these tasks—can be daunting at first. Thankfully there are several in-game tutorials that should be completed before proceeding, especially if you don’t know seed from slurry. Once you settle into your rural groove and find your way around the map, there comes that delightfully satisfying rhythm that only the best of management sims can provide. Make no mistake: If you’ve ever considered playing a video game about farming, Farming Simulator is the one you’ll want to play.
Crop raising isn’t the extent of your responsibilities, there’s animal husbandry as well. Cows, chickens, sheep and pigs are all a part of the process, adding another layer of depth and complexity to farm management. Raising animals produces salable product as well as the fertilizer required to nourish your crops, making this an important piece of the puzzle. For all of you aspiring lumberjacks out there, forestry is also an option. Every new facet of the farming experience requires an equally new piece of equipment, which you’ll have to either buy or lease from the local dealer then learn how to implement and maintain. There are several dozen licensed equipment manufacturers in the game (the lucrative John Deere license was added in FS 19) as well as hundreds of tools, vehicles and upgrades to choose from. Need a bigger engine for your tractor, or a bigger silo to store grain? Not a problem. How about a spray washer to keep your equipment clean? Again, not a problem. As things progress, you’ll eventually find yourself so busy that you’ll need to hire workers to aid you with your daily tasks and commandeer freight trains to transport your goods. You can even terraform and landscape the terrain to suit your needs. Indeed, this agri-sim is brimming with options.
One extremely popular FS feature is mod support for consoles, which lends more far value and replayability than one might imagine. If you’re unfamiliar, modding is a way for gamers to add their own player-created content to a game. With mod support comes new tractors, new equipment, and even entirely new maps, and while console mod support is no match for what is available on PC, it’s still an incredible boon for Xbox One and PS4 players. If you ever tire of playing on the default maps, you’ve got plenty of player creations to choose from.
Another welcome feature is the mission system, which allows you to perform basic tasks for other local farmers in exchange for cold, hard cash. If managing your own farm is too intimidating at first, you can simply drive around the map and perform missions, which serve to further instruct the player about the various aspects of crop farming routines as well as introduce them to various equipment and their uses. I found myself performing dozens of missions before tending to my own farm, so that by the time I got started on business proper I felt as though I had a steady grasp on the flow of the game.
As you may have deduced, a farmer’s life can be a complex one. If the above was all there was to Farming Simulator, it would already be an easy recommendation. But there’s so much more. The fact is that Giants Software’s agricultural undertaking is equal parts straight-faced management sim and delirious open-world petri dish. If you choose to ignore the latter and focus only on the serious aspect of the farming business, this option is definitely there for you. But you’re also missing out on some of the wonderfully quirky charms this series has to offer.
The virtual world that your farmer resides is flawed in ways that border on self-parody. For example, the simple act of driving a vehicle — a video game mechanic that we’ve expected some degree of precision from for some time now — is inexplicably touchy, becoming uncontrollable at high speeds. When you do inevitably wreck your trusty ol' pickup, you’ll find an astonishing lack of consequence, damage modeling or in-game reaction. You can plow over pedestrians without fear of reprisal (don't do this kids!), and that crashing into a tree or a brick wall at top speed is basically the same as braking really, really hard. The vehicular shenanigans don’t end there, park your tractor in the middle of a busy street and traffic will pile up quickly, even though there is an open lane available for your fellow motorists to easily get around you.
As it turns out, your farmer is a Superman of sorts, if not an outright god. He requires no food, no drink, and only sleeps to pass the time at night. He can get involved in bone-crushing high-speed collisions or fall from the greatest of heights without obtaining as much as a flesh wound. He can even walk on water, which incidentally serves to make this game a passable Jesus sim. In a nutshell, your farmer is invincible, there’s nothing in this digital landscape which can do him harm. This is probably intentional as your focus is supposed to be on practical farm management as opposed to whatever inspired jackass-ery you may be plotting whenever you’re not busy cultivating oilseed radish. In any case, it does makes for some hilarious episodes should you ever grow bored with life on the ranch.
Despite the comical lack of attention to real-world physics, the Farming Simulator series succeeds on nearly every account that it aims for. It is an incredibly deep resource management experience which sheds light on a profession that quite honestly, more people need to be educated about. A farmer’s life can be difficult, and the game accurately portrays—albeit in simplified video game form—a mere fraction of what these hard-working folk go through day-in and day-out just to put food on our tables. Farmers are real-life everyday heroes, even if they can’t really walk on water.
- BW 1/2/19