Farming Simulator 19 — Can Rideable Horses make the Tractor Driving Worthwhile?
Before FS19 was released, I thought I had an idea of what to expect from a Farming Simulator game. I had never played one, but the series is something of a local phenomenon: To the best of my knowledge, it is by far the most profitable video game developed in my home country of Switzerland. The game’s original developers and Giants Software company founders Thomas Frey and Renzo Thönen were early alumni of the Game Design specialization at Zurich University of the Arts ZHdK, from which I graduated as well.
From what I see, the Swiss indie game scene regards the series with an odd mixture of national pride at its success, a little bit of envy at the piles of money it’s raking in, and a twinge of remorse that among all the beautiful, unique and artsy games our local industry produces, it’s Farming Simulator that is by far the most widely known and financially successful.
It was never a series that particularly interested me as a player - but I supposed that was because the subject matter of realistic farming wasn’t particularly up my alley. After all, a game series so successful had to be an essentially good game at its core, right?
So when you have a well-implemented and functional new entry in a long-running game series that adds horses, that has to result in a pretty solid game at least… right?
Meandering Marketing Messages
I first caught wind of FS19’s equestrian intentions when they released their initial reveal trailer at Gamescom 2018. In the middle of Gamescom FOMO and a deep appreciation of the positive reaction my Red Dead Redemption 2 Trailer Breakdown got a few days before, I made a little shot by shot analysis of the few seconds of horse footage on Twitter.
In October, Focus Home released a Tending to Animals trailer (Video Link | Twitter Thread), very girly, complete with a certain hipstery instagram aesthetic and cute indie music. I found myself simultaneously intrigued and skeptical at this rather obvious effort on the marketing team’s behalf to make Farming Simulator 19 look like a game about riding around your farm to feed your livestock.
Other trailers, such as the Farm and Furious one from November, as well as the original Gamescom reveal trailer, show a very different balance between animals and machines.
A generous reading of this discrepancy in trailers would have been that the game is for everyone, that the player can find their own balance of industrial machinery and idyllic animal care within the gameplay. A more cynical interpretation is that the Tending to Animals trailer was a last ditch effort to make it look like Farming Sim 19 would appeal to more varied players than the series is known for. Unfortunately… Well, find out in my review.
Between the meandering marketing messages and the series’ reputation, my expectations for the game were perhaps not incredibly high, but I was sure I’d find something to like and appreciate.
Aware of my own ignorance, I chose the guided mode that promised explanation of how the game is played.
I managed to get stuck in the tutorial for a solid 20 minutes trying to figure out which part of the relatively simple task of seeding the field I had failed to do - as it turned out, I needed to attach two different parts to my tractor, not just one, in order to complete the task.
Said guided intro tour - once finally completed - introduced me only to the most basic functionality: how to sow, grow and reap a field and deliver the produce to a vendor. As soon as those initial tasks are over, the game offers no further quests, goals or “motivation” beyond the rough incentive to make money and grow your farm.
Naturally, the next thing I wanted to do was buying some actual horses. After a relatively brief glance at the store menu (which consists to about 95% of branded farming vehicles, extensive product placement being a long-term staple of the series), I figured out that in order to buy the animals themselves, I’d have to construct a horse paddock on my farm.
This seemingly simple task quickly turned out to be more complicated than anticipated when the game kept showing me five different variations of “cannot be placed here” wherever I tried to start building my paddock.
Since buying new and completely empty land was vastly outside of my beginner budget, I concluded that I would have to remove the handful of trees that were scattered across the field. I purchased a chainsaw to fell the trees, leased a stump remover to carve up the remains, and then leased a special truck to carry off logs. That last bit turned out to be a lot more fidgety than expected, but I finally managed to move the trees out of the way by simply pushing them out of the way with the vehicle, instead of properly carrying them off. It looked very silly, but it worked.
*Video does not include the sound of me giggling maniacally upon accidentally realizing that I could just push trees out of the way rather than cutting them up and loading them onto the thing.
This whole process took me a solid two hours and I powered through it out of a sort of obligation towards this review rather than anything resembling actual fun.
The fact that these minor tasks are necessary would not have bothered me so much if I had had any certainty that what I was doing was actually leading me closer to the goal I had set for myself: acquiring a horse paddock. But I suppose the utter lack of handholding, the complete absence of direct rewards for minor tasks and the decision not to offer any guidance to the player beyond explaining the most fundamental mechanics is what makes Farming Simulator a simulator rather than an actual game.
After all that time invested in clearing my land from trees, I finally realized that I could still not place a horse paddock. Even after all the effort, the game still told me that something was in the way, or that the terrain could not be deformed.
By that point, I wasn’t even mad anymore for wasting all that time, I just wanted to try the goddamn horses and then never touch this game again.
Fortunately, I then figured out that I could start a different game mode (I had originally chosen the first game mode because it promised to be more beginner friendly) where I had more money in the beginning, which meant I could buy a patch of grassland and finally place my horse paddock on it. So I did. Finally.
Astride At Last
With the paddock finally built, I had no further trouble purchasing horses. There are 8 different horses to buy, differentiated by coat colors. Their models look alright and the texture variations are nothing special, but nice.
Once bought and transported to my “farm” for a fee (no way in hell I’m spending extra time to lease a trailer and drive my new horses home myself at this point), the animals stand in their paddock, where I can approach them for a ride.
“Ride” is the only interaction I can take near my horses, without any option to pet them or give them treats or any such extras. I suppose that I do have to feed them eventually, but this game has annoyed me too much by now to find out how I would do that. (Here’s a guide on the subject though, in case anyone else is wondering)
Pressing “Ride” results in a brief fade to black, and then your player character is in the saddle. Any saddling or mounting animation has been left out.
The riding itself is functional. That’s about all I can say about it, because there really isn’t much more to it. The horse has four gaits, their animations are alright for the most part, except for the jumping: Pressing space results in an incredibly weird motion on the horse’s part, with the leg animation technically correct (though sort of ‘paused’ halfway through the jump), but angle and actual movement all wrong.
The rider’s posture and animations have (unsurprisingly) not been improved since the first trailer, so my initial nitpicking about the rider leaning forward and holding their hands wrong still applies. One weirdness that I had not noticed in the trailer is that the horses are modelled with their heads ridiculously high up, which results not only in a slightly unnatural idle pose, but also in a bizarre neck shape whenever the horse has its head down.
The model looks okay when it’s standing still, but most motions result in a strangely flowy quality and polygon geometry getting stretched in weird places. I’ve run into similar issues in my own amateur-ish dabbling in modelling and rigging, but I expect (and usually get) better model and rig quality from a game of this size, budget and visual style.
The actual reason why I’m feeling very “meh” about the Farming Simulator horses though, is that there is just not much to do with them.
From the aforementioned guide, I’ve gathered that horses can be trained by riding them regularly and cleaning them afterwards. Trained horses can then be re-sold for a profit. Unlike other animals in the game, they cannot be bred.
This would be an interesting side mechanic for anyone remotely interested in the rest of the game. Unfortunately, I really can’t be that person.
I got frustrated writing this review, because my feelings are mixed on the matter: I want to complain about how unintuitive and lacking the game’s explanations are, but I’m afraid I’ll sound like I’m just too dumb to play Farming Simulator. I’ll go ahead and guess that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: I have no doubts that plenty of people enjoy the Farming Sim series and will enjoy this latest entry - the game’s Steam Reviews currently sit at 76% positive, and Metacritic lists it at a 72% critic rating and a 7.1 user rating. No masterpiece perhaps, but surely a relatively solid entry in the series.
But for players like myself, who are perhaps not entirely averse to difficulty in their gameplay, but don’t feel like compensating for a lack of tutorialization by intense research and time-consuming trial and error, Farming Simulator ain’t it, chief.
I’d call these issues of understandability bad game design and bad tutorialization while the games’ fans refer to it as a steep learning curve. I have to conclude that despite what the Tending to Animals trailer would let one believe, I am very much not the target audience for Farming Simulator.
That Farming Sim 19 isn’t for me is definitely not the horses’ fault, but its equines are also nowhere near interesting or beautiful enough to redeem the otherwise utterly unattractive tractor driving simulator for me. If any horse-interested people had an interest in Farming Simulator before, then the 2019 entry might be a welcome addition.
But sadly, Farming Simulator 19 does absolutely not become a “must-play” for equestrian gamers just because there are horses in it.
Farming Simulator 19 was released on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC/Mac on November 20th 2018. The Mane Quest was provided with a free copy for review purposes.