Let’s get the obvious/obligatory moaning out of the way first. Gaming is an industry in which a player can have a sabretooth tiger as a pet, make whoopee to ridiculously-proportioned women in VR, go to a psychic summer camp, use wormhole guns, pilot X-Wings in 3-D and shoot Adolf Hitler in the testicles. Next to that, unfolding a sower and planting soybean probably doesn’t sound too exciting to you. And in a way, you’re right – Farming Simulator 19 is not all about the thrills of mind-surfing in a meat circus or castrating the Fuhrer. However, that’s because it’s a simulator, and if you’ve reached this age and don’t understand the difference between simulators and most other games, it’s time to go back to homeroom and figure this shit out. Simulators – even the more action-packed titles like space sim Elite: Dangerous – walk a thin line between being very thorough and intelligent, on the one hand, and being just a little pretentious, on the other. They’re technical, precise, elaborate, deliberately-paced games that pride themselves on realism and the ability to march to their own beat while remaining engaging and rewarding. Farming Simulator 19 does this and does it well for its majority.
The game offers six tutorials, all of which combined will take a good 90 minutes to complete – and if you’re new to the franchise like I am, you definitely want to go through those. Then it’s off to the races in one of three difficulties – you can choose to start with some basic farm equipment, supplies and land; several less of these; or with nothing to your name except starting money and a wish of luck. You can also choose between two fictional towns in which to start your life in agriculture – one in American farmland and the other in the UK. Either choice puts you in a complete town, brimming with traffic and neighboring farms and places to sell your various goods. I started on the easiest difficulty because I’m a doughy white guy from the suburbs whose idea of roughing it is when the a/c goes out. I had a harvest-combine with a header for harvesting basic crops, two tractors with trailers for sowing and cultivation, counterweights to keep me on the ground, four small fields, $100,000 and a dream. That dream was to play enough of this game to finally hold a conversation about weed killer and oilseed radish with my father, a man who sold ag chemicals in blistering hot Midwestern farm country for over 20 years so I could go to college and learn how to complain about his grammar.
10 minutes into the campaign mode and I couldn’t believe how thorough and dynamic Farming Simulator 19 is. I was hilariously unready for it. First, the actual farming. I figured you’d be limited to harvesting a field or two of wheat, maybe feeding a pen of chickens and focusing on trying not to tip your tractor. I didn’t realize there would be 13 different crops to raise, all of which grow and appear uniquely on your farm, nor did I expect the specialized equipment you need to buy (in-game earned money) if you want to even attempt to farm corn, sugarcane and so on. Sure, your focus is on the three primary components of arable farming – cultivating the soil, sowing seeds and harvesting them when they’re grown – but there’s a terrific amount of steps between them if you want to have the most successful yield come harvest time. There’s using a weeder and spraying herbicides to keep your land free of life-choking weeds, spreading different kinds of fertilizer after seeding, liming the fields, nurturing the plants with catch crops, the optional creation and baling of straw swaths, equipment maintenance, high-pressure washers to keep your tractors clean, compatible headers and trailers and weights – and that’s all without leaving your own fields, much less actually heading into town to sell product or take on contracting jobs.
Once you’ve managed to fill your silo with enough barley to keep the nation drunk through the Second Coming (or enough soybean to keep hipsters in edamame through the robot uprising – I’ve got a million of ’em), it’s time to open up the menu and see what market trends around town are doing. Drive your product to whoever’s offering the best price (the town is big and lively but I couldn’t find a picture that did it justice), unload the tipper and watch the money roll in. You can also use market trends to sow in-demand crops and make extra cash. Of course this cash is used to restock your seed pallets, pay the bills, upgrade your equipment, buy more land around town and pay hired hands (AI-based). Yes, if you want to multitask, you can begin one of the field-based tasks and hire a worker to finish it while you get to something else. I took a contract (from which there are dozens to choose) and spent an hour and a half this afternoon having an AI harvest eight or nine hectares of wheat with the harvester’s pipe out while I drove next to her collecting it in my tipper. Whenever I filled up, I ran it to the grain elevator and dumped it for our client then returned to her to collect more. When the field was done we pulled in something like $8,500 and I’d paid her $1,500 along the way. It was great.
If contracting isn’t your thing and neither is working your own land – whether alone or with an AI friend or two helping – there’s nothing to worry about. There’s an entire forestry system to level trees and move them to sawmills for profit. Or once you’ve earned some cash, you can buy an animal pen and raise cows, horses, pigs, sheep and other livestock. Feed them, give them water, keep them clean and keep them happy and before you know it…well, you’ll have a lot more animals around. Milk the cows, shear the sheep, take the horses for a ride – you can even capture their manure for fertilizer and slurry or feed them hay from the bales you can create after harvesting crops to save money. There’s also a multiplayer mode in which you can team up with other farmers and cooperate to finish tasks more quickly, as well as a bevy of mods on the way that include new vehicles and classic maps.
So what’s the catch? Well, most of the game is done very well and very thoroughly, but unfortunately that tends to shine a spotlight on the areas in which it isn’t. For example, there are over 300 vehicles and pieces of equipment to use on your farm from over 100 real companies and they all hum and rattle and roar just as you’d hope…but the in-game music is practically nonexistent aside from the in-vehicle radio chock full of lackluster tunes I’m happy to forget. And don’t turn on the radio, because after every song, the entire game hangs for nearly a half a second while it loads the next music file. Likewise, the detail and realism on the farm equipment and the soil textures are a treat but the distant hills and oceans would’ve been eyesores a decade ago. You can customize more parts and colors on your tractors than you can your character, which I guess is to be expected but as I said it makes the limitations of character creation stand out. Finally, during the day the light transitions go pretty well, but once the sun starts to set, it looks like the game world just suddenly gets 20% darker once every 30-45 minutes (in-game time).
Farming Simulator 19 can be a bit of a mixed bag, but the good does outweigh the bad three to one. If I had my druthers, I’d like to see Giants Software spend a bit more time on the ambiance of the game (the background world, the music, the character creation) and up the intricacy of the out-of-vehicle portions of the game. For example, going on sales calls with my father in the ’90s, I can honestly say that the people he sold to were the friendliest and most colorful characters you could hope to meet, but in this game, the other farmers, crop buyers and stores are reduced to words on the screen. Red Dead Redemption 2 did a great job of livening up shop visits this year and if Farming Simulator 19 did something similar it would go a very long way. But despite being less action-packed, the important thing is that this is about earning an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. It’s peaceful and it celebrates the green.
Simulators encourage us to slow down as we learn to pilot spaceships and airplanes and combine harvesters. Through them we observe the beauty of the galaxy and the majesty of the open sky – and in this title, to paraphrase JRR Tolkien, the peace found in good tilled earth and things that grow. After I put 10 or 15 hours (real time) into the game, my wife asked me if it was like Farmville. I said “No, it’s like being out on the road with my dad again, like when I was a kid.” And that’s a compliment. Here’s to you, Greg. I’m giving Farming Simulator 19 a 7.5 out of 10.
Disclaimer: AIR Entertainment was given a review copy of this game by publisher Focus Home Interactive.