It almost goes without saying that Farming Simulator 15 will be a divisive game. On a platform filled to the brim with shooters, racers and sports simulations, the simple fact is that a very large portion of the market will just simply not understand the attraction of planting crops and harvesting them for money. On the other side, those with an interest will assume that negative comments are being made by people who just don't get it. Farming Simulator 15 is running – unsurprisingly – uncontested on Xbox One. With licenced farm equipment by the bucketload and a free-roaming style that means that you have full control over the success or failure of your business, the feature list suggests that this should be a slam dunk for anyone in that latter camp.
That isn't the case. While Farming Simulator 15 does indeed simulate farming, there's a distinct feeling that you need to know a heck of a lot more than any game reasonably should expect you to before you start. Not only that, but the amount of focus placed on those licenced machines seems to have come at the expense of massive chunks of gameplay.
When you begin play, career mode (which is all that's on offer) allows you to start on either a European or American farm. The European setting provides an in-game tutorial that shows you how to harvest crops that have already grown, cultivate the land for replanting, and sow seeds. Then you're on your own with no goals other than to make lots of money. The game doesn't go into details about how long crops take to grow, how to grow anything other than wheat (different crop types often require different methods and machinery for harvesting or transportation) or how to fertilise the crops. It doesn't cover any of the livestock features, such as being a dairy farmer, in any detail at all. It doesn't cover forestry, which is a big new addition this time around. It pretty much just gets you to the point where you've got some crops growing and then waves you goodbye, leaving you to wander about and work out what to do next. There are some general hints that pop up from time to time as you find them in the world, alongside a few limited and not particularly detailed tutorials which are only available from the main menu, meaning that you need to fully exit career mode to play them. A "helpline" is available from the phone booths dotted around the map, which gives you a bit of information about various subjects but again, it isn't detailed enough to be of any real help.
Fortunately, once the reins are off there is a fair amount that you can do. Unfortunately, you need way more money than the game starts you off with to actually be able to do it. You can buy a chainsaw for $1,000 of your $8k or so start-up money for example, so that you can start on your path to becoming a logger and cut down a few trees. Chopping and trimming trees is fun, rewarding, and works pretty well. But then, you'll need to find tens of thousands to buy a piece of machinery that lets you do anything with the logs. The saddest part of all about this is that once you've raised the money, the logging cranes that you've bought to pick up the cut logs and drop them into a trailer are practically unusable. Cranes in the game are a physics-based mess that you'll waste absolutely hours of your time on, only to find that once you've got three or four decent sized pieces of wood on board, you drive away and they'll likely fall off thanks to the lack of a tailgate. On a real farm, they'd be strapped down to prevent them from falling off the truck, of course. In Farming Simulator 15, you don't get that option. Even if you decide to get a loan and spend ten times your starting capital on a machine that will manufacture woodchip on the spot, removing the transportation requirement, you still need to use the crane to get the raw materials into the chipper, which is next to impossible. This renders the entire forestry side of things pretty much worthless, though it's a problem that could have been worked around if the game allowed you to hire AI help to take care of the loading and stacking after you'd cut and trimmed the tree. You can hire help in multiple other areas but when you truly need to, you can't.
Indeed, you can hire someone at the press of a button to drive the combine for harvesting, or the cultivator, or the sower, and this means that you can get a nice system going. You let the combine go for a while before starting off the cultivator and after you've got a row clear, you set the sower off to plant new crops. This makes sense and it's bizarrely rewarding to stand back and survey your staff, all working the field in harmony.
This harmony is broken pretty quickly when the combine stops dead due to being full and you find that you need to drive the trailer to collect the grain from it every single time, since the game doesn't allow you to hire someone to transport your product, either. So, even though you've got three workers doing your bidding, you can't really go off and do other things without causing a hold-up since you need to constantly ferry the harvested crops from your combine to either a storage silo, or wherever is offering the best price for what you're selling. On the American farm, which starts you off with a huge field full of wheat, you can all but fill your day just carting grain around. That's before you've dared to do anything as outlandish as purchase a second field.
These seemingly minor issues soon build up, taking what is - at first glance - a very detailed and interesting game, and leaving it out to die in the sun. Speaking of which, the most utterly confusing thing you'll find here is the way the game handles time. Firstly, there's never an indication of what season you're in, which is pretty darned important in farming, we're led to believe. Secondly, you never ever sleep. You're on the go 24 hours a day, working in darkness with a torch once the sun goes down. Thirdly, there's an option to speed up the passage of time by up to 120x and while this makes the in-game clock spin quicker and crops grow faster, it doesn't actually accelerate anything else. So, if your worker takes 10 in-game minutes to harvest a small field, he'll still move at the same velocity when you've sped things up, meaning that he takes a full day to drive up and down a field three or four times. It just makes no sense. Not that the rest of the game world does, given that fields that you haven't purchased just lay empty all year round thanks to the fact that there are no AI farmers or anything of any sort to compete with, other than your own boredom.
There's also a distinct problem with the way that money is awarded. The financial side of things isn't balanced well at all. You can work your butt off harvesting crops all day, using hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of machinery and supplies to do so, and earn around $10k. Time it right and your crops will have grown again by halfway through the next day and you'll only lose a couple of thousand in the meantime. To cover this – although you don't really need to - you can take on a mowing mission which requires a tractor with a cheap mower attachment and which rewards you to the tune of several thousand bucks. In short, success in Farming Simulator 15 is a pretty simple affair. Keep harvesting and planting wheat and you'll eventually get to the point that you can buy more fields to do the same thing with and then continue to build your empire, without having to do very much of anything else. There's never a threat of saturating the market, and you'll even outrun the interest of the initial loan that you start with.
As an example of how topsy-turvy things are, we sold three individual eggs from our chickens (apparently 13 chickens will only lay three eggs between them across the course of five days) on the fifth day of play, for a total of $36. That's an expensive omelette.
Even with all this in mind, as we've said, there are times when Farming Simulator 15 can be extremely rewarding. Harvesting your first crop and getting paid for it is great, and finally paying off your start-up loan is almost as relieving as settling a debt in real life. The problem is that the large missed steps combine with an absolute truckload of tiny ones to make for a frustrating time. Take something as basic as the in-game map as an example. You can see it colour-coded based on which crops are ready for harvesting in the pause menu. You can see a mini-map in the bottom left at all times. You can quickly enlarge that map with a press of the left bumper and the left stick so it takes up half the screen. What you can't do, is view a legend of any sort. Sure, you eventually work out what things are by driving up to them, but that's hardly the point.
As far as visuals go, the tractors and other farm equipment look fantastic. Truly, you can see the love that has been put into recreating these vehicles. If the HUERLIMANN XM 130 T4I tractor has a tiny red connector on the back of it in real life, then you can bet your bottom dollar that it will here as well. We only wish the same high praise could be lavished on the rest of the game's visuals, but it really can't. There's absolutely lashings of draw-in to be had. Trees and buildings pop up out of nowhere pretty much every time you drive down the road and you can watch your fields of crops being drawn in, line-by-line, as you approach. Muddy textures are the norm too, and not in a "farms are a bit muddy so it looks right" kind of way, either.
There's also a fair bit of slowdown to be found. In a farming game.
Despite everything we've listed, the overriding thing that trips Farming Simulator 15 up is the lack of variety on offer. Console business simulation titles such as Zoo Tycoon – not anywhere near as much of a hardcore simulation of course, but in the ballpark – offer things to keep people playing on top of the unfettered "make as much money as you can" setting. Challenges, campaigns, scenarios, downloadable content and varied levels of hand-holding are available to get people up to speed in the first place and to then keep them playing, as well as detailed information about why you're doing what you're doing. In Farming Simulator 15, you've got the ability to start a farm in Europe or America and beyond a couple of simple money-making missions that appear in game seemingly whenever they want to (despite being supposed to appear every five minutes), there's nothing. Online co-op is on offer so that more than one person can be bored and angry at the game engine and its oversights at the same time in the same world, but even that has clearly just been thrown in as an afterthought.
Farming Simulator 15 is far from the real deal. A division of console players want business and management simulations that are fun and engaging, whilst being accessible and providing enough gameplay to keep them playing in the longer term. The final product that's on offer here is confused, confusing, guilty of not providing a smooth on ramp for new players, and also of not providing enough to keep veterans playing after the initial novelty of the new features – some of which are broken - has died down. Initially the game is engaging enough but the problems start to show through very, very quickly. At a budget price this would be a tough sell. At $50/£40 though, you can leave this one for the birds.