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Wot I Think: Woodcutter Simulator

The days when small unadventurous devs would glance out of their windows and use the first thing they saw as the basis for a second-rate tycoon game, are thankfully long gone. Now small unadventurous devs glance out of their windows and use the first thing they see as the basis for second-rate simulation games. Tow Truck Sim, Dustcart Sim, Hearse Sim... who buys these things? Me, apparently. A few days ago I dropped nine guineas on Woodcutter Sim. I couldn't help myself - I had to find out how it compared to a forestry game I knew and loved back in the Nineties.

Husqvarna Sunrise wasn't like other games. In it you wore the kevlar-lined boots of a British cutter working for either the state forestry company (The Forestry Commission) or a private contractor. Whoever the employer and whatever the mission, the brief was usually very simple: fell, sned, and convert (cut into lengths) softwoods as quickly as humanly possible.

In Woodcutter Simulator things are a bit more complicated. You play a Slovenian forestry worker who not only has to fell the trees, he has to drive the skidder that drags them to the sawmill, operate the crane that lifts them onto the conveyor, collect the resulting logs, carry them over to another crane, before, finally, loading a waiting lorry and collapsing in a sweaty heap.

Except you can't collapse in a sweaty heap because the scenario people at ActaLogic are slave-driving bastages. The first of the eleven missions took me over three hours to complete. Instead of starting gently with a sensible 'The village of Lesny Szgyd needs a new May pole'-style tutorial, WS begins by asking you to cut and process five trees - a task that involves at least sixty separate vehicle journeys plus an eternity of crane-based arsing-around.

Subsequent scenarios add nothing but hills and time limits to the gruelling formula. A fire-damaged school needs lumber for repairs, a door factory has nothing to screw its knobs to, a ski resort intends to build a ski-jump. The customers are plausible enough, it's their intolerance of delivery delays of even a few seconds, that grates. A wiser, more imaginative dev would have punished tardiness with revenue penalties rather than a crushing 'Mission Failed. Try Again' message, That's the way Husqvarna Sunrise worked. After converting a tree the player recorded the logs with the help of a belt-mounted clicker. At the end of the week these scores were delivered to the forester/contractor who dished-out dosh accordingly. Earnings could either be used to upgrade equipment, or, and this was more usual, lavished on luxuries like bread, potatoes, Guinness and rent.

Woodcutter Simulator's arduous missions would be less of an issue if the game lived-up to its box strap and truly let you "Cut down trees like a pro!". A big part of the reason I found HS so compelling, was that the repetition was only bark-deep. Each spruce, pine or fir, though superficially similar, was in fact a unique randomly-generated physics puzzle. Wind strength and direction, crown shape and lean angle, it all influenced trajectory and varied from tree to tree. Misjudging a factor or messing-up a cut could be costly, sometimes even perilous.

Some of the most memorable moments in the sim came after you'd accidentally 'hung-up' a tree in another. If the offending trunk couldn't be brought down to earth with the help of a cant hook or makeshift lever, you were faced with an intriguing multiple choice. You could a) Try and scare the thing down by swearing at it (rarely successful). b) Free the tree with a hand-operated winch (sure but slow). c) Attempt to dislodge it by felling something onto it (not always practical) or d) Stick your neck out by cutting the supporting tree (tempting yet dicey).

WS fails to model any of these pulse-propelling subtleties. It doesn't even include that touchstone of 20th Century forestry/zombie dismemberment, the chainsaw. Instead of striding towards trees with a chugging Stihl or Husqvarna in your fist, you reverse up to them in a painfully slow tractor, position a PTO-driven circular saw, tap 't' (handbrake) then SPACEBAR (cut) and you're done. There's no hand-eye challenge, no snedding (that's done automatically), no unpleasant surprises. It makes cutting seem cold, clinical and massively dull.

One small benefit of Woodcutter Simulator's simplified approach to arboricultural amputation, is the player never has to worry about sharpening. Even Husqvarna Sunrise's biggest fans will admit the minigame in which you periodically dropped to your knees and used a needle-file to put the edge back on your chain, was both fiddly and tiresome. Personally I much preferred the price negotiation one. Occasionally the forester/contractor would descend on a work site to grumble about high stumps, untidy stacks, or messy thoroughfares. If your Anger Meter and Energy Level were sufficiently high at the time of one of these visits, an automatic pecuniary negotiation dialogue was triggered. Winning such word battles boosted log prices and morale.

NPCs, welcome or unwelcome, never interrupt Woodcutter Simulator sessions. ActaLogic's forests are bleak, deserted places where motionless trees cast motionless shadows upon grassless, needleless earth. Where are the delicate ferns, the buzzing insects, the disgruntled squirrels? Where's the dungeon-like gloom of an unthinned hemlock plantation, the airy brightness of a mature larch stand? HS captured all of these things perfectly and provided plenty of quirkier scenes to boot. When I think of the game now it's the weirder imagery that springs to mind. Cutting in the midst of swirling clouds of yellow pine pollen, watching some fluke impact flip a hefty log high into the air, seeing the sun glint off the resin that welled like Golden Syrup from freshly cut stumps....

Woodcutter Simulator can do weirdness, but not the good organic kind. The PhysX engine is robust enough to ensure craning a trunk onto a moving conveyor is an engaging and intuitive business, but things can get a tad supernatural at the other end of the mill. Try to save time by grabbing two small logs rather than one large one and there's a good chance the woody cylinders will ghost through the steel jaws of your loader before pinging off into the surrounding countryside. Another trick involves the sawmill eating trunks but not disgorging logs. After feeding half a dozen trees in on one occasion and getting nothing in return, I was at the point of throwing in the towel when I noticed a piece of wood jammed in the outlet. Wiggling this almost unreachable log loose released an impossible torrent of timber from the constipated shed.

The Pro version of HS shipped with scent sachets for Saitek's short-lived Nasus JX olfactory peripheral. Stamping around in the herbage/fungiage, or sawing through pockets of rot, the suitably equipped player would be assailed by an amazing range of authentic odours. Whiffs of tangerine, roast chicken, coffee and honey were not unheard of. WS, of course, doesn't offer this level of realism. If it smells at all, it smells of desperation.

But then so do most of the cheap Euro sims. To be fair to WS it's a masterpiece compared to the likes of Digger Simulator and Tow Truck Sim. There's far more to do, far more chance to bend the rules through experimentation. Mid-way through the third mission, I abandoned the unwieldy double-articulated skidder with its butter-fingered grapple, and started using the felling tractor to push trunks to the sawmill. A few hours later I'd ditched the second crane, and was filling the truck directly by driving the loader into it at speed. Oddly, these undocumented shortcuts turn out to be the most resonant and simmy aspects of the game. Give a human-being a repetitive manual task and he will always find ways to streamline it. Maybe WS is ahead of its time, the first of a new breed of emergent ergonomics games.

Or maybe it's just another ropey sim that doesn't try hard enough to understand and emulate the thing it claims to mimic.

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Tim Stone