PAX 2007: John Deere: Harvest in the Heartland hands on

Ok, ok, I know what you’re thinking: a tractor game? What the sh*t? Yeah, that’s exactly what I thought too, but after getting some personal time with the title — no, not Ned Beatty-style, purty mouth personal time — I was really impressed with how much it isn’t horrid crap.

Hit the jump for full impressions or click the gallery for pictures of the most mystifyingly attractive game I saw at PAX 2007. 

We all know that games based on licenses are generally utter crap, and games based on licenses that have absolutely nothing to do with gaming, action, romance, or any other human emotion doubly so. So when I was told we were going to have a talk with Destineer — the guys behind John Deere: Harvest in the Heartland — I stared blankly at the wall for a few moments while vainly searching for something hard to throw at everyone around me.

How could a game based on a license designed to draw in Wal-Mart purchasing agents and the beer-can-and-gun-rack set ever impress me? By aping a successful franchise, of course!

The first thought anyone will have upon seeing the title is how similar it seems to the various Harvest Moon games, sans the romance or Japanocentric kawaii sensibilities. You have a farm with all of its necessary accoutrements, and the goal is simply to prosper. You’ll never have to fight any aliens or rescue anything from a dragon, but in the same way that the one kid I knew from Nebraska always tried to convince me working a hoe through a field provides good, wholesome satisfaction — as opposed to the fit of giggles I’d get every time he’d use the word ‘hoe’ –, there’s a simple addictiveness to living a life unlike your own.

The gameplay itself is somewhat reminiscent of a cross between Harvest Moon and The Oregon Trail. Farming hasn’t fundamentally changed for a couple hundred years, and the game itself really promotes the idea that you are a hardworkin’, John-Denver-listenin’, high-school-football-watchin’ man from a pseudo-fictionalized, Midwest-esque area of our country. You spend your days designing crop layouts and irrigation systems, repairing barns, protecting your animal friends from the scourge of disease and tooling around on the requisite fully licensed tractors from the eponymous — and based on what I know of the Midwest, ubiquitous — John Deere. 

Of course, with the license in tow, they had the full gamut of the tractor maker’s line at their disposal, so each vehicle has different mechanical properties, different uses and is as realistically rendered as one can manage on the DS. Short of random bouts of gonorrhea being contracted from riding them sans pants, this is the new defacto standard for realistic tractor action — for whatever that’s worth.

The graphics on the title are also much better than I had expected. While it’s impossible not to compare it to Harvest Moon, it’s immediately noticeable just how much more thought was put into the style of this game. It’s simple, sure, but little touches like the axe swinging motion or the large, non-Engrish menu screens add up to make it the sort of thing that deserves a second look.

If I had one complaint, it would of course by my signature brand of wacky ideas that no developer would ever take seriously. For instance, a cow-tipping minigame or a sidequest where you reenact the entire plot of 1977’s Walking Tall, only instead of a 2×4 you wield a corn cob and a lazy eye. This, people, is why I will never be allowed near any company’s IP.

Honestly, I get the feeling that this title is going to be overlooked by the majority of gamers based on their aversion to the stereotypical toothless yokel, but at the very least I can now say “I was there. It’s better than you think. You’re stupid.”

[UPDATE: I’m apparently still recovering from PAX, so I completely forgot to include a few pertinent details. The game itself was first publicly announced at almost the same time I was playing it and it has been revealed that the title will hit stores in November of this year. For questions or concerns, listen to Johnny Cash’s 1968 At Folsom Prison album and have a shot of whiskey. You’ll stop being so inquisitive and concerned. I promise.]

Earnest Cavalli
I'm Nex. I used to work here but my love of cash led me to take a gig with Wired. I still keep an eye on the 'toid, but to see what I'm really up to, you should either hit up my Vox or go have a look at the Wired media empire.