The Early Access market is absolutely flooded with survival games in this post-Minecraft, post-DayZ world. The genre is rife with fun-sapping activities with no rhyme or reason to do any of it. It’s a heartbreaking thing, indeed, but there are exceptions, and Astroneer is one of them.
Released in December of last year, Astroneer is a survival game set across a polygonal solar system of beautifully stylised jaggies. The mechanics are built with fun in mind, swapping out chores for simple, yet elegant systems. It’s truly refreshing to see.
The game starts off in the menu, funnily enough, with you picking the look of your bubbly little space man, as they stand in a carousel-like space station. It’s in early access right now, and therefore has no customisation options. Nevertheless, System Era Softworks have expressed interest in it for the future. So, for now, I pick the default guy. I like the look of the others, they’re adorable, but I like Default’s spindly, Pixar legs.
I’m ready to play, so I hit launch. Default’s pod jets off towards the planet sitting peacefully in the background. As we make our descent, I get a nice look at the procedural landscape below. The closer I got the more I realised that this green and purple ball of polygons was massive.
We land. I step out of the pod and pan the camera around. Mountains stand on the horizon while a field of strange vegetation covers the opposing side. It all looks incredibly inviting. As I admire the environment, something else catches my eye. A neon blue cord runs from my suit to the pod. I start backing away to test the length of this tether, and after a few metres it pops off. Suddenly, the blue bar on my suit starts to drain, and I’m running out of oxygen. That’s right, in order to explore, you must create a network of tethers to keep the little guy breathing. They also serve as a breadcrumb trail, perfect for exploring the deep cave systems. I don’t have any tethers right now, so I run back to the pod and start paying attention to the tutorial prompts.
There isn’t much the game needs to tell you, honestly. You use your space vacuum cleaner to suck up resources and terraform the land, and you combine those resources to craft and build equipment. It’s textbook survival tasks, but this time it’s different.
What sets Astroneer apart from the rest is the physical nature of crafting and managing your inventory. Resources, items and tools actually exist as physical items and need to be picked up and dragged around. If it’s small enough it can be moved seamlessly from the ground to your backpack, steering clear of icons and numbers. This gets you engaged in even the most minor tasks. It’s a satisfying feeling to stumble upon some loot and getting to bag each item yourself.
Astroneer delivers this system with the intent to get players experimenting as components, structures and vehicles are also modular. This means that you’re able to attach anything to almost everything, modifying your equipment on the fly. Setting up a vehicle for a little planetary romp is particularly interesting. I could create something fast and lightweight to retrieve a single item. Or, I could have a train of buggies, packed out with solar panels, batteries and extra storage. If I’m feeling extra cheeky, I could even bring a drill head with me in case I needed to move some serious earth. You rarely have to commit to the things you build and that’s crucial in maintaining a fitting pace.
Usually, getting to build your base is the rewarding part, and mining for resources is a mundane necessity. But, I found myself enjoying the latter a lot more than the former. Exploring planets in a vehicle is fun and unpredictable. It truly feels like you’re on an expedition that becomes a moment to moment affair. One minute you’re carving out terrain to create ramps and bridges for your buggy. Next, you’re stranded in the middle of nowhere, waiting for your solar panels to catch the approaching sun.
You’ll often see storms roaming across planets, sending a torrent of dust and debris into the air. It’s not just a visual spectacle, however, as they can be deadly. The first time Default got clocked in the swede with a hurtling chunk of earth, I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t expect it to happen but there I was, watching his limp body slide into a trench.
Luckily, death isn’t all that permanent. You’ll respawn at your base just as quickly as you died, and you could retrieve your stuff but there’s no real consequence. It’s something I think works well for Astroneer. For as much as it’s a survival game, it’s still lighthearted, forgiving and doesn’t aim to punish you at every turn.
Overall, it’s a promising little game. My only real concern is that there isn’t much of a grind right now. That may sound like a good thing to a lot of people, but a grind can be really important to a game’s longevity. Grinds aren’t bad, a lot of developers just suck at making them. Within a few hours, I had already worked my way up to the shuttle, landed on another planet, and started afresh. Resources were in abundance, and it’s more akin to a creative mode in that regard. Nevertheless, System Era has something quite special here, and it’ll be interesting to see how they expand on it in the future.