By Alec Meer on April 3rd, 2014 at 9:00 pm.
Unclaimed World is a sci-fi colony sim game that took to Steam Early Access a few days ago. Right now it’s only a fragment of the full game, so everything’s subject to change and expansion, but its science-led approach drew to me to trying its initial public release anyway.
I’m a sucker for science-heavy science fiction games right now. This perhaps has much to do with understanding very little science. Where, as a child, science seemed dull, as an ill-informed adult science now seems to be magic. I revel in my ignorance. SCIENCE. So it is that the idea of my stranded spacefarers in Unclaimed World creating a cooking pot out of bits of crashed spaceship, or a fishing from an alien tree, is a more thrilling accomplishment to me than Johnny SpacePecs sacrificing his own life to defeat the ancient curse of Skeletron or Ian Soldier blasting the entire empire of Big Evil Bastards to smithereens with the fabled Garglelator 9000. That guy just built a saucepan out of litter. That guy is now my hero.
The topish down, lowish-fi Unclaimed World nods to several other survivalist simulations, including a touch of Dwarf Fortress, a spot of Don’t Starve and a dash of Minecraft. Everything you need has to be found and in most cases made – the aforementioned cookpot, the food which goes in it, a campfire to cook it on, basic hunting knives, spears and even guns, shelters to sleep/hide in, defensive fencing, all sorts.
In this early Early Access version there’s not too much to work it or even too much to try to survive (some angry Headcrabs, for the most part) before rescue arrives, but the seed of things is there. In the initial scenario I have four survivors who can scavenge, build and cook for me/each other, but rather than direct control I draw out zones of the world they’re to first explore and then gather from. I can say which tasks are priorities, but other than that they perform their duties under their own steam.
It’s slow-going, and deliberately so. Before a zone can yield anything but the most obvious basics – e.g. stone and firewood – it must be Foraged, which will reveal what further plant and animal life dwells within it. Then these uncovered species can be gathered or hunted. Then it can be cooked, if you have the right implements. No-one hurries, which probably has much to do with their being in a perpetual state of calorie deficiency, and as a result of all this the tiniest things do feel like enormous achievements.
Making that cookpot, that cylinder of recycled metal, was such a big deal, because it opens up cooking options for a whole bunch of weird alien vegetables, and as a result my survivors aren’t living off hastily barbecued tubers alone. A primarily potato-based diet doesn’t get us far into our five a day, folks.
Similarly, giving everyone spears meant the invading headcrabs were kept under control rather than constantly disrupting gathering efforts. There appears to be a huge tech tree in there, with more significant items constructed from components which themselves require a wide variety of different resources, and tools to bolt ‘em all together with. In this early build much of this stuff is fairly purposeless for now – all that’s really required is to keep my survivors fed and not-dead until a rescue ship arrives, although I do have the option to keep playing past that. I think I’ll wait for a few more features to go in before I invest too heavily, though.
I’d also like for the currently fiddly interface, which quickly becomes a mess of overlapping grids with tiny icons attached to them, and an inventory/crafting menu which sprawls off into multiple boxes all over the place, to become more streamlined and slick. There’s definitely a placeholder feel to the UI at present, and it gets in the way of focusing on the simulation.
Early days and all subject to change of course, and it says something that even though the interface has given me a few headaches I was keen to persevere, tech up, build better saucepans and tents. In its current state it’s more about advancement than being slowly murdered by a cruel world – it certainly lacks the harrowing desperation of Don’t Starve – but I kinda like it for that. It may well change as more is added to the game, but the freedom to experiment rather than a rapid-fire education in the school of hard knocks is appealing.
What I most like so far is that the survivors chat to each other, quipping or showing agitation about what they’ve seen, declaring their delight at tucking into a meal, calling for help, questioning why they’re lugging enormous boulders across an alien field, espousing SCIENCE… There’s a touch of inevitable repetition, but it’s not gone into ‘canned RTS unit selection gag’ territory yet. It feels, to some degree, like people bimbling about, trying to make do, not automatons regurgitating the same lines.
I really hope it’s feasible to have enough variety and randomness throughout a full game in time, and perhaps even that distinct personalities emerge. Apparently the group’s non-hierarchical behaviour will be a big part of the game in time, even down to their potentially voting amongst themselves about their next course of action. If Unclaimed World can pull off the sense that you’re living with this people rather than coldly directing them from afar, that’s going to be something very special.
A long way off though – for now it’s just the barebones of the game’s earliest stages. As well as UI grumbles, right now it’s difficult to know what the late game’s going to be like, how high the stakes are going to get, how complicated building increasingly technical gear will be, how invested I’m going to feel hours in, but I like what I’ve played so far. I’ll give it a few updates to put more meat on its bones, then check in again with real anticipation.
Unclaimed World is out on Steam Early Access now.