Early Alpha Impressions: Empyrion – Galactic Survival

Oh my, Empyrion – Galactic Survival [official site] might be the The Martian simulator I’ve been craving since I read Andy Weir’s book.

Andy Weir’s debut novel, about to be a (surprisingly great-looking) Ridley Scott movie, completely mesmerised me. The tale of a man stuck on Mars, surviving with his wits and his fantastic intelligence, captured two of my favourite things: stories of isolation, and people smarter than me being good at difficult stuff. A light, easy read, and yet utterly absorbing, it’s stuck with me since I finished reading it a month ago. Mostly in the nagging thought about how much I wish it could be a computer game.

I’ve found myself returning to this idea so many times, working out the mechanics in my head as I walk around, musing on how you’d give the player Mark Watney’s extensive knowledge, whether it could work as a scripted narrative, and so on. If I knew how you make a game (is it something to do with BASIC?), I’d have started making a game. And then, gosh, Empyrion looks like it might scratch that itch.

You begin on an alien planet, next to your escape pod. And no instructions. Well, apart from the instructions on a website that give you an idea of how to start, if you want it. Your escape pod did its job – you escaped whatever may have happened – but it’s not in a state to escape you any further. It does, however, come with a whole bunch of useful supplies, and an incredibly useful tool that when fed the right ingredients, can build you enormously complicated tech.

So no, okay, it’s not The Martian. But the principle is there – you, alone, stranded on a planet, with a magic machine instead of a magic brain. The air isn’t breathable, so you’re going to need to create ways to make oxygen. You’ll also need supplies of food once your emergency rations run out. And you’ll need a place to live, sources of fuel, and ideally, at some point, the means to get yourself off the planet and into the next section of the game. Oh mercy me, it’s what I wanted!

In practice, this early access project is certainly rather clumsy and mundane-looking. The graphics are particularly poor, which is – as ever – only a problem for a few minutes before you stop noticing. But at the same time, it’s a royal shame that it’s not some beautiful Unity creation of inspiring vistas and wondrous sunsets. Instead it’s angular brown that looks like one of those alien planets we used to visit in 2002. Like the old spaceship that presumably blew up leaving us here, it’s functional rather than beautiful.

So too are the menus, and that’s more of a problem, since there’s an awful lot of staring at them to do. To use the Magic Machine (that’s not its name – it’s called a Constructor – but mine is better) you need to look at a lot of inventories, moving icons from tiled grid to tiled grid, as you generate enough electronics, metal components and pipes to build the rector core you need to build the small generator, to add to your base. Each build is on a varying countdown timer, but thank goodness you can rack up a whole bunch to build in a queue, and go off for a pootle.

Yet, here’s the thing, I love those bits! I’m loving creating the parts to create the parts to create the thing I need, then sticking it on the side of my base, and feeling all proud of myself. You start off with a good pile of the resources you need, stored on the pod, but these will eventually get used up, and then there will be a lot more worry about gathering resources – I’ll be intrigued to see how much it can hold my attention at that point. But in the meantime, I’m gripped. And I’m really loving the sense of building this stuff while I can, so I’ll have enough in place to help me get through when things get scarce. A big stockpile of fuel cells and oxygen tanks seems like a plan – both are essential for your game to continue, as without the former your base, pod and everything else will cease to work, and without the latter you get all dead.

Running out of copper for electronic parts, in my bid to build a land-based vehicle after completing the starting components of my base, I had to go out on an expedition to find copper ore. I got pretty lucky, and figuring out the drill, began filling my boots with the stuff. Until I, well, fell through the bottom of the world.

This is alpha, of course, so such things are expected. But ooh, what a lovely surprise. Despite the survivaling of it all, it seems it’s saved! It’s saved, in fact, right before I fell. Well this is splendid. It means I can carry on. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Empyrion – Galactic Survival is on Steam Early Access now, for just over £12.

37 Comments

  1. Marblecake says:

    Really glad to see mention of The Martian here, even though it’s got absolutely nothing to do with games :D
    It’s one of the best sci-fi novels I’ve ever read, and most definitely the best “hard” sci-fi ever written. Plus, Andy Weir seems like an amazing guy who really deserves all the success he’s getting.

    Here’s a really nice interview (beware, very long): link to youtube.com

    • Tacroy says:

      My scientist wife actually hates The Martian, because she mostly reads scientific papers – which meant that when she read the book, she spent most of her time following along with the math and disbelieving that any of it would work.

      • Marblecake says:

        I’m not a scientist, but plenty of people at NASA loved the book. Sure, there are some inaccuracies that slipped through (e.g. the rate at which he converts hydrazine to water is way too fast, it would have heated up the hab in no time), but in general most scientifically-minded people I’ve heard talk about it seem to agree that it’s pretty spot on.
        I’m sorry your wife hated it, because even without all the science it’s goddamn entertaining.

        • colw00t says:

          I can actually follow a lot of the science in the Martian, and it’s not perfect. Lots of things are implausibly easy, like making soil out of martian regolith, and converting hydrazine to water.

          It’s at least RESPECTFUL of the problems it presents, though. You get the sense that Weir actually worked out the math and then decided to fudge it, as opposed to the usual method of completely ignoring the math and waving one’s hands about.

          • Marblecake says:

            You should definitely watch the interview. He’s very much aware of where he fudged and guiltily admits it :D

    • Matt_W says:

      most definitely the best “hard” sci-fi ever written.

      Stephen Baxter’s Voyage is the best hard sci-fi ever written. Seveneves is better than The Martian, as is Stan Robinson’s Mars trilogy.

      • Marblecake says:

        Should have said “best hard sci-fi I’ve ever seen”.

        • Matt_W says:

          Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed The Martian. It’s fun, funny (which too few sci-fi novels are) and has a great Scalzian main character. It’s just hard for any novel to match the depth of research and operatic beauty that those others I mentioned have.

          • Marblecake says:

            Yeah, Scalzi is most definitely a good comparison. But what I loved about The Martian was that the style and *ease* with which the story flows just makes all the science so easy to stomach. It really is quite the achievement to write a book that is absolutely nerdy in every respect, but write it in such a way that even my grandmother enjoys it.
            My girlfriend (who teaches at a secondary school) actually read it with her class and all of them enjoyed it immensely. It’s the perfect entry-level drug. I’m pretty sure her class would have bounced of off Voyage and Seveneves (though I haven’t read either, which I shall amend asap).

      • Lanfranc says:

        Any novel that has characters with more than one dimension and a plot that makes sense is better than The Martian.

        • Marblecake says:

          I’m very sorry. Your life must be a bleak place.

          • Lanfranc says:

            Yes. You are correct. Only people who enjoy The Martian can have a truly healthy and fulfilling life. It is the sine qua non of eudaimonia. I salute you. ^_^

            (PS: If anyone wants “Sine Qua Non of Eudaimonia” as a band name, they’re welcome to it.)

          • hungrycookpot says:

            Wow Lanfrac, you know big words, you must be too smart for that book and for us by extension. I am really impressed over here, I can tell you.

        • LexW1 says:

          That rules out virtually all hard sci-fi novels, though. Characters and plot are not something they do well, by and large.

      • iainl says:

        I’ve made it through a couple of Baxter’s other novels, including Voyage, after loving his Coalescent series, and attempted a few more, but his prose style is just that bit -too- dry for me when he goes off on a sciencey info-dump. Stephenson, however, is marvellous. I don’t know how he does it, but his exposition bits always have just the right tone of excitedly nerding-out that they convey character at the same time – the classic example being Randall Waterhouse’s obsessive treatise on the correct way to eat a bowl of Cap’n Crunch.

      • LexW1 says:

        KSR’s Mars is, and I’ll take your word that Voyage is (still working my way round to it, but it does seem likely), but Seveneves? It’s not really even hard SF, and it’s not a better story or better told than The Martian. It’s pretty awful, all things considered. Certainly not up there with Red/Green/Blue Mars. Stephenson needs to get back on his game, because Seveneves looks dangerously like the sort of novel a sci-fi author writes immediately before vanishing up his own bum.

  2. cdjaco says:

    Having spent a ton of time playing Space Engineers, I thought Empyrion would be right up my alley. After a few hours of play, I’m not yet convinced. A lot of the ingredients are there: mining, component construction, and food/oxygen/power management. And at present, they’ve got a bit of a leg up on Space Engineers in a couple of respects: Empyrion has planets and enemies (albeit with very simple AI). That said, it isn’t as pretty as Space Engineers — which is to be expected given how much longer SE has been in development. Empyrion also doesn’t seem to have the physics/collision features that the SE engine has, and the space -> planet transition isn’t quite as seamless as one would hope. But it does have a lot of potential, and I don’t consider my Steam/Early Access purchase wasted, at least not yet. I’d encourage folks to revisit it in a few months, if it currently doesn’t seem compelling enough at present.

    • jellydonut says:

      It isn’t seamless at all, it is instanced.

      SE will have planets very soon, and they are not instanced.

  3. Chaz says:

    I think if you’re looking for a survival experience more like The Martian, then Take On Mars is probably a closer match.

  4. geldonyetich says:

    Does anyone who has played both know if this or Rodian (I thibk it’s called) are better?

    • aleander says:

      Rodina, and my short-term impressions based on playing Rodina a bit, and this not at all, is that they’re different.

      Also, Rodina is lo-fi with style, while here it seems to be just budget.

    • Behrditz says:

      I imagine you are thinking of Rodina. They are completely different games. Rodina has no survival or crafting aspects to it at all. Their only similarities are that they have space ships.

    • Gari says:

      I have both, and there are similarities in the sense that both are space games that feature planetary landings.

      In Rodina you will spend more time in space and in Empyrion you will spend more time on planets mining and crafting etc. While there is more to do in Empyrion, there is not much to do in space yet. My ships are used merely to travel from planet to planet to get different resources. Rodina definitely has more to offer in terms of space flight/battles, and the sense of scale you get when you go down to it’s planets is breathtaking.

      I might also suggest you look up games like Interstellar Rift and Pulsar Lost Colony. Two other space games in early development.

  5. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Thanks for the note on this – I wishlisted this recently on Steam. Will give it a try out soon for a tasting session. My limit is 10-20 hours for a EA game, so I don’t spoil it for myself on release.

    Which is why I want Darkest Dungeon to be done soon. Holding at 19 hours is hard!

  6. shrieki says:

    i also enjoy this game alot. i normally dont even like crafting and building very much but in this game its addictive. building a spaceship and explore other planets is a big incentive for survival and keep on feeding that constructor.
    i also think this game has a nice science fiction vibe bu really hope they will improve on the visuals.
    for now the addictive gameplay makes up for the lack of eye candy.

    • colw00t says:

      >for now the addictive gameplay makes up for the lack of eye candy.

      You did that on purpose

  7. salgado18 says:

    “is it something to do with BASIC?”

    No, man. Just no. NO.

  8. rickenbacker says:

    You should really play Mars Colony: Challenger. It’s on Steam for €2.99, not entirely finished, but I spent a few enjoyable hours fixing up an slightly broken Mars base, setting up radio beacons and so on. Fascinating stuff, even with the world’s clunkiest interface.

  9. tk421242 says:

    Yes the graphics and animations are wonky but as mentioned above that does not bother me after just a short time if the game has compelling mechanics. I have only spent about three hours with this game and really do get the impression that it has a solid basis for future growth. The first two hours I spent in survival mode but then I switched over to creative mode and really liked what I saw in terms of the base that loaded up. I really can see some interesting things in the future like space bases built into the sides of mountains and such. I played space engineers and thought their ship building was interesting but I have not gotten that far in this game, hopefully it is just as versatile.

    I will be following the same guidelines I do with most of my EA games. I will play pretty heavily for a few days, maybe a week or two, then simply pull back and wait for a new large content patch. I have found that by doing this with games like 7 Days to Die it is almost like relearning the game each time a new build hits and really helps me to enjoy the game much more. Of course I play solo and I am sure if you play multiplayer it is a totally different experience and might not get stale as quickly.

  10. TheAngriestHobo says:

    What all survival games would benefit from is a hefty roster of randomized events that can befall you, and more importantly, your home and stash. I’ve often found that games like this are most enjoyable in the early stages, when your stocks are low and your survival is anything but assured, while in the late game you’re sitting on such an obscenely large stash of resources that there’s little motivation to continue with the grind. Being able to chase off thieves, get ripped off by merchants, flee from a meteor with whatever you can carry, etc. etc. would make continued survival a lot more interesting. It would also provide a means to decrease the player’s resources apart from building, which would make the economy (I use the word loosely, of course) more complex and interesting.

    • Leafy Twigs says:

      I’d like to see much of what you said. I’d also like to see a survival game more wrapped around exploration. Exploration with a specific goal. For example, the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Never going to stay anywhere for more than a week or two or for the duration of the winter. Can carry some supplies but will have to improvise a lot along the way. Have a goal in mind: find the best route to the Pacific Ocean, or leading a small group of religious exiles to their promised land far away, or looking for the hidden ruins full of unobtanium.

      And in a setting where the world isn’t ending. Your character isn’t stranded with little hope of survival. This is a journey the character voluntarily undertakes out of a sense of adventure and hope for the future. Something with an optimistic tone, at least at first, before the player is out in the middle of the wilds and down to their last snickers bar.

      • jonahcutter says:

        You might want to look into Lacuna Passage. It kickstarted a ways back, and might be right in line with what you’re looking for.

        Survival on Mars, with an emphasis on exploration and photography.

        This is the beta backer prologue they release, and I found it very promising.

        • jonahcutter says:

          edit:

          I should of said: Though there is a survival aspect, it’s not the typical apocalyptic/monster/zombie setup. And the overall emphasis appears to be on exploration and photographic research.

      • gorice says:

        Unreal World and Terraria are two games you should investigate, then.

        • Shiloh says:

          I love Unreal World. I’d also definitely buy into a Lewis and Clark-based game, and also (maybe even more so) one based on the great migrations into the Western US territories of the 1840s – an updated version of Oregon Trail, basically.

    • hungrycookpot says:

      I really hope the game goes this way also. Once you establish yourself with some food growing and a safe factory, the only danger is attacking towers and drones. There are no environmental hazards, no tornadoes or electrical storms, no meteor showers or temperature hazards. You can visit any planet, and as long as you don’t fall into the lava, you’re fine.

      I really hope they focus more on the survival elements of the game instead of making it another block based shooter. But i have high hopes.

  11. shrieki says:

    very good concept