Premature Evaluation: Empyrion – Galactic Survival

Every Monday we jettison Brendan into the uncharted quadrants of early access and demand constant progress reports. This week, he makes himself a new home in the tropical forests of Empyrion: Galactic Survival [official site].

There’s something making noises out there. It’s growling, or they’re growling. I’m not sure. It’s pitch black in the jungle tonight and the noise is definitely not normal jungle noise. Not the same sounds that I heard during the daytime – whoops and whistles and insect chatter. No, there’s something else out there. And if it’s dangerous, I need to kill it. Because I don’t even have a shack to hide in. I’m just camping here beneath the canopy, next to some crafting contraption I barely know how to u–

Shh! The growling, it’s closer. They’re here.

I swivel around pointing my flashlight at the undergrowth, looking for the creatures. What will it be this time, oh great survival genre? Landmolluscs? Mantis-tigers? Murderwombats? I catch a glimpse of something in the dark. Three tall, lanky figures emerge, coming slowly toward me.

I back away and get ready to run. Oh my god, they have spears. This is it, this is my first death, I just know it.

But the figures just keep walking. Verrrry slooowwwly, they saunter through my camp, and while their guttural moaning is unsettling, they seem to totally ignore me. These, I would later learn, are the Talon Guardians, one of the few alien beings I met while playing Empyrion – Galactic Survival. This terrifying episode on my first night set the tone for my time in the game. I had crash-landed in an escape pod, as everyone does, on the planet Akua, and quickly set up a crafting machine in the nearest forest. My thinking was that the trees would cover whatever house I built. This was a multiplayer server and any other player would be able to come along and steal my things or murder me with an assault rifle (at least, that’s what I thought at the time, before I found out Akua was completely PvE and safe). The jungle would protect me, I thought, before I heard the first growl.

But the Talons went about their own business that night and every night, patrolling the jungle and growling at nothing, and I came to like them. A tribe of non-hostile AI neighbours. They brought a little atmosphere to the early days of crafting wooden blocks and building my first, doorless shack.

Crafting here is a mix of the expected and the streamlined. At the start, you have to pump things into the constructor and queue up items you want. Throw in wooden logs and queue up some planks, throw in some raw magnesium (found in big underground deposits) and queue up some powder. Normally, in this over-subscribed genre, this is where the work begins. Find deposits, mine mine mine. Find some trees, chop chop chop.

But either the game or this particular server is massively generous, filling your escape pod with all the tools and resources needed to get up and running at a much more reasonable rate. There was no need for me to build a drill or saw, no need to immediately hunt out iron ore. I had ample things to work with. And later you get a larger more efficient constructor which automates half of the crafting – eliminating the need to produce in-between items. So long as it has the absolute basic necessities (ores, water, ingots) it will craft the higher-level items by assembling all the other parts it knows it will need automatically. Good work, future machine.

The crafting and leveling menus can still be a little overwhlelming, though. It’s pretty much mandatory to dip into the lengthy tutorials on your astronaut’s ‘PDA’, or go scouring the wiki for help. But once you embrace the complicated web of metal ingots, motorcycle packs, clone tanks, fuel tanks, oxygen generators, H2O generators, power generators, water purifiers, growing pots, work lights, ammo crates, object crates, large constructors, fuel cells, reactors, computers, cores, motors, cables, electronics, metal bits, metal sheets, metal components, and all the rest of the messy library of usable or deployable items – then you can appreciate all of it for what it is. A very fine survival game.

Fresh off the underwhelming desert moons of Osiris: New Dawn, I was glad to find myself in this jungle, where the sprint button can be held for aeons and your backpack is capable of holding an obscene amount of material. The food meter still required me to constantly stuff my face with berries every half an hour or so but apart from that I was glad to have the thing I crave most in a survive-em-up. Freedom. This is a world where you get on a motorbike within the first hour and go zipping around the mountaintops, just because you can.

I’ll prove it to you. You see that moon? I was going to get there one day. But for that I’d need a spacecraft. There were a couple of options here. I could collect a bunch of different metal ores like iron, copper, silicon, and cobalt (all fairly common and abundant), refine these and plop them into a “factory” menu, whereby the game would poop out a spaceship for me after 20 minutes. That was one method. Or I could fix up a quick starter kit – the basic blocks – and then build my ship piece by piece. I am an ambitious man and I obviously chose to create my own ship.

My house wasn’t big enough, however, to hold the vessel I had pictured in the back of my head somewhere. I started work on an open-roofed pen and when I was finished I dusted off my astrohands, planted the first few blocks of my spaceship and felt proud. Everything was good. I had food in a fridge so it wouldn’t spoil and the beginnings of a craft that would take me to the stars. I logged off for the night.

The next day I arrived in my jungle house and the lights were off. I looked in the hangar, which was also the kitchen. The ship parts were gone. The fridge was full of rotten food.

It turns out you need to keep your base powered up at all times (at least on a multiplayer server like this one you do – not sure about single player). In my absence, my home’s power generator had steadily chowed through all the fuel cells I had stored in the fuel tank, like a hungry metal dragon, and then grumpily shutdown power across the entire home when it ran out of food. As a result, the fridge had lost power and was now full of spoiled food. I closed it without emptying the decaying matter.

As for the ship parts, I don’t know if some enterprising burglar jetpacked into the pen and dismantled it for parts or if it simply disappeared due to some early access hiccup. But I suspect the latter because nothing else in my base was taken. Not even the stylish cannon I had balanced precariously on the roof.

Unable to face the prospect of creating another ship from scratch, I decided to take the shortcut. I would send the ingots to the factory and get the game to build a ship for me. Life is too short to get robbed by somebody with a jetpack twice.

But I had a more pressing situation. All the food I had saved was gone. I needed more. This meant I would have to complete the half-assed vegetable garden I had started. This is more complicated than it ought to be. If you want to plant veggies, fruits and cereals, you need a ‘growing box’. Frustratingly, you can only put these growing boxes on part of an existing structure. This is one of Empyrion’s more irritating survival farts. I spent the opening hour of the game wondering why I couldn’t plant tomatoes directly into the ground of the rainforest – a soil so fertile that it has grown almost a dozen of these monstrosities.

This is an alien honey deposit. It is unclear if these are a plant, animal or something else. But the honey is good.

So the veg patch had to be inside, under special lights. The spoiled food in my fridge came in handy now – I used it to make fertiliser – but I still needed one last ingredient to make more growing boxes: fiber. I went out into the jungle, approached every visible plant and plucked it. None of them gave me fiber.

This is maybe one of the downsides of Empyrion. There are so many ingredients and resources, you are always questioning where or what they are. And the answers are not always forthcoming or sensible. Fiber, despite seeming like something you could get from any plant was actually only produced by a vicious carnivorous plant (one I never encountered) or a benign and completely unnoticeable weed, hidden amongst almost identical grass on mountain slopes. I hopped on my motor cycle and went on an expedition to find some in the nearby hills. I drove over the mountains into a gorgeous valley and found no weeds. But I did find a spaceship.

I drove up to the ship and parked. It had landed next to a big vegetable garden, which I admired and coveted.

If there is nobody here, I thought, I will steal some tomatoes. That’s when the astronaut appeared at the foot of the spacecraft’s ramp and started pointing a rifle at me.

I stood still and then jumped into the air twice. Then I strafed side to side. He jumped into the air, twice. I approached and he put down his rifle. I would not die yet.

We chatted – well, I chatted – by typing into the global channel. I asked if he had any fiber and he looked around, then ran into the elevator in his ship’s cargo bay and disappeared. This is it, I thought. He is going to come back with a friend and together they are going to make me drink some toilet cleaner. Or maybe they will take me into space and flush me out of an airlock without my helmet on. This is it, this is how I die in Empyrion. I wish the Talon people were here.

He came back down the elevator and dropped 17 strands of luscious fiber at my feet.

“Thank you!!” I typed and jumped once. I dropped some oxygen tanks as a trade and he took them and jumped once. I got back on my motorcycle and drove home. When I got back to my house in the jungle I saw a ship taking off in the distance. I never saw that man again.

When I was finished making growing boxes, fixing lights and planting sprouts, my own vegetable patch looked good. Nothing like the visiting astronaut’s garden but good enough for me. Eventually, I would be able to stuff all the ingredients into the food processor (another piece of furniture that looks like a stove from the Fifth Element) and pack my fridge with instantly-made pumpkin pies, tinned vegetables, bread, cookies and popcorn. I wouldn’t have food problems any more.

But I had been sidetracked. I was supposed to be going to the moon. For this, I still needed materials for the ship.

One night, as I emerged from the lake near my house where I had gone scuba-diving for seaweed to make biofuel to power my tools (!) I decided to check out the concrete ruin I always saw on the sand. Some other player had given up here, I don’t know when, and left a blocky stub of a building behind with some idle generators next to it. I had always ignored the ruin, speeding past on my motorcycle and generally being cool. But today I decided to take a look. When I got closer I saw something gleaming. Those weren’t generators. They were containers.

There was nobody around. I decided to take a look inside one of the crates. It was full of bullets.

I closed the crate and looked around. There were five other crates. I returned home that day with a bag full of seaweed and some other useful items. The ship was ready to be built. I stuffed everything into the “factory” and hollowed out a space in the hangar for it to sit, while also building a huge steel door for easy access. I also installed a roof. Take that, jetpack burglars.

When the ship finally came out of the factory, I spawned it in the hangar. It looked good.

I climbed inside and was ready to go. Here I come, moon. Adventure awaits! It took me 15 minutes to find the ‘on’ switch.

You see, you have to bring up a control panel and fill up the tanks with fuel cells and oxygen tanks directly from your inventory, essentially clambering into the cockpit with your pockets full of batteries. Then you can power it up with the ‘Y’ key. The same key you can use to switch all the power in your base on or off at will. It can be surprisingly deep game, this, but it can also be as opaque as a brick wall.

I powered up and hovered out of the hangar like a baby duck learning to flap its wings. Then I took off into the sky and flew above the jungle. Woooo! I sped over the lake and got carried away. I did a roll and immediately ditched into the water. This was it, definitely. This was how I was going to die for the first time.

Yet as I panicked and pulled up the ship rose out of the lake – with drops of water on the ‘windshield’ – and continued on as if nothing had happened. It might have looked as if it was made out of LEGO bricks, but my little scout jet turned out to be quite sturdy. I pitched directly up, put on my helmet and flew into space, which did not appear “seamlessly” so much as “suddenly”, like someone had snatched a cardboard background image from in front of me and hastily replaced it with a really big room. But as jerky and as wobbly as this transition was, the moon was still in front of me. When I paused and looked back ‘down’ I could see the bar of land between two lakes where my jungle was and where the Talon people lived. I was in space.

I shot towards the moon, which looked a bit funky as I approached but then burped into a proper shape when I got low enough. I landed next to a deposit of some mineral I didn’t recognise and powered down. I got out of the cockpit and looked back at the planet I’d been building on. Now it was the cardboard background. What a marvellous adventure.

Then I fell into the hole full of rare material.

Deciding to turn this crisis into an opportunity, I mined away at the mineral, collecting hundreds of bits of ore as my oxygen slowly ran down. Afterwards, I scrambled out through a tunnel (some previous moon-miner had created this) and then collected some blue crystals that littered another part of the moon’s surface. I would need these if I ever created a capital ship – the kind of vessel which can warp between planets using the refined crystals as fuel. My little scout could only go into high orbit or travel between the planet and it’s moon. The capital vessels are further along the tech tree.

My suit’s oxygen was depleted and I had forgotten to bring O2 tanks with me to replace it. But there was oxygen in the cockpit, so I was safe. I would not die on the moon either. In fact, as I took off and headed back to Akua, circling the planet and looking for the distinct bar of land I called home, I discovered that I would not die in orbit either. Nor would I die on re-entry, or when trying to land the ship in my hangar. Maybe all my fears had been misplaced. Maybe it was a little too easy to survive in Empyrion.

But to be honest, I don’t mind that at all. I like survival games best when they ease up on the pressure and let you live out your days in your slowly-improving hovel, when they throw you to the wilderness, but not the wolves. In other words: when they really let you build a home.

I landed in my hangar and got out of my spaceship, full of moon spoils. Outside, I heard the familiar growling of the Talon people.

Empyrion – Galactic Survival is available on Steam for £14.99/$19.99. These impressions were based on build 1369962.

From this site

39 Comments

  1. Pravin Lal's Nuclear Arsenal says:

    Shh! The growling, the pitiful rehearsal of trite mechanics, the boredom…it’s closer. They’re here.

    Oh God, the survival games spotted us! RUN, EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF!

  2. CyborgHobbit says:

    I have the most fun playing these survival games with a few friends or my daughters (insert obligatory SUBNAUTICA SHOULD HAVE BEEN MULTIPLAYER here). I wonder how well two players can work together in this game.

    • Yasha says:

      Very well! My friend and I last played this in April and we had a great time. There are a lot of different roles and playstyles available (gardener, builder, crafter, etc,) so playing with someone else provides a decent amount of flexibility.

    • jgdavis89 says:

      I play with a friend on a server now, and its been a blast. Attacking alien bases can be daunting on your own (not too bad since the AIs pretty dumb), but its a fun experience exploring and crafting projects with your friends.

  3. the_northwood says:

    I registered just to say that I could honestly have read this piece for hours and hours. I mean, Brendan Caldwell’s writing is always great, and I’m really looking forward to what he contributes to Dragon Age, but this was just excellent. As idyllic and pleasant as the game sounds.

    • Brendan Caldwell says:

      I am also excited to see what I write for Dragon Age, considering that this is the first I have heard of my involvement!

    • Premium User Badge

      Dorga says:

      Damn! How many time I told you it was a surprise?!

      Jack Bioware

    • boundary says:

      I just registered to say I agree. Great writing!

  4. InfiniteSubset says:

    The name of this game makes me think of a Pokemon. Empoleon to be specific.

  5. a very affectionate parrot says:

    Wow, a survival game that actually sounds fun rather than an exercise in punishing the player!
    This kind of reads like how I hoped the WIT of No Man’s Sky would be like…

    • tryst46 says:

      A lot of players from NMS now play Empyrion and say they like it better than NMS.

      I started playing a month ago and have not put it down since. Had a few wipes on the server since it’s still a pre-release alpha and bugs and changes that cause you to have to start over are expected. It doesn’t take long to get back to where you were before, hopefully that will change as the game develops though, I’d prefer to have to actually work for it. For now, it helps them to test everything because players don’t get fed up with days or months of work wasted and looking forward to the same amount of time again to get it all back.

      Multiplayer is great, you can fly a ship with your friend sitting next to you as a passenger. On a Capital Vessel they can operate the turrets manually while you fly. Some of those cap ships in the workshop are huge too, you can easily get lost in them.

      My only gripe so far is the limits for building. A base that is 250×250 blocks max is a bit small for single player when you have an entire world to play on by yourself. If you like building like I do, even 1000 x 1000 would be too small, I want to build an entire city.

      • jgdavis89 says:

        Im one of those NMS guys too. I would love to see the seemless transitions NMS had, but Empyrion definitely delivers on the content. I didnt know about the base cap, but worst case you just have to build multiple bases that connect. 250×250 certainly isnt huge, but for a single core, thats a lot to process. For safety reasons having multiple cores in a city would probably be benificial anyways.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Ericusson says:

    Will give this one another try now on a proper gaming rig.
    Between this one, the Long Dark, the Forest, Happy Few, even eventually Osiris, probably a lot more, the genre is getting crowded with potential.

    Still wonder if the engine makers will evolve into world makers offering a whole canvas of already available mechanics to game makers to easily create their game in. Or something like that.

  7. brucethemoose says:

    And sold… I love Starmade, but I’ve been putting off Empyrion for no apparent reason. This excellent piece is the push I needed.

    Also, Hello Games should’ve just licensed this and given all their customers a copy.

  8. Darloth says:

    It used to be harder. I remember back when you started on the desert planet where the air isn’t even breathable and there are murderous oklob/malboro things trying to kill you all the time.

    Of course back then, everything was clunkier.

    Why, in MY day, we had to climb up mountains in the snow uphill both ways just to mine some iron ore. *grumblecoughspluttergeroffmylawn*

  9. CartonofMilk says:

    I’ve had two games on Empyrion, one nearly a year ago now and one about 3 months back. Both lasted about a month. The thing that strikes me the most is how fast the game is moving forward. For an alpha it can be kinda rare. But no two steps forward one step back for this game like with Space Engineers. The game i played 3 months ago was fairly different than the one i had played maybe 9 months earlier. And reading this review, there’s a lot of things i didn’t have 3 months ago either. Motorcycles? It had always just been hovercrafts or spaceships. The cockpits also seem to be very improved.

    Empyrion is a good game but it has flaws right now. the most glaring of which is the size of its planets (unless that has changed in the last 3 months). They are tiny. And you can’t get to the poles yet (unless that has changed too). The other issue would be that the building aspect is still too limited compared with Space Engineers ALTHOUGH to be fair SE is mainly great in that respect because of the huge modding community.

    I wish it would reach SE level in that regard though because while the AI of the enemies is very dumb right now, at least there IS a game outside of PVP in Empyrion and actual survival. Still my perfect game is a mix of SE and Empyrion, but at the rate at which empyrion keeps moving forward, i wouldn’t be suprised if someday it outdid SE in every aspect. Or either Planet Nomad or Dual Universe will end up delivering on their promises and both Empyrion and Se will become old history.

    But right now, if you want to build really cool stuff in a sci fi setting, play SE. IF you want to play a survival game in which your creations however limited at least have some use, play Empyrion.

    • Baines says:

      The AI of the enemies is what puts me off of the title when I watch Let’s Plays. All the fancy gadgets and upgrades and such don’t matter if the enemy isn’t up to the task of offering a decent challenge.

      The big problem being that I’ve learned to not expect much of AI even within controlled environments, and Empyrion is far from a controlled environment.

      • TheDeadlyShoe says:

        The AI is never what i’d call smart, but it’s vastly improved over earlier alphas where a lot of the LPs are from. They used to be dumb as a post; now they can path over terrain properly and find their way dynamically through bases – even damaged bases. The biggest problems of the AI are actually game balance/design/alpha problems; they only have bases and drones and base guards (And troop carriers). In the future, they will have capital ships, and hopefully the base guards will be able to harm ships, and hopefully advanced behaviors like the troops assaulting your bases on foot.

        • CartonofMilk says:

          Last i played it there was a bug where most enemy turrets could fire at you through terrain. This led to getting as close to the bases as i could and then digging my way to the base below the turrets level and coming up in the middle of bases. Then you’d blow a hole and be right at the core, blow up the core, done. It’s a bit of a weakness though in any game you can dig through terrain. I don’t foresee a time when this will NOT be a viable strategy to take on enemy bases. Attacking bases head on otherwise lead to a very fast death.

    • hungrycookpot says:

      The biggest problem for me is that one of their big selling points is that this game would take place in a procedurally generated galaxy, with multiple star systems that the capitol ship could travel to. So far, there is only one star system. Every time the developer talks about it, it sounds less and less like its something he’s got planned, and more like something they’d like to have.

  10. poliovaccine says:

    Usually I don’t get past that first few hours where you have to build a drill… sounds promising. Usually I don’t go for anything MMO, but this sounds interesting. Thanks for a good writeup..!

    • DodgyG33za says:

      You don’t have to play this as an MMO. Single player works just fine and I am almost certain that time gets suspended when you log off, which means you avoid depleting your energy.

  11. Premium User Badge

    magogjack says:

    I ask the hivemind; how does this compare to Space Engineers ?

    I have room in my heart for one spacey survival game and one only.

    OMG ! I AM EDITING !

    • TheDeadlyShoe says:

      Less depth as legos, but much more interesting as a game because there’s actually a purpose you can use your constructions for (fighting aliens and players) and you are much more likely to interact with other players in MP.

      • Premium User Badge

        magogjack says:

        hmmmm, thank you.

        • jgdavis89 says:

          My friend im playing with loves space engineers as well. The way he described it is if you want a game with depth that mirrors reality and stays closer to the laws of physics, then space engineers is the game for you. If you want a game thats more of a survival minecraft style sci fi experience, then Empyrion already does that well.

  12. Unsheep says:

    Looks cool, I hope it comes to GOG.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    Hmm… so to make advanced spaceships you need to get a glowing blue crystal that can only be found on airless worlds?

    I never thought I’d have occasion to say this, but what a total rip-off of Shores of Hazeron.

    • TheDeadlyShoe says:

      The warp crystals are actually found on most planets in different biomes and quantities. They are just easiest to find on moons.

    • hungrycookpot says:

      SoH is way better, obviously. Except when it comes to graphics or animations.

  14. shrieki says:

    this game was interesting and the game-play was somewhat addictive at start but it was also barren and boring visually- and the crafting seemed to be an endless chore.
    seems like it has improved a lot !

  15. TheDeadlyShoe says:

    @Brendan – Most games like this arn’t that different in MP and SP, but Empyrion has a notable difference in that fighting the alien AIs for fun and profit is a key part of gameplay. The aliens are designed to threaten player constructions with drone attacks, respond to attacks on their own bases, and spawn drones to defend ore deposits and points of interest. However, in many multiplayer servers (especially on starting planets), these bases have been picked over and the drone threat eliminated, resulting in a very easy difficulty curve at the start of the game. Most MP servers do wipe and reset the pve planets every week, forcing players out in to PVP space or on great migrations… but it’s typically still far easier starting in MP.

    You can usually also start on more challenging locations, like the desert planet that lacks breathable air.

    Also, i think that a mention/read of the survey results theyre using for information and to drive development priorities would be informative for folks~

    link to empyriononline.com

  16. Phoenikz says:

    I love this game so bloody much. Singleplayer can get tough, especially with drone bases…There go a whole bunch of worlds I deleted out of rage.