I drive the short trip back to my base, park my truck close enough to one of the buildings for the cable to attach, and offload the red blob from the back of my buggy. It looks like a thorned vegetable and I plug it into my research station, which is receiving power via cables from the solar panel on the back of my truck. When the research is complete, I will have the knowledge of which resources I need in order for my 3D printer to create a drill head, which I can then attach to a vehicle and use to cut paths through the fully deformable terrain.
Astroneer [official site] is a survive-and-craft game like many others, but it throws out a lot of the cruft and grind. I played it and suddenly it was five hours later, the intervening period a blur of pretty landscapes and achievable goals.
It begins with a landing on a planet. You’re in a spacesuit, you can save your game by climbing inside your lander, you have a backpack, and pressing E brings out a tool which helps you shape the terrain. Left-click to hoover it up, alt-and-click to spew it out, ctrl-and-click to flatten it. This fully moldable, non-blocky terrain is Astroneer’s second great feature, but the first is that this hoovering tool is all you need to collect every resource. There’s no need to upgrade or repair it. It does not break after minutes of use, it is uniformly quick at gathering the resources buried in the rock, and it’s fun to shape the world around you at the press of a button.
It helps that the world I’ve started on is beautiful. Bright and colourful like a child’s crayon drawing of an alien planet. I’ve spent time hopping across its surface just to see what’s just over the horizon, and had my partner come see my screen to watch the stars and planets cycle across the night sky. My goal is to fly to one of those planets.
This is a survive-and-craft game however, so before I can jet off to another world, I need to deal with the essentials. Your primary pair of concerns are power and oxygen, the former of which fuels your vacuum while the latter simply keeps you alive. Both can be found as resources embedded in the world, or re-filled by standing near your lander, but in order to explore further afield you’ll want to place down tethers. These function similarly to Minecraft’s torches, in that they’re easily crafted and you’ll want to place them at even spaces along your commonly travelled paths. The difference is that they form a cable back to your home base and cart oxygen and power to wherever you are.
Pretty quickly, in other words, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about power or oxygen. The game then becomes about gathering the items needed to extend your base, with the printers and research stations mentioned above, but also smelters, trading platforms, vehicle bays, power generators, storage units and more. The recipes for crafting those tend to be simple, single-item requests: two aluminium for one building, four copper for another. The challenge is in find the resources, though they’re never too far away; excavating them from caves infested by venomous plants, though those plants are stationary and never too hard to avoid; and processing them, since metals tend to be found as ore which first needs to be sent through your smelter, which needs power to run, though the smelter is itself easily built and power is easily found and…
Pretty quickly, in other words, you shouldn’t have to worry about much. Die and you’ll respawn back at your base, and your corpse and its contents will wait for you to return and collect. There are storms, which look stunning on the horizon and threaten to wallop you with swept up rubble, but they are more impressive to look at than in terms of danger. I like it this way. I am compelled to advance through Astroneer’s heirarchy of crafting materials because each new structure discovered or built seems exciting in and of itself, and I enjoy the process of exploring its landscapes because they are often gorgeous. I don’t need challenges to my own patience through more complication or punishing deaths.
That experience of crafting and building is better for having been obviously designed with console and controllers in mind. Where other games turf you into ugly menus to manage inventory and construct items, Astroneer gives you a backpack whose contents are visible on your back at all times alongside meters showing your current power and oxygen levels. You can even plug and remove items from it by clicking and dragging if you’re using the mouse without pressing the button to expand it. If you do click to open it larger, then it zooms towards the camera and the crafting function is at its base, the needed item automatically moving into the crafting slot if available as you cycle through the items you currently know how to build.
This means that though there’s no tutorial in the current early access version – bar pressing F1, which brings up a screen with the basic remappable controls – I was able to learn how to build a complete base within a couple of hours. And once I’d done it once, I was able to repeat the process in less than an hour a second time.
I needed to do it a second time because I eventually got offworld. Using the vehicle bay, I constructed a launcher, then a single seat, then filled it with fuel. Without much thought about what items to take with me, I climbed inside and rocketed into orbit.
Once there, you do not directly pilot your ship – it’s more lunar lander than X-Wing – but can choose either to land on one of dozens of available spots on your home planet, or to step out further to a solar system view and choose a nearby planet to head towards. That’s what I did, swapping the crayon colours of my homeworld for a less attractive tundra planet. Here the caves contained different hostile flora, but otherwise the resources and processes were the same. Soon I had a new base and was on the hunt for more fuel for another planetary hop.
Which leads to my current concern with Astroneer, in that I’m not sure what my motivation to head to a new planet is, if each is fundamentally the same. I suspect there are craftable items I have not yet discovered, and I’d enjoy doing everything I’ve already done again with some friends in the four-player co-op that should be available when the game launches in early access this Friday the 16th, but I need grander designs to construct or a narrative to uncover if I’m to find cause to play much longer. The game’s Steam page suggests an intended year or two of development to come, alongside mention of rare items, medical crises, galactic economies (there is an extremely basic concept of trade at present), so there is time for the motivation I need to be added.
For now, Astroneer is the most promising and confident base for a game of this type I’ve seen in a long time. I am tired of punching trees to retrieve wood and of collecting resources in order to craft a better tool for collecting resources. It turns out, however, that I am not tired of using a terrain-moulding vacuum to hoover up precious metals, or of using those metals to craft planetary bases, moon buggies, and spacecraft.