Premature Evaluation: Stationeers

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Premature Evaluation is the weekly column in which we explore the wilds of early access. This week, Fraser’s pottering around in RocketWerkz’ space station sim, Stationeers, and learning that, just perhaps, it’s better to stay on Earth.

Why is a giant egg on top of my microwave? I’m trying to play through Stationeers’ dire tutorial, but I actually feel like I’m participating in one of Gordon Ramsay’s literal kitchen nightmares. In the egg carton, it was very much a normal-sized, innocuous egg, but somewhere between picking it up and mistakenly putting it on and not in the microwave, it grew at least 20 times larger. And I’m not sure I really should be putting eggs in microwaves. Certainly not to make muffins.

I somehow muddle through, making a muffin that I don’t need and fixing a cable that does nothing. Well done me – I’ve completed the tutorial. Lamentably, I’ve retained very little of the excessively complicated instructions required to perform the simplest of tasks. With unearned confidence, I dive into the game-proper, my head full of dreams of lunar bases and SCIENCE. It is dark, I’m alone and I have no idea what I need to do.

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Since the tutorial barely even covers the most basic parts of constructing a functioning base right now, I have absolutely no idea where to begin. I guess my base will need a floor, so I root around in the crates and pick up some metal sheets. I can’t do anything with them. Next to them are some metal frames, and this time I’m actually able to place them. Progress! But what’s a floor without some cool stuff to put on it? Unfortunately, I’m getting ahead of myself and the floor, it turns out, still isn’t finished.

A 30 minute break and a browse of the wiki fills in the gaps. To finish the floor I need to use the sheets I discarded before, applying them to the frame while I’m holding the welding tool in my free hand. After multiple trips between the site of my base-to-be and the containers, and a bit of inventory faffing, I finally have the start of my first building. It feels more of an achievement doing it in the dark, guided only by my useless headlamp. Annoyingly, while I’ve been wandering around blindly my power has been dwindling and I can’t charge my battery on an empty floor. I’ve got to set up a charging station, which means I need a power controller and a solar panel too. At least the sun is starting to come up now.

4

By the time I finish, it’s dark again and my solar panel is useless. I can’t do anything until the next day. I stare at the stars until that gets boring, then I bring up my inventory. Alarms go off and my computer warns me that everything is bad and I’m going to die. It’s almost like I’ve opened up my suit. Because I have. To see my inventory, I automatically hit ‘I’, which doesn’t open the inventory but rather dangerously opens my helmet. By the time I realise my fatal mistake, I’m about to walk into the light. Thankfully, that light is the sun, and with my helmet sorted I can go back to my previous task of getting some power. Soon I’ll be running on fumes, so I’m in a bit of a hurry.

This isn’t something you could tell by the pace of my work, which could only be described as sloth-like. Stationeers wants you to know that it’s a very hardcore game. Unfortunately, hardcore is so often conflated with lack of user-friendliness and intuitive systems and that’s the case here. It’s not just that every task has twice has as many steps as a reasonable person would come up with, though that does grate, it’s that actually performing tasks is typically dull. Indeed, most of them involve standing around while you wait for the right time of day or watch a furnace working away.

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RocketWerkz seem to be perfectly capable of ditching realism when it gets in the way, but at other times it’s like Stationeers is built on a love of drudgery. With my solar panel standing, I now have power, opening up a whole world of possibilities. Unfortunately, my minor goals require a bit more work. See, the panels need to be directly facing the sun, and as you’re probably well aware: the sun moves a lot. Like, all the time. There are undoubtedly many solutions to this problem, but Stationeers settles on the one that makes players use a wrench to manually raise or lower the panel, to catch the light. When night fell again, this time I was actually pleased, as it meant that solar panel duty was over.

It’s peculiar, playing a game from one of the progenitors of the modern sandbox and realising that it’s already incredibly dated. DayZ is, in video game terms at least, a household name associated with all kinds of thrilling, hilarious and horrific stories (and a whole lot of waiting and walking in between those moment, it must be said). Its successor has somehow managed to make the creation of a simple muffin a pain in the arse.

As a friend watches me follow the instructions of the wiki, amazed at how much dreary busywork is involved in creating the simplest of manufacturing chains, I struggle to justify the the time and effort involved in slapping together a space station. Fundamentally, Stationeers has yet to construct a slice of space, let alone a galaxy, that actually makes it feel like you’re having an impact on the universe.

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There’s nothing holding it together at the moment. It’s more like Space Engineers than DayZ, but unlike the long-running early access creative sandbox, it keeps its best bits at arm’s length. I vividly recall my first experience with Space Engineers. Within an hour I’d constructed a war-ready spacecraft that I pitted against an equally intimidating war machine of a pal’s design. We flung our babies at each other, and watched as they both bounced off each other and rapidly drifted off into deep space, much faster than we could travel. It was a hilarious comedy of errors that made Robot Wars look well-produced. In an hour of Stationeers, I figured out how not to suffocate.

The comparison isn’t unfair. Both are early access games with similar goals. But Stationeers expects you to put dozens of hours and countless wiki breaks into it before it becomes remotely cohesive. It’s hard, boring work. By the time I construct a 3D printer and a proper furnace, the things needed to create the more advanced items, I lose all motivation to construct ships and bases. I saunter off into the darkness, thinking that maybe spending some time mindlessly mining will make me happy to get back to my construction projects. A few minutes later and I’ve fallen down a hole and broken my suit, the two most exciting things to happen to me all day. My jetpack could get me out… but do I even want to escape?

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Stationeers is, at the moment, a series of loosely connected systems, but without the creative, anything-goes philosophy or many of its sandboxy peers. I never thought anything could stop me from building a spaceship or an intergalactic Little Chef, but a browse of the steps and work involved has made me realise I’d be willing to do anything else. Even spending the rest of my life in this big ol’ moon hole.

Stationeers is out now on Steam for £18.99/$24.99/€22.99.

42 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Yeah, kinda figured. They pitched it as a sort of Space Station 13 deal, right? Complexity for the sake of wanking about how you’ve wasted more time than other people memorizing all that complexity.

    I’ll admit that it can add up to interesting stories, but like SS13 or EVE, it’s just not something that is actually fun to play.

    Edit:

    I know SS13 can be fun. I used to have fun with it. But after a while it becomes apparent that everything is ten times as annoying as it needs to be, just so they can say it’s super annoying and takes forever.

    The fun parts are the weird wiring and gas and other simulated nonsense you can do, not the fact that a floor tile takes twenty minutes to build.

    • Carcer says:

      Yeah, but in Space Station 13 you start with a mostly working station, you’re not expecting to build the entire thing from first principles (even though that’s technically possible). SS13 isn’t complicated for the sake of difficulty, it’s complicated for the sake of possibility, and tension. Building or disassembling a wall in total peace and quiet might feel unnecessarily boring… but when you’re racing against time to seal an atmospheric breach before you suffocate, or rushing to break into a secure area before someone else wanders through that maintenance corridor and spots you hacking the wall apart, it adds exciting tension and a sense of achievement when you pull it off.

      • Nevard says:

        Probably also worth noting that despite all of its mechanics, SS13 is chiefly a game about interacting with other players, and the complexity is window dressing. Very in depth and interesting window dressing that you can do neat stuff with if you know how it works, but often stuff you can easily ignore. Usually it’s someone else’s job to build that wall, or synthesise that chemical.
        Usually you personally only have one thing you need to focus on, not everything, and you can even opt not to have that and just hang out in a bar.

        • Silent_Thunder says:

          Pretty much. The average player doesn’t need to worry about the overly complex things, they can just pick a job more focused on shenanigans or chilling out, like security, or service industry like the chef or bartender. And at the end of the day, it’s always about player interaction.

          • LauraAustin says:

            I’m making $85 an hour working from home. I was shocked when my neighbour told me she was averaging $120 but I see how it works now. I feel so much freedom now that I’m my own boss. This is what I do… Click Here And START Work

    • lordcooper says:

      Drib like simple game. Drib like go up and to the right and jump on bad guy. This no hurt Drib head like nasty Eve game.

  2. TeePee says:

    It’s still very early days by the sounds of things, but this looks like it has Rocket’s fingerprints all over it – loads of incredibly grandiose and ambitious ideas, some of which are genuinely quite forward-thinking, but applied in an almost random order, and often left half-finished as he moves onto the next idea that captures his imagination.

    Whilst he’s obviously got something about him in order to capture the lightning in a bottle that was DayZ, from the relatively limited bits I’ve seen, I feel like he needs an editor to tell him to stop coming up with new stuff and just focus on actually finishing what he’s got first.

    • Artist says:

      You obviously have absolutly no clue what youre talking about. But hey, its the interwebz, so always good for some uneducated poo-flinging, right?
      Granted, the article is bad and misleading. But Rocketwerkz have lined out their rough roadmap. And clearly stated that they have more content prepared but want to make sure the core systems are solid first. So its the next ~2 months that show if Stationeers will lift off or not.

      • TeePee says:

        You’re entitled to your opinion, and you’re obviously a fan of the game and the development team, but I’m not so sure you’re entitled to say that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
        I have formed my opinion based on my previous experience with Dean Hall’s work, and what I’ve seen of this game.
        Personally, I believe Dean is excellent at setting out a grand plan and road mapping things, but DayZ is (to mine and most people’s eyes) proof that he’s pretty poor at following through and delivering on those promises in a timely manner.

        Whilst you’re welcome to disagree with me, if you could at least respect my right to form an opinion based on my own experiences, I’d appreciate it.

      • theirongiant says:

        *glances at 2014 DayZ roadmap*

  3. KDR_11k says:

    And here I thought Fortresscraft was the pinnacle of counterintuitive GUI and annoyingly convoluted base building in 3D builder games.

  4. lfcifer7 says:

    You’re not wrong, but the story you wrote is foretold in the game’s description. You should have known this was coming, it’s not casual, it’s for hardcore systems management. I think most who have read the description think “Well duh, what did you expect?”

    • treat says:

      Right. As a fan of SS13 and other heavy system-driven games, I don’t plan on touching this for years. It’s not something you should expect to be even reasonably entertaining until it’s nearly feature complete, as the systems that will ultimately make it fun rest in the balance of countless prerequisite systems that may not be implemented yet. It’s like starting on a jigsaw puzzle before you have all the pieces, a table to do it on, lights to help you see it, and hands to actually manipulate the pieces with.

      • UmmonTL says:

        As a fan of SS13 I had to get my hands on this and try it out. The controls were quickly learned, the way tools and items had to be applied in certain orders to build things immediately familiar. The controls will certainly need a bit of examining, it is weird how they took away any mouse interaction like drag&drop and only let you scroll through any storage with your mousewheel.

        Nevertheless the potential is there, the atmospherics system for example is already quite impressive. It works with the voxel terrain allowing you to build pressurized cave bases. The logic system allowing you to remotely and automatically control most things is a bit bare bones but workable. It was already mentioned that there will be some form of import function allowing you to start on a pre-designed station or ship. Multiplayer has issues but the basic stability seems fine, we’ll see how it handles 50-100 players but I think it’ll at most need a beefy dedicated server.
        My biggest fear atm is that any systems they will add like chemical reagents and reactions will not be as intimately integrated into everything as it is in SS13.

    • Fraser Brown says:

      There’s no rule that says systems-heavy games have to be unintuitive or nothing but busywork. A game can be complex without being needlessly complicated. I’m really over “hardcore” being used by devs to excuse straight up bad game design.

  5. Mojavi Viper says:

    Comparing Stationeers to Dayz is like comparing a lizard to an eagle. Yes they both eat meat, both live on earth, but are very different animals. IMO he took the best parts of dayz and incorporated into this game, the player vs the enviroment; which is exactly like the first days of dayz. You either know exactly what I am talking about or have no clue and have only seen it as a pvp fest.

    Also please read the dang description on the steam page. It illustrates exactly what the game is about. Either it’s for you or it isn’t. If it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea then move on, no harm no foul.

  6. Hyena Grin says:

    The binding of your helmet to I in a game with an inventory window, is just the most laughably malicious piece of game UI design I’ve heard of in quite a while.

  7. Lobber says:

    Oh, the DayZ guy? Not a chance.

  8. diriel says:

    I guess I just wholeheartedly disagree with the review. I’ve put in 22 hours and quite enjoyed myself. The game doesn’t do inventory like Minecraft and Space Engineers. Instead you have a couple pocked in your uniform, a few spaces in you jetpack, and specialist belts (one for mining, one for building). Then you have two hands to juggle all your needs.

    The actual systems make sense once you understand what they’re going for. The tools to use for different tasks also make sense once you know what they’re used for. I was able to get automated solar panels up, and begin getting other things built up, within my few hours of playing.

    It is not an easy game, and most things do take a long time, but you can see in my linked album that they do come. They still need to balance what you get at game start against what you need that first night. Stationeers is much harder in the first few in-game days than any of the other sandbox survival games. It will probably only get more-so as they add more survival needs into the game. Right now you just have to worry about electricity and air to breathe.

    Even with only two survival needs I had several Mark Watney moments as I learned on my feet. They were fun. To me. I still haven’t died after 22 hours of time.

    link to imgur.com

  9. G_Runciter says:

    EA-survival is such an oversaturated market, with so many absolutely worthless games…

    • KDR_11k says:

      And so few that ever leave early access. “It has meters that you need to regularly top up, release it!”

      • Artist says:

        Still most incomplete early access games offer more unique and fresh entertainment than maybe 50% of todays, lackluster AAA-titles.

  10. sabotrax says:

    Many people are disliking the UI, but it’s there for a reason. You’re playing a two-handed human. Having to to click “1” to open you helmet menu, then scroll down to “lights on/off” seems tedious, but is the equivalent to raising a heavy-gloved hand to click the switch on you helmet lamp. I can only tell you that the UI will feel totally natural after some hours playtime.
    I started a new base with my friends some days ago. One guy is building a greenhouse and is trying to balance pressure, heating and cooling in the little hut so that the fern don’t die early.
    I myself build a grid for separating gases. It works fairly well, but I wanted to add a gas tank for atmosphere mixture with 79% N and 21 % O2 so the other guys would’nt have mix it themselves in their living quarters. So yesterday evening I did not much else but design and implement a circuitry which would start to pressure a tank up to 1000 kPa when it’s under 500 kPa.
    Stationeers is not really a game but an intellectual challenge. I’ve put about 450 hours in it.

    • Harlander says:

      I can only tell you that the UI will feel totally natural after some hours playtime.

      Dwarf Fortress’s UI felt natural after a few hours playtime. You can get used to anything, so “you’ll get used to it” is no kind of defence.

      • ColonelFlanders says:

        This. Dwarf Fortress has the most despicable UI of all time, but is redeemed by the fact it’s a masterpiece. Stationeers does not have the same redeeming quality. Yet anyway.

        • Harlander says:

          Funnily enough for this context, I really feel that SS13’s interface is worse than DF’s*. At least the UI in Dwarf Fortress is responsive.

          *all discussions of the Dwarf Fortress UI should be appended with “with the exception of the Military interface”, which is the single worst piece of HMI I’ve ever seen.

  11. Artist says:

    Sorry, but badly written article that does no justice to the little unpolished gem the game already is. However you can properly complain about the lack of content. The devs said they want to properly fix the core systems first, before they roll out more content.
    So its probably the next 1-2 months that will show if this can become a fancy piece of gaming. Definatly not needed to slap down on it now.

  12. SaltTitan says:

    I don’t really understand the cries of “You can’t say it’s bad because it’s in Early Access!”. I get it, it’s unfinished (that’s why this series is called Premature Evaluation) but they are selling it to people. They are asking people to give them money to play something that is, by the sounds of it’s defenders in this thread, an Alpha-state game at best. If they are going to ask for money for it people have every right to ask if it’s worth the money and it’s perfectly acceptable for an Early Access review to say “no, it isn’t”. Maybe it will be eventually but this is the risk you run when you put out an early access game, you get judged for unfinished work. If you don’t want to get judged on unfinished work don’t sell it to people, if you decide to sell it early you have to accept the fact that there will be people that see the early reviews and never bother looking at it again.

  13. funkcanna says:

    Pretty surprised at this review to be honest. Stationeers is clearly not finished but what IS finished is, in my opinion, amazing. The depth to it is astounding and its VERY early access. Is it for everyone? No. And im sick of games that DO try to cater to everyone. Its for a certain kind of player who ENJOYS taking hours to build an airlock only to catastrophically blow up due to over-pressurizing it. The UI was weird at first but it makes sense once you get it. More sense than many other games, but we are just conditioned to use a certain UI, which is not this one.

  14. Jeroen D Stout says:

    Strangely enough the review is negative in that way that makes me think that if they bounced off it in this way, it might be an actually interesting game.

  15. reasonpolice says:

    Huh. I am actually confused about this article. The section is called “Premature Evaluation,” implying that games will be judged with early access in mind, yet that doesn’t seem to be the case here. I’m under the impression that, yes, the game was indeed built on a love of drudgery, and it doesn’t try to hide that. I don’t know why you’d use that as ammunition against the game.

    I found the UI and controls to be quite intuitive and easy-to-use, contrary to just about every other person who has played Stationeers. I didn’t even complete the in-game tutorial, I watched a 10 minute video on Youtube and had a fully functional barebones base within 2-3 hours.

    I don’t know, it just feels like the people who judge this game for being “too tedious” went into it expecting Minecraft On The Moon even though this game and its developer scream as loud as they can that it is NOT Minecraft On The Moon.

    • funkcanna says:

      Fully agree. The UI and controls make total sense and in fact I really hope they stay the same. So many hundreds of minecraft copies, I am very glad to see something totally different.

  16. mtcs says:

    This is one of the most unfair reviews I have read in my life. I played the game and it is NOT how it was described in the review. In my opinion, it is the opposite of a premature evolution. It is amazing how the devs were able to launch it in a state that is so playable with so many complex mechanics. Most of the bugs in the launch were gone in one or two weeks.
    I understand the first difficulty of learning a new way of interacting with a game (UI and stuff) but, it is part of the game. The tutorial is the most easy part of the game, if you can follow 3 instructions end remember the mechanics you can complete it very quickly. The rest is much like in the real world, you have gasses, pressure, temperature, electricity, sun inclination, solar panels, mining, smelting, machines to make stuff. If it is too difficult, you should go back to school to re-learn some science, because it is basic. And some science is even simplified there.
    You guys should review it again. It was not a good review. I played about 35h and already mastered almost everything in the game. You should have tried harder. After all it says HARDCORE in the description and “this is not a casual game”.

    • Reisning says:

      I agree. And looking at the pictures, with the machines and solarpanel randomly placed on a few blocks. I can see that the reviewer have no idea what hes doing. Does he even have an APC between the solar panel and the machines?

      Hard to write a review on a game you don`t know how to play.

      Im 88 hours into the game, playing on a Dedi server with some friends. Havent been this hooked on a game since Factorio.

      BUt I guess there will always be alot of negative reviews or comments about this game, since it might be too complex for the casual gamer.

      • kentonio says:

        If your tutorial completely fails to explain to players how to play the game, then that’s on you as a developer. A few people devoting 80+ hours to learning the game doesn’t help much if you’ve driven away the majority of potential customers by creating a difficulty learning cliff.

  17. WickyC says:

    Terrible EA review, Fraser was obviously severely burnt by the whole DayZ debacle.
    I would expect this from some butt-hurt 12 year old that probably had hundreds of hours out of DayZ, but not from RPS.

    Your better off reading some steam reviews than this whiny excuse for an article.

  18. Smiling Wolf says:

    It sounds like Fraser went into this knowing he was going to dislike the game and just wanted an excuse to write about Dean again. Deans past aside, I got the game, had no problems making my way through the tutorial, and while the UI certainly needs an overhaul, it’s at least consistent and every machine and tool in the game behaves consistently, which is more than can be said of some other survival titles.

    Yeah, the games pretty barebones right now, with not much in the way gameplay goals, but if your expectation going in was “I’ll just wack together a spaceship in 10 minutes and hold robot wars!” you clearly didn’t read the steam page and this game is obviously not something you’ll like.

    So if you want to flame Dean Hall for what he did with DayZ, go ahead, he deserves that, but at least don’t flame him for making something actually good just because you don’t like systems management games. As for whether he’ll abandoned this, we’ll see. i hope not, but at least I haven’t made up my mind before the facts are there. I’m frankly disappointed this got approved to be posted on the site.