My beautiful butterfly of a ship is floating sideways through space, with only one of its thrusters still intact. In the distance, tracer rounds dance around an innocent convoy of traders. The pirates didn’t waste much time on my ship, the Strictly Murder. A few surprise shots, a clumsy collision and off I drifted, desperately checking a game menu in an effort to rebuild and plot a course back to the safe zone. I clicked the rebuild button, certain that enough time had passed since the last shot struck my craft’s blue, delicate wings. A red message buzzed in the corner of my display.
“You need 910 iron and 588 titanium.”
Oh good, I thought. Back to mining.
I don’t know why I keep doing it to myself. Only last week I lamented the stodgy promise of Galactic Junk League, where you could create your own wonderful spaceships bit by bit and then drive them into a mediocre multiplayer firefight. Avorion seemed to have the same idea, but replace the arena combat with an open galaxy to explore. Asteroid mines, ship yards, scrap heaps, distress signals. A space game, by any measure, but one in which you could piece together your own craft block by block. Surely this time.
After fumbling through the tutorial and making a small, cat-like cube of a ship which I christened the Muckraker, I began to float around and consider my options. There were asteroids everywhere, glinting and iron-rich. I could mine some of that. But why would I waste my majestic feline cube on such a menial task? No, the Muckraker was going to get renovated and we were going to see what we could do.
The build screen for your ship is fiddly yet deep. Each block type – hull, thrusters, crew quarters, cargo hold, etc - can be stretched and moulded and clipped on almost wherever-you-want. Mirrored modes allow for perfectly symmetrical shipwrighting. And a stats list, once enabled, will show you in fine detail how each block will improve or impede your vessel. This cargo hold will add 40 units of cargo space, but it’ll also affect your pitch and yaw speed, a problem that can be solved by throwing more thrusters onto the extremities of your hull. Each piece costs a bit of money and a bit of material – iron, titanium, and so on. It’s a very open-ended editor, if a little dickish to use. Rotating blocks, altering the size and adjusting the snapping grid is a process akin to learning some sort of futuristic Photoshop. I Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V’d a lot of pieces.
Eventually, I was happy with the Muckraker. Red, long, covered in random spikes. All good ships need a spike or nine. But the error messages came down like iconographic rain. Not enough miners to operate your mining turrets! Not enough gunners for your military turrets! Not enough mechanics! Not enough crew space! For every threatening barb on the Muckraker’s underside, there was a logistical problem that needed fixing. Not to worry. I know where to get the crew.
You pick up crew in a number of places, the giant space station in your starter zone being the closest and most stocked early on. Without gunners, your machine guns won’t work, without mechanics your ship will slowly take damage, because there’s nobody there to put coal in the engine or whatever. I stacked the ship with men and women and headed out into the galaxy at random, plotting co-ordinates and waiting for the jump route to calculate. The galaxy map is massive and my jump range microscopic, but with a few quick hops I could explore some of my surroundings. Maybe check out one of the distress signals nearby.
I landed after the first jump and roused the navigating computer again. Second jump, full speed!
“Your hyperdrive engine is using up all your energy.”
Hm. Well, I’m sure that can be sorted. I went into the build menu again and tried to discover what stat governed this new limitation. I covered the Muckraker in solar panels and told myself that it still looked threatening. The energy level increased by a pitiful amount. I would later discover that what I needed was a generator, only buildable with titanium. Because of my refusal to mine, I had a mere 4 nuggets of this metal. The solar panels glinted. I gave it some more spikes.
I hopped a little further into the void, landed, and began to plot the next jump.
“Your hyperdrive still needs 155 seconds to recharge.”
Okay. That’s okay. I am still trying to understand the game. What I ought to do is go back to the safe zone and figure this out. The Muckraker obviously still needs some work. I began to leap back, slowly, slowly. Pausing in each attractive-yet-empty sector of space fro 155 seconds at a time. A little yellow exclam appeared in the top right of the screen.
“The crew of ship ‘The Muckraker’ must be paid.”
Oh right. I checked the message. I was in debt to my own crew to the tune of 13,000 galactic quid. I had 3800 quid in my space account. This was a problem. Without payment, the crew get inefficient and annoyed. A mechanic begins to count for only 85% of a mechanic. A pair of miners only counts as 1.7 miners. In this way, the Muckraker became even more rubbish and energy inefficient.
I wobbled back to the safe zone and found some wrecked pirate vessels, loot still swirling around them, derelicts who had met the safe zone’s guardians in battle. I sold the loot – ship upgrades that boosted shields or allowed for deeper scanning range – for tens of thousands of credits and felt like a fool. I have been going about this all wrong. The Muckraker ought to be doing what its name suggests. In a blast of nominative determinism, my spiky, awful ship became a bottom feeder, searching the safe zone for wrecks and dismantling them with a salvaging turret. I made 88,000 credits and mined some titanium on the side for a generator. No more would I be hobbled by 155-second starjumps. The Muckraker would go from sector to sector and she would salvage like a hungry eel. An eel shaped like a scorpion.
I stumbled across this scrapyard. A gold mine for my purposes. All these shipwrecks, floating there like ripe cherry tomatoes. The scrapyard man said I needed to pay 10,000 galquids for the privilege of salvaging for a mere hour. I made it 10 minutes before extreme boredem set in and I drove The Muckraker into the side of a wide cargo wreck just to see what happened. What happened is: I exploded.
Here’s my problem. Space games, to generalise, are saddled with dull odd jobs. Even the best-looking spaceship sim is hollow at the core. Here, there were three options to make the money I needed to build a bigger and better ship.
Mining – this involves hovering your ship close to a rock as you hold down the mouse button until the giant space stone slowly dissolves into nothing. You can also discover larger asteroids, which are almost identical to all the others but slightly “more rocky”, and sell these to factions for decent cash. Later in the game, after you’ve earned the millions necessary for such an endevour, you can set up your own mining station on one of these. I’ve also read about drones and helpers, but I never found any of those. Until you’re rich, mining is no more interesting than in any other space game I’ve played – Eve, Elite, they are all sinners. Mining is the curse of the space game.
Salvaging – this is essentially mining, except instead of lasering a rock until it dissolves you are lasering a ship until it dissolves. Sometimes goodies fall out, upgrades that can sell for a good price, or cargo that the ship had been carrying. Mostly, however, each fizzled bit of metal will yield a tiny bit of iron or titanium. This makes salvaging like playing a senile slot machine, which instead of coins awards you mainly with crumpled-up bits of tin foil.
Fighting – now we’re talking, right? A good spacefight is hard to beat! Oh wait, you’re right. A good space fight is literally hard to beat. In the safe zone, you can rely on nearby AI captains to pitch in immediately, then let loose with your little gunboat. In distant sectors it is more of a challenge. I once responded to a distress signal and was faced with two pirate ships. Okay, I figured, I can do this. But then I noticed that there were actually nine pirate ships and that the little red boxes that serve as targeting reticules simply didn’t show up very well in the black of space. I turned around and left that sector, thankful that I would not have to pay my engineers again for another 90 minutes.
I’m simplifying this of course. There are other money-making methods. And each of them does have their subtleties. Some wrecks can be brought back to life for example and sold whole. You can build multiple ships and order them about with you in some way (although I never got to this point myself). You can found mines and build space stations. You can ferry cargo and do deliveries or material-sourcing jobs for money. You can set your cargo policy to take on stolen goods and try your luck selling those (again, I had stolen cargo but never actually sold it).
There’s a lot in this game, small touches that will appeal to a much more patient player. It is the sinkiest of timesinks. For me, I just wanted it to stop throwing handcuffs on me every fifteen minutes. For a game about making your own ship, it is a great fan of hobbling your creativity with necessary stats, crew rosters, energy levels, payment plans, insurance policies, hyperdrive requirements, and on and on and on. For many, that’ll be the appeal: here’s some material, see how you can do with limitations, see how much you can make with what you've got. Even I would like to get into that level of play. When I see the videos of it, I know there’s a good game buried in here, and something that many people will love. But when the early limitations can only be overcome with grindy, uninteresting bottom-feeding, I start to mentally check out.
The breaking point came for me when I forsook the plans to make a Muckraker II and instead began work on a new ship. It was to be a deadly Morpho butterfly of a spacecraft. It had large wings, coloured eternal blue. Six legs on it’s belly and two antennae, which upon closer inspection were just the same block type as the legs, except they were placed on the ship’s “forehead”. Most importantly, she had a triple barreled gun and another mono-barrelled gun. I called her the Strictly Murder and went out to seek my fortune.
That’s how I ended up floating in space, watching a fight from afar, seven out of eight thrusters destroyed in a botched attack on a group of angry pirates. Normally, I’d click on the build menu and then “repair” which would automatically buy and stick each missing piece to your ship, according to the last autosaved blueprint you had. In this case, I got the message that I was once again stinking of poverty.
“You need 910 iron and 588 titanium.”
Oh good, I thought. Back to mining. But then I thought again, and quit the game.
Avorion is on Steam early access for £13.59/$17.99. These impressions are based on build 1610306.