Astroneer PC

Giv­ing ground con­trol to Ma­jor Tom

EDGE - - GAMES -

Sur­vival games aren’t gen­er­ally known for their sunny out­looks. Most have their mo­ments of lev­ity, of course, but the strug­gle to main­tain ex­is­tence in the face of fierce op­po­si­tion – both nat­u­ral and oth­er­wise – is rarely a cheer­ful one. Astroneer, then, is some­thing of an anom­aly: it’s a game with a sense of bound­less op­ti­mism that might seem un­likely in the cir­cum­stances it presents, and yet is wholly be­fit­ting of the pi­o­neer­ing spirit it es­pouses.

In truth, stay­ing alive is not your chief con­cern on th­ese pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated plan­ets. You have a job to do, af­ter all. “You’re part of a group of ex­plor­ers who are look­ing for rare and valu­able re­sources,” Paul Pepera, of de­vel­oper Sys­tem Era, tells us. “Once you land, it’s up to you to start your base of oper­a­tions and gather the ba­sic [ma­te­ri­als] that al­low you to sur­vive. Even­tu­ally you’ll be able to craft com­plex equip­ment, which will en­able you to go even far­ther and get harder-to-find re­sources.” If the core game­play loop is fa­mil­iar, there’s a wild­card in the form of a large hand­held de­vice that gives your as­tro­naut the power to de­form ter­rain. The process is in­tu­itive and sat­is­fy­ingly tac­tile, with au­dio ef­fects that sound less like a noisy ex­ca­va­tor carv­ing through chunks of rock, and more like an ASMR video of some­one shift­ing around on a soft, yield­ing leather sofa. With gen­tle pops as ob­jects are un­earthed and the light crackle of sur­face grit tum­bling into the hole, the process of dig­ging is a re­mark­ably plea­sur­able sensation. A good job, too, since you’ll be do­ing quite a bit of it.

For Pepera and fel­low artist Adam Bromell, this me­chanic emerged or­gan­i­cally

from early art projects. Af­ter years pro­duc­ing com­plex and de­tailed de­signs for block­busters in­clud­ing As­sas­sin’s Creed Unity and Splin­ter

Cell: Black­list, Bromell in par­tic­u­lar had en­joyed the com­par­a­tively fast pace of it­er­a­tion with low-poly 3D art. “I de­cided to do some space[-themed] stuff be­cause I was re­ally into space ex­plo­ration,” he tells us. “I was in­spired by what NASA was do­ing, and watch­ing Chris Had­field on the ISS.” He sent a mockup to Pepera, and the two be­gan to bounce ideas off one an­other, fall­ing in love with the fan­tasy of be­ing an as­tro­naut alone on a dis­tant planet. The sim­ple style made sense from a prac­ti­cal point of view, too. “It’s just been four of us for a while,” Pepera says, “so we wanted an art style that was achiev­able with a very small team. This polyg­o­nal, geo­met­ric look to the game is strik­ing, but it also [lets] Adam and I quickly ham­mer out con­tent for it, as op­posed to some­thing that’s more triple-A re­al­is­tic.”

As he put to­gether this early con­cept, Bromell found an un­likely in­spi­ra­tion in the very tools he was us­ing to make the im­age. He’d been us­ing 3D sculpt­ing and paint­ing tool Mud­box to cre­ate the ter­rain for the as­tro­naut to stand on, when, as he puts it, “a light­bulb sud­denly went off”. What if, he won­dered, the player could in­ter­act with the game­world in the same way he was do­ing? Even be­fore the stu­dio had an en­gine up and run­ning, it had an en­gag­ing cen­tral hook.

So, yes, just as you can bur­row be­neath the sur­face of the planet, or even tun­nel through hills and moun­tains, you can use your de­for­ma­tion hard­ware to build ob­jects – from makeshift bridges span­ning chasms to tem­po­rary walls around your base’s most vi­tal equip­ment to pro­tect it from sud­den sand squalls. And if your rover ve­hi­cle should ever get stuck in a hole, it’s a sim­ple process to fash­ion a ramp and drive out of trou­ble. The idea is to in­ject a lit­tle more cre­ativ­ity into prob­lem solv­ing, to give play­ers a range of pos­si­bil­i­ties to tackle any given co­nun­drum, but also to af­ford them the room to sim­ply mess around. “It’s al­most lit­er­ally a sandbox!” Bromell laughs.

There are, of course, lim­i­ta­tions to this power. As in any good sur­vival game, care­ful re­source man­age­ment is es­sen­tial. You’ll re­quire a reg­u­lar sup­ply of en­ergy for your de­for­ma­tion tool and for your ve­hi­cle, oth­er­wise you risk get­ting stranded away from base. Dy­ing isn’t quite the penalty it might be in other sur­vival games, but you still have to face con­se­quences for your mis­takes. “Imag­ine you’ve gone on a two-night ex­pe­di­tion and you’ve brought a rover with you that has enough power for those two days,” Bromell says. “If you’re in a cave spelunk­ing, say, and you hap­pen to die down there, then you’ve lost every­thing that was down there with you. But in terms of bru­tal­ity, it’s more Minecraft than DayZ.”

For the game’s Early Ac­cess de­but, at least, there will be a four­player co-op­er­a­tive mode, which should al­low ef­fi­cient teams to progress much quicker, as­sum­ing they can re­sist the temp­ta­tion to keep sculpt­ing rock phal­luses. “Imag­ine you’re play­ing with a friend, and they’re de­form­ing the ter­rain while you’re build­ing a so­lar panel that will help power them so they can keep work­ing,” Pepera ex­plains, cit­ing pre­cisely the blend of in­ge­nu­ity and strong team­work with which this small team has carved out a be­guil­ing and per­son­able de­but.

“I was in­spired by what NASA was do­ing, and watch­ing Chris Had­field on the ISS”

Astroneer’s de­for­ma­tion tech is be­ing re­fined all the time. Since the build Sys­tem Era showed off at GDC, it now looks more chis­elled and nat­u­ral

De­vel­oper/ pub­lisher Sys­tem Era For­mat PC Ori­gin US, Canada Re­lease 2016

TOP There will be an up­grade tree, Pepera ex­plains. “You’ll [un­lock] more pow­er­ful de­for­ma­tion tools – you can slap one on the rover and drive around and de­form at the same time.”

ABOVE Cer­tain mod­ules that use nu­clear fis­sion will have to be buried un­der­ground

Though plant life isn’t gen­er­ally a cause for con­cern, Bromell sug­gests that the flora might not al­ways be friendly should you dis­turb its habi­tat

A smart drag-and-drop in­ter­face lets you see what you’re car­ry­ing in your Astroneer’s pack at a glance, and al­lows you to ac­cess items quickly

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