An­other new hope for in­ter­plan­e­tary ex­plo­ration


PC, Xbox One

De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Sys­tem Era Soft­works For­mat PC, Xbox One Ori­gin US Re­lease TBA

The longer your reach, the rarer and more valu­able the re­sources you’ll un­earth

Astroneer’s low-poly worlds are quite de­light­ful. Yomp­ing across these pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated chunks of rock feels a lit­tle like walk­ing on a gi­ant home­made birth­day cake, un­evenly but lov­ingly iced with a gen­er­ous help­ing of food colour­ing and a sprin­kling of treats scat­tered art­lessly over the sur­face. It’s a long way from the greys and browns of most sur­vival games, and yet it’s sur­pris­ingly easy to take for granted. The ground un­der your feet might be pur­ple or bright blue, but it soon feels oddly fa­mil­iar.

In its cur­rent al­pha form, in Early Ac­cess on Steam and Xbox One’s Game Pre­view,

Astroneer lets go of your hand as soon as you launch off from the main menu and your diminu­tive craft touches down on a new planet. Your por­ta­ble ter­raform­ing tool pro­vides an early source of idle amuse­ment as you carve craters into the sur­face, or re­v­erse the po­lar­ity to build small hillocks. But stray too far from your base and you’ll soon find your­self in trou­ble. It’s not that the planet it­self is dan­ger­ous – though the odd squall that whips up chunks of po­ten­tially deadly de­bris will have you scur­ry­ing back to safety – but rather that your suit’s oxy­gen sup­ply is ex­tremely lim­ited. For once, you don’t have to bother top­ping up hunger, thirst and tired­ness gauges; the threat of suf­fo­cat­ing to death is more than enough to worry about.

On an early sor­tie, we un­earth a com­pound that al­lows us to con­struct teth­ers. These, it turns out, are Astroneer’s game-chang­ers. Plac­ing one down within range of your base ex­tends its sup­ply line of O2; po­si­tion more at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals and soon you’ve got a trail that lets you ex­plore much far­ther. Be­fore too long, you’ll have glow­ing blue ten­drils stretch­ing out in all directions – a clear vis­i­ble mea­sure of how far you’ve come. They can, how­ever, be hard to pick out in a storm, which means it’s help­ful to place a few bea­cons that throw up clear blue icons to head to­ward. Even so, when the wind kicks up and your walk­ing pace drops to a trudge, there’s a tan­gi­ble ten­sion as you stag­ger slowly to­wards safety while the edge of the screen steadily red­dens. Iron­i­cally, the mo­ment you ex­hale is the mo­ment your as­tro­naut latches onto the outer threads of the web you’ve con­structed and fi­nally takes a deep gulp of air.

The longer your reach, the rarer and more valu­able the re­sources you’ll un­earth. Sim­pler ma­te­ri­als al­low you to add ex­ten­sions to your base’s core fa­cil­ity, but to run a fully func­tional so­lar panel, printer and ve­hi­cle bay you’ll need to ven­ture fur­ther for the ma­te­ri­als to build and power them. That might mean wan­der­ing into caves, where alien flora spout poi­sonous gases. Given the op­tion to craft fil­ters, we nat­u­rally as­sume they’ll let us sur­vive these toxic ex­cre­tions, but alas, they’re a mis­lead­ingly named con­sum­able that sup­plies an ex­tra 20 sec­onds’ worth of emer­gency oxy­gen. Our por­ta­ble vac­uum turns out to be the best so­lu­tion, ex­tract­ing the plants from the earth with a sat­is­fy­ing pop. These large pods, and any other ex­trater­res­trial ob­jects, can be slowly dragged back to base and placed atop your re­search fa­cil­ity, usu­ally yield­ing ei­ther a ma­te­rial or a blue­print to craft some­thing new.

Over the next few hours, we ex­pe­ri­ence a shift in pur­pose. Where at first each new dis­cov­ery feels valu­able in and of it­self, they quickly be­come lit­tle more than means to an end. Even­tu­ally we un­lock first a rover and then a shut­tle – which, once we’ve ac­cu­mu­lated enough fuel, lets us blast off into space to pick out a new planet to mine. Yet by now we’re a lit­tle re­luc­tant to leave.

Astroneer’s most ex­cit­ing mo­ments don’t come when we’re set­ting out into the great un­known, but rather when we’re head­ing back, back­pack stuffed with ores to smelt and com­pounds to click into those empty slots, ev­ery com­pleted fa­cil­ity prompt­ing a tiny swell of pride. In truth, that’s partly be­cause

Astroneer is a lit­tle short on truly awein­spir­ing find­ings – wrecked pieces of a gi­ant space­craft are as mo­men­tous as it gets. How­ever, if it’s hardly what the de­vel­oper in­tended, this like­ably mel­low sur­vival game of­fers a re­minder that how­ever far you might travel, home is truly where the heart is.

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