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.