Minecraft in space! Sort of!
This is a game that doesn’t want to tell you what to do. And this is both its greatest asset and downfall. From the second you, a tiny astronaut, land on the deserted planet, you have to figure out how to not die – your oxygen slowly ticks down as you run around the alien surface; your power blinks and flashes urgently as you frantically run back to your shuttle, where you know you’ll be safe.
It takes a while to work out what’s going on in Astroneer. Still in its Game Preview stage of development, it’s light on tutorials, which is especially vexing as its controls are hard to figure out, with three different ways of controlling the camera. Your job on this planet is to survive, Matt-Damonin- The-Martian style, but instead of potatoes and your own hard-earned poop, your most valuable commodities are resin and compound, which are used to craft things to make exploring and gathering easier. These materials can be found in the ground, and can be mined by terraforming the land.
You’ll soon find that the ground all around your base is pitted with potholes that you made, and you’ll fall into them ALL THE TIME, before running out of oxygen trying to escape. Then your new astronaut will have to spelunk to rescue the loot, rinsing and repeating ad infinitum. This is worse when you accidentally drive your brand-new truck into a big hole and have to abandon it there forever. RIP, truck. We hardly knew ye.
The relative silence you’ll find in Astroneer is beautiful, though. It feels like you’re really alone on this planet, with no one but the machines you build for company. Exploration is no one’s game but your own, and you set your own goals and targets without any pushing or prodding. You drive as far as you can, then set a trail of oxygen-giving tethers deep down into a valley because you saw something cool, then grab a weird-looking lump of something to take back for research. It’s brilliant, understated, self-motivated fun.
There are some fantastic structures and plants that you can stumble across, and therein lies the most wonderful part of the game: finding something cool in its randomly generated terrain. Caves are frequent and mysterious, filled with glistening plants that look like glass sculptures and lethal, pulsating geysers that lure you in and choke the air around you. Crashed spaceships hold glorious loot and the implication of terrible things having happened. There’s always more to explore, and building a shuttle to open up new planets widens the variety even more.
There are a few issues, especially given the game’s early development status. The janky physics can be frustrating, there’s a definite tapering off of Things To Do after about five to six hours and trying to terraform a ramp to get in and out of caves is so much harder than it needs to be. But the worlds Astroneer generates are such a joy to explore in increments, without the kind of threat or predecided motive that many modern videogames force upon you.
It’s early days but this looks like a game of exploration for the sake of exploration, where seeking and finding takes precedence. Astroneer won’t tell you what to do, but it gives you the freedom to figure it out yourself.
“The first thing to figure out on this deserted planet is how not to die”
right The sky at night has a beautiful horizontal stripe of pink and teal stars.
below The weird architecture in Astroneer is the best thing about the whole game.