After a few experiences with games in their pre-release forms, I’ve learnt to lower my expectations for preview games. At first, it’s a strange concept: playing a game that’s not finished. And if not approached correctly, a pre-release experience can give you a totally warped impression of a game. The trick is seeing potential. You’ve got to look at the game for what it’s going to be instead of what it is right now.
So imagine my shock when I booted up Astroneer and found a game that – even in its pre-alpha state – was addictive and refined. In Astroneer, you’re a solitary astronaut charged with making a planet liveable. There’s no story detailing who you are, where you are, or even why you’re there. There is, however, a mysterious underlying narrative, told through the wreckage of spaceships scattered across the planets. It’s remarkable that the game can tell a story without really telling you anything. What’s more remarkable is that it manages to be both intriguing and addictive without hostile enemies. In fact, the basis of Astroneer is actually peaceful – there’s no combat or violence. Instead, the game focuses on exploration and creation.
Scattered through the game’s geometric, pastel environments are a number of different materials. These are used to expand your habitat and construct tools that will help you discover more materials to expand your habitat, and, well I’m sure you see where this is going. You’ll also discover other larger ‘unknown’ elements; these, when researched, will allow you to create bigger, better and more useful tools. The shuttle can carry you, quickly, to any location on your planet. And the spaceship opens the doorway for interplanetary travel, which, in turn, opens the doorway for new exploration opportunities. And Astroneer does an incredible job of rewarding that exploration. Even if a journey doesn’t yield the desired research or materials, you’ll find wreckage and environments that make make your efforts worthwhile.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a survival game without some sense of adversity. Astroneer has its fair share of environmental hazards that threaten, fairly regularly, to wreck your day. You’ll need power to mine for materials, and oxygen to, well, breathe. So until you’ve researched and stockpiled materials, you’ll be limited with the distance you can travel. Brutal windstorms strike at random, unpredictable intervals. And rarer, more absurd dangers – including what can only be described as a sarlacc pit – give some edge to the gameplay.
It’s still got a few issues, but they’re not nearly as plentiful as one would expect from a game in pre-alpa development. The physics of the shuttle and the rover can definitely use some work. And while the mining system works fine, the terrain-building mechanic is unreliable. You will also fall through the map at random junctures. It happens so rarely that you’ll be able to shrug it off, but it is still annoying.
Aside from these few bugs – and there are quite literally just a few – this game is spectacular. What we’ve got in this preview are the workings of a game that is sure to be one of the best in its genre. I’m chomping at the bit for the end result.