Space is an interesting topic.
The mere mention of it is enough to conjure thoughts of distant galaxies and twinkling stars. If you’ve been paying attention to any of the recent statements from Professor Stephen Hawking, then planetary colonisation may well be something else it brings to mind. But how hard would it really be? How hard can sustaining ourselves as we do on earth be if we were to travel far into the reaches of space and land on a planet? Could we continue on with mankind and adapt our knowledge into the many other parts of the galaxy? Or would we simply forget to attach a key component to our newly built structures and watch mankind collapse?
That question is put to you in Planetbase, one of the latest indie titles to touch down on the Xbox Store. So, with my plan in hand I decided to jump in and put it into action – to test how well I could survive, just in case Mr. Hawking himself comes knocking for some top ideas.
The basic premise to Planetbase is rather simple and to the point. In fact, it’s so much to the point that the title alone gives you everything you can be expecting to do in the game – build bases on distant planets. Of course, there’s much more to it than that though, and anyone looking for a relaxing interstellar colonisation title will quickly find themselves being chewed up and spat out by the unforgiving difficulty of Planetbase.
There are a couple of ways to play Planetbase; the basic game and then the challenge mode. Both are pretty identical though, with the only real difference being that challenge mode throws specific scenarios at you straight away, rather than letting you arrive at them in your own time as you expand your base. There is also an optional tutorial on the main menu, for those who want to get familiar with how things work, and as someone who found the overall experience rather challenging, I’d recommend doing this no matter what. But even then, you’re probably going to be in for a rather difficult ride.
Each game drops you on one of four planets, each of which increase hugely in difficulty. At least that’s what the menu states, because I’ve seriously struggled to reach the latter planets, quite simply due to nothing more than the unforgiving and harsh nature of the game.
Things begin with your crew of seven base builders arriving via a drop ship, along with two drones that help out with the various tasks, such as building and carrying. On board your ship is a limited quantity of supplies – food, medical wares and building materials. You are then tasked with building a self-sufficient base that can sustain the life of your crew, produce new resources, and eventually become a home for your new found colony.
However, what isn’t explained to you very well, even in the tutorial, is just how brutally tough this task is, and how just one mistake can leave your entire colony in tatters. Something I had the pleasure of finding out on numerous occasions.
The first task when building a base is to build an oxygen supply, following it up with a food, water and power source in order to get the bare minimum your crew needs up and running. From here you can then expand with more important buildings such as a medical bay, a mine to gather materials or a processing plant to turn those materials into usable resources.
This sounds simple, right? Wrong.
As I mentioned previously, you start with a limited quantity of supplies to get you going. This is to build the things you really, really need and help get your basic set up sorted. But if you are found to create as much as a single building early on, at the wrong time, you can quickly find yourself without the much needed supplies to continue, all before succumbing to a loop of power outages, starvation, suffocation and death. Like I said, there is indeed a tutorial to help show you which ones you need, but when you’re in a game, you are quickly faced with many demands at once. Having so little in the way of supplies to start off with can often see you either building all the correct buildings and having no supplies left to fill them with their contents, or left to build a small amount of buildings, risking the death of your colonists due to missing vital structures.
That in itself is a huge worry and I’ve yet to even mention the natural disasters that can occur. See, each planet has its own set of hazards to worry about, and although you get to choose where on each planet you wish to start, the general area is roughly the same no matter what, with the only real difference being how many rocks are in your way. The hazards that occur in these areas start off with basic issues such as sandstorms, and then progress to much more worrying ones – meteors and lightning storms – all of which can pretty much destroy key facilities in one go. Should you not possess the resources to fix them, it could very well be game over shortly after.
The key to avoiding these issues is to expand your base as much as possible, bring in new colonists and increase the workforce that are available so to bring in extra resources. This is a tough task though, as new colonists only come to your planet if it is being run sufficiently, and given the exceptional difficulty this is no easy ask.
Another big issue for Planetbase is that most of the stuctures you build look pretty much identical, meaning the bigger the base, the harder it will be to find specific buildings. There are some noticeable differences, such as the mine being placed into rocky terrain and the medical bay which paints a big red cross in the middle, but other than that it can be quite difficult to tell each facility apart. In a game that requires a near perfect knowledge of everything at all times, this becomes a bit of an issue.
Other than simply building a base, each planet brings with it specific goals, known as milestones, to complete. These are the unlocks for the next planet and come with various tasks. For example, the first milestone is achieved for simply surviving the first day on your new planet. These make for something extra to work towards rather than simply building a base. Unfortunately, there is no story to playthrough meaning those looking for an interesting narrative to go alongside their gameplay will be better off looking elsewhere.
If the basic play is too slow for you, you can hop straight into the challenge mode I spoke about earlier. These offer specific scenarios for you to overcome, and require incredibly quick thinking and a great understanding of how everything works. One such challenge requires you to colonise a distant planet, far from the reaches of major trade routes, with no atmosphere and short days, meaning you will have very little sunlight from which to utilise solar energy, and pretty much no way of utilising trading. That makes for one hell of a tough experience.
Then you will have the objective, which usually requires you reach a set number of colonists on your base, which of course is only done by expanding and running the base with utmost efficiency. Whilst this sounds like the perfect idea of a challenge for any fan of sci-fi and strategy, the difficulty of the game takes away any chance of fun, instead carving out a challenging and painful experience which is sure to frustrate more than engage.
Planetbase has all the requirements of a top simulation experience, but the overbearing difficulty and need for perfection throughout makes this title feel more like a chore than anything else. With very little in the way of replayability – other than starting over again – interest begins to fade very quickly. That doesn’t mean Planetbase is a terrible game, but with such demanding gameplay, it’s only truly hardcore simulation enthusiasts that will get any real enjoyment out of what is a needlessly turbulent experience.