Space. The final frontier. That we know of. For years, humankind has looked up to the stars and imagined life on planets beyond our own. For years, nerds have scratched this itch by exploring digital worlds of every shape and size. In the early 2010s the perennially popular Minecraft set the scene for many in terms of digital exploration and survival. Collect resources, craft tools to collect better resources, and craft better tools and contraptions. Rinse and repeat.
Astroneer, a third-person space survival simulator, has taken this formula of gathering and building to a level that’s “out of this world.” Astroneer has focused on seven worlds in particular, and the game begins with your astronaut character’s dropship malfunctioning and stranding them on one of these planets. From the moment you take control of your astronaut, your focus is on surviving and thriving on this foreign world.
I had the pleasure of being introduced to a developer-version of the game by Joe Tirado, who specializes in Communications at System Era. In the custom map he had set up, all the various toys the game had to offer were available: buggies, ships, a jetpack, research modules, and resource bundles littered the planet’s surface.
The first item of business in Astroneer is learning the trusty Terrain Tool, which the player can use to add or remove matter from the environment to harvest resources or to navigate throughout the planet. This tool quickly becomes the crux of exploration, as it allows players to create bridges across gaps just as easily as it tunnels down towards the planet’s core.
Having only ever seen the game played before, it took me a moment to adjust to the controls, but before long I was digging down into the planet confidently. However, I quickly learned that too great a deviation from the oxygen tethers results in your character’s dependence on their backpack’s limited supply. So naturally in digging straight down through the top of a cave ceiling, not only did I fall several hundred feet to my death, but I also would have died of oxygen starvation even had my character not shattered every digital bone in their spacesuit upon reaching the floor.
Time to do things right. This time, with Joe’s tutelage, I was able to hop in a pre-spawned digger mobile (imagine a rover with a big drill on the front) and venture back towards the planetary core. I managed to flip the vehicle on multiple occasions, but with a word of advice from Joe, I was able to use the Terrain Tool to reorient the digging machine and proceed carefully on my voyage to the core. Underground are layers upon layers of open cave and resources that surround the planetary core. Cloaked in mystery (and a stellar amount of dirt and debris), the core eventually provides yet another useful resource to the player.
Where many space simulators run into resistance is the often heavily involved series of menus and controls that often result in the use of cheat sheets next to one’s keyboard. In Astroneer, there is no user interface to toggle transparency of. Your character’s oxygen, resources, and tools are all easily visible from the backpack your astronaut carries embedded on the back of their spacesuit. This allows the player to click and drag items from their backpack and place them on the planet’s surface with little inventory management.
After I had managed to find and float around in the planet’s core, Joe and I got to chatting about the future of Astroneer. The solar system available to players includes seven planets. It is by no easy means that the player may visit and travel to each of these planets, which is why though System Era is interested in expanding the solar system, the focus is on planetary quality over quantity.
That is, though the planets are procedurally generated for each player, the development team has been focusing on refining the algorithm the planets use to build themselves, so as to prevent the various environments from becoming stale. This is of course alongside the addition of new plans for construction, new resources, and ultimately new ways to play the game with the addition of game modes like creative in addition to the base survival game.
Astroneer launched in February 2019 and is available through direct purchase, Steam, Xbox One, and soon PS4!
Available: Steam, Xbox One, PS4
My time roaming the starter planet may have been limited, but seeing how far the game had progressed from its alpha version years ago was nothing short of impressive. With the coming additions looming as well, Astroneer is a polished space sandbox that promises to scratch that interstellar creativity itch.
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