Astroneer was meant to be a quick text detour between video reviews. A few hours play to see everything the game had to offer, a few more to write it up with a few screen-grabs… bish-bash-bosh, another review of an indie survival/crafting game.

Imagine my surprise 20 hours later when I’ve not even explored everything the first of seven planets has to offer.

Ground Control to Major Tom

On booting the game for the first time you’ll watch your shuttle land on a vibrantly coloured alien planet and inducted into the basics with a series of missions, gradually ramping up difficulty until you’re tasked with getting to the core of the planet and 3D printing yourself a brand new shuttle.

Galumphing around the place isn’t as simple as picking a direction and spacewalking over there though. Your puny human body needs oxygen, and it’s in short supply. Ish. I mean, you can make infinite amounts of it, but until you unlock portable oxygenators and the materials to make them (which I haven’t) you’re tethered to your base’s supply. Literally.

SPAAAAAACE

Neon-blue tethers expand your range by pumping delicious O2 to your suit. At first this can be grating when you just want to go over that there hill, and you’re held back like a chihuahua on a cotton-candy leash next to a busy motorway. Sure, you could break your tether to explore, but death might come quick. However, Astroneer makes not dying blue and gasping easy enough to be more challenge and less admin.

Talk to your kids about oxygen addiction

You automatically glom-on to any building or tether at a reasonable range, recharging your in-suit supply too. Running out isn’t an immediate death sentence either, giving you fair chance to crawl back to your Air Daddy.

Once you’ve vacuumed up enough resources (wonderfully deforming the voxelated landscape as you do) you can even craft air filters and oxygen tanks, allowing longer adventures but taking up space in your backpack – space that could be used for looting precious minerals.

And it’s in your backpack where a lot of the game takes place.

Look ma, no HUD!

Astroneer has no heads-up display elements. Everything is elegantly displayed with yellow (power) and blue (air) bars and circles on your backpack, clearly visible with all its contents on your character model – eight basic slots, two quick slots, one crafting slot, and three on your Terrain Tool. Sounds generous, until you realise there are no equipment slots.

Every upgrade, air tank, battery, pack of tethers and worklight needs to be on your person, subtracting from what you can carry back to base. You could build a base closer to those resources of course, by carrying smaller buildings packaged for deployment or finding the resources in that new area ‘al fresco’. But then you’re gathering with your Billy Basic Terrain Tool and no gear… 

The gameplay loop takes the traditional exploring = new resources = new tools = more exploring and adds the caveat of exploring with what. Go nude except for a few tethers and you might bring more back, but when returning almost always means going up (with rarer resources found deeper down) one slip-up might leave you half-dead with no tether struggling to adapt fast enough.

Forgot to pack my damned underwear…

Underground, overground…

Don’t Dig Down are words to live by in Minecraft. In Astroneer, Watch Your Step is more appropriate (but also Don’t Dig Down you absolute lemon). The only things that want you dead are plants and gravity, with no mobile enemies as far as I know – the worst things to watch out for are gas-spewing hissvines. This sounds like babytown frolics, but most of the underground areas are holier than the Pope on a Bible-only diet.

Either we’re tripping balls, or we will be soon

Digging at a slight angle isn’t enough to save you. Taking the pre-generated gently sloping passages isn’t enough to prevent being turned into a space pancake, with a more than equal chance of a mortal fall or dead end. Backtracking and clever use of limited terrain modifying tools are mandatory to carefully descend, all the while expanding your tether network and returning rare minerals to your base.

 

If you do fall – and I never did because I’m totally elite shutup – then it is both a challenge to recover, and a tough decision as to whether you’re going to bother. Yeah, your backpack totally had useful tools and rare items, but crafting/finding those again is likely to take just as much time as agonisingly plotting a route to your flattened corpse.

Wombling free

Let’s say we fell. Hypothetically. I didn’t. Totes elites. I decide to explore the surface rather than go further into the metaphorically deadly depths which might have killed lesser gamers. I place the exciting new lumps and bumps I laboriously yoinked from belowground into the Research Chamber for bytes, the game’s currency exclusively used for unlocking new items, unlocking a buggy.

Crafting a vehicle works just the same as anything else – slot the right materials into the 3D printer and hit the button. Excitingly though, each vehicle also provides oxygen and power with some (like the shuttle) also connecting to tether networks allowing for quickly expanding your range.

If you can’t find debris in the shops, then homemade is fine

My buggy doesn’t do that. It does, however, let me wander the planet surface. stumbling upon remnants of construction and destroyed vehicles with helpful items like solar generators or windmills which I can snap onto my buggy, boosting energy output.

With this the game takes a sharp turn away from perilous excavation and into leisurely wombling. I don’t think you can die while in a vehicle, nor can your oxygen run out, so it’s mostly Mass Effect Makoing your way across the landscape and occasionally falling into big holes.

Accessible depth

The controls, the graphics, the physics, the world… all add up to create a game that feels simple but deep. Movement is floaty with lots of air control, which you’ll super appreciate when sliding down a razor-thin slope with crushing death either side. Buildings and items go in slots of different sizes, which means a lot of personal gear can slot in and out of vehicles and base buildings, and vice versa.

Everything is slots. Your 3D printers? Materials go in slots. The printed stuff? Goes in slots. And all of this, at least for the beginning, needs to be plonked in place for anything to work. Like oxygen this may seem unnecessarily tedious but it’s smart enough to be saved. For example, drop smeltable resources into any slot of the furnace and it’ll process it and drop it back wherever there’s a space – no need for input/output chicanery.

Tactile, would be the word. This isn’t abstract units and bars, this is all blobs and hexes and cables and tethers you can drag and manipulate in a variety of ways. Even checking your backpack involves clicking on it, pulling it off your back, and having it brought front and centre in the screen while your astronaut slows to a crawl as if holding it in front of themselves.

Skipping across the galaxy 

Frankly my praise for Astroneer far outweighs the bad. Occasionally things feel a bit too floaty… it’s easy to shift parts of your base around accidentally… having to double-click buttons was frustrating at first… but this is small potatoes.

Astroneer didn’t set my world on fire, but it scratched an itch I didn’t know I had for a competent, fun, casual survival game that had a surprising amount of depth.

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