Astroneer was released on Steam’s early access store a few weeks ago and has a small, yet dedicated following admiring it’s entertaining, exploratory features and easily accessible multiplayer capabilities. Since newer, updated versions will continuously roll out while the game is in people’s hands, consider this a quick summation of the game in its current, pre-alpha state.
Colonising the cosmos has never felt so hands-on. Sure, there are well-known titles in the cultural sphere of videogames as of recent times such as Elite Dangerous or No Man’s Sky that let you wander and explore the universe while channelling your inner Columbus/Picard/Matthew Perry in that one film where Chris Farley gets attacked by eagles, but Astroneer has its own little charm that thus far has not overextended its promise while providing fun, engaging gameplay features that will capture your attention. It’s initial premise of colonising, collecting and processing materials, building and journeying to new planets all accompanied with multiplayer friends (if you wish) will entertain even for those jaded with the survival/resource management formula that many modern games thrive on.
Astroneer’s simplistic approach for interactions is apparent from its title screen that will let you launch from a spacecraft orbiting one of the games’ worlds. You begin with one dropship landing on a planet and from then on are left to your own devices. You can wander and explore, collecting base materials such as resin or compound which are the basic materials players use to build and create certain items or platforms. You have some cool technology that makes a great morphing effect on the terrain without a lot of exertion, like a vacuum cleaner inhaling whatever it pleases, although the game will still limit you. Players depend on power in order to power to power modules or tools, using power sources that might only work during some parts of the day (solar panels, wind generators) or availability of raw materials (coal). Oxygen is also a constant necessity, players will have to construct a lot of tethers which supply air from your home base in order to prowl the landscape or delve deep into complex cave systems. Running out of oxygen or falling prey to poisonous plants is an inevitability, as is falling from blithely morphing the various planet landscapes.
Little things are added to make that feeling of exploration a little more engrossing and rewarding. Players might notice that one planet’s gravity feels heavier or lighter than others, or how research cubes come in various shapes and sizes while it being necessary to collect as many different types as possible in order to research new technologies, incentivising the player to explore more. There are hints that there are bigger changes and discoveries to be made but that they just haven’t been included as of yet. Giant spaceship parts, and players are discovering new materials and items that have little to no interactivity or implementation as of yet.
There’s an ease to learning the fundamentals of a game with few button inputs while learning how everything is connected is fun, especially if done so in multiplayer. Instead of a numerous, complex list of tools, items and menus, Astroneer has a more limited assortment with a backpack for storing items while items constructed such as solar panels or wind generators have a physical presence in the game that can’t be stowed away. Players can connect various parts together as if it were lego, for example, a solar panel to a rover so that it could power the vehicle. Players can interact with modules that create different platforms such as vehicle bays, trade platforms or printers all of which can interact giving the player a multitude of options which helps to foster creativity in player action.
The minimalist approach seems to capture the essence of exploring whole new worlds much more effectively, it’s simple art design in combination with the ethereal soundtrack and unobstructive HUD gives it an otherworldly feel that begs players to jump in and explore. It especially feels like a seamless experience in multiplayer, as players can jump into each others’ games without interruption (besides the common crashes plaguing this nascent game) or loading screens. It’s an oddly satisfying feeling to be located on a completely different planet to another player and to co-exist in a virtual cosmos.
That said, there are still obvious aspects that will raise doubt for some players. The toolset you are given may not be as customisable and diverse as other survival sandbox games. Furthermore, the buggy nature of this work-in-progress becomes ever more apparent every time you fall through the landscape or have a glitchy, buggy vehicle flip upside-down and become buried in the ground. The physics and how your character moves might not always feel right, such as when sliding down or driving a rover, problems that can be eventually solved in later updates.
There is a distinct bareness to the game from the lifeless planets. There’s a peak that this game has not yet reached but could potentially if its developers continue to work on the game add new features and more opportunities for players to co-create. From its Steam page, the developers , System Era Softworks, promise the players a game set during a 25th century space gold rush, where players would overcome great dangers that might eventually lead to great prosperity. Will this idea eventually resonate in further updates? Perhaps, but not doing so would make the game feel like it will be stuck in a perpetual loop of exploring and collecting resources for little reason.