Astroneer asks the question, “If you were stranded on an alien planet with no objective, what would you do?” I’d build myself a vehicle and do doughnuts on the space-dunes. I’d build a base and call it Castle Nathanael. I’d dig a network of tunnels that would drop random passers-by into the planet core.
Astroneer is a bit of a blank canvas, so what you do is up to you and it’s mostly only limited by your imagination. That’s a good thing, and a bad thing depending on who you are.
Astroneer is a survival sandbox, with seven randomly generated planets to explore, massive networks of underground tunnels and a lot of buildings to build, vehicles to drive and research to… well… research.
When you first land on a starting planet, it’ll just be you, a landing pad and your handy terraforming tool. The first base building gives you some oxygen and electricity to get you going at the start, but pretty soon you’ll need to start expanding, upgrading and exploring.
The goal of the game is pretty open-ended. At first, you’ll need to explore the world around you, find out what local resources are available and set about building some means of production to upgrade and get more stuff.
It’s that classic survival game loop; get stuff to stay alive, then get more stuff to unlock more stuff so you can… get more stuff. Eventually, you will be able to leave your first planet and explore others, but the loop remains the same. Even though some planets have different levels of resources and new sets of materials available to collect.
You do this through a pretty incredible destructible environment that you’ll have to dig through to harvest all of your resources. Like the early Red Faction games, everything is actively destructible in Astroneer.
The Final Fronteer
You have a suction gun that kind of acts like a big vacuum and looks like a leaf blower. You suck massive chunks out of the map and collect resources in your backpack to take back to your base. You can also use it to build material and grow your own bridges out of the earth, or try and write your name in the sky like I did.
It wasn’t pretty.
As you get out and explore, you’ll need to venture further and further away from your base to find new materials and gather new objects to research. You do this by laying tethers into the ground, essentially little markers that connect to one another in a web. These give you oxygen and power when you’re within range. This means you’re always planning your next move and working out how to keep the base growing while extending your reach into the unknown.
Visually, I love the art style. It’s this weird mix of voxel-geometry with bright and colourful landscapes. From blue, red or orange surfaces to tall bobble-headed trees that look straight out of a Dr Seuss book.
There’s no mistaking that these are alien planets.
By contrast, the sound design is pretty minimal, with snippets of exploratory orchestral music that swells as your travel around the planet, and the dank echoes of dark caves and rustling alien foliage.
The game does a great job of making you feel like you’re exploring another planet and I’ll give it a gold star for making each world feel like you’re somewhere totally alien.
In space no one can hear you scream – except Nick, he’s there too
Much like other exploration and survival titles out and about in the gaming landscape, exploring Astroneer is far more entertaining with a friend than it is alone. When you’re playing with a friend you can easily divide and conquer on the objectives you’re forging ahead with while taking the time to explore the planet’s surface. When I played alone, I realised what many sci-fi writers have realised; space is a lonely place when it’s just you.
Now I know how the Curiosity rover felt singing Happy Birthday to itself on Mars back in 2013. It’s a lonely, cold universe out there on your own.
So I enlisted my housemate Nick to dive into the unknown with me, and we set about colonising our first alien planet.
We found that as we were setting out into space, Nick was much more interested in exploring the unknown caves and stretches of our planet, while I set about building the base and conducting our research. Every time Nick went out into the wilds, I’d tell him to keep an eye out for research materials and particular materials.
I’d move the buildings around, ensure we had plenty of electricity and oxygen to fuel our vehicles, and keep Nick breathing while he was out and about. I suppose you’d call me the stay-at-home spaceman in this scenario, but I won’t push that analogy too far.
Just in the Nick of time
Easily the most exhilarating moment was when one planet decided to throw a massive dust storm at us. I was working on the base and setting up a new electricity generator as well as battery storage for our vehicles when Nick yells out “There’s a storm coming, oh god it’s coming fast”.
Nick was out exploring the planet and bringing back some research objects to stuff into the research module and had our only buggy with a trailer on the back. He says “I’m coming now, just need to put this one the buggy” then he starts swearing. The big storm that was coming was a massive wall of dust and wind that stretched from the ground to the sky and all along the horizon in both directions, in the distance at the bottom of the massive oncoming wall of death was a black spot that was Nick, and his little player marker coming slowly towards me.
For my part, I immediately began placing all our loose items onto storage modules to make sure nothing would blow away, and the remaining items that wouldn’t fit on the modules; I dug a huge hole and threw them all in hoping that would be enough.
When the wall of dust hit me, Nick still hadn’t made it back, he was yelling to me over his mic that he “couldn’t see shit”, and that there was debris and wind throwing the buggy all around him. It was like Mad Max meets The Martian out there, only pixelated and with more screaming.
Just a little dusty
I hunkered down amongst the buildings and watched the wind throw clumps of dirt and pieces of debris throughout the base. In the middle of it, I watched as most of our resources were picked up out of the hole and thrown into the sky like the world’s most expensive firework.
When it had all cleared I checked in with Nick and found him about a hundred metres to the west of our base, where he’d crashed the rover into a ditch and hidden from the brunt of the storm.
Together we excavated the rover back out, drove back to the base, started our research and began picking up all the resources that had been scattered all over.
These moments where the game throws something at you that you weren’t expecting are wonderful, it’s a shame though that they are few and far between.
I would have loved to see more of these global storms, events that force you to adapt on the fly and increase the survival challenge if only for a short time. I know Astroneer isn’t this type of game, but I kept wishing that we’d land on a new planet and uncover some indigenous life that would periodically attack the base or raid us for minerals, something to defend against and make the world feel more hostile and reactive to your presence.
As it stands the world can feel very passive and empty.
Another planet, same bug problem
I’ll hand it to the developers on this one, they’ve built something that’s a lot of fun with friends and give you a sense of exploration, survival and creativity. But when you pull your nose back from the grindstone and look at the broader scope of what you’re actually doing…there isn’t a lot of variety to the game.
Each time you land on a new planet, you go through pretty much the same steps to get your base set up, you’ll need some oxygen, some electricity, you’ll have to start mining for minerals, get a researcher and a printer to craft buildings. Once you have everything set up you’ll build a tractor and a cart to start exploring the planet, get some research points and get ready to do it over again.
This isn’t the sort of game you’ll sit down to play for six hours, you’ll start to see the repetition sink in after about two or three. But spread that time out over a number of days or weeks whenever you can get a gang of space explorers together, then at least you’ll have the perceived variety of spreading the activities out.
I also saw a pretty varied mix of bugs and weirdness throughout my time. The most common was a byproduct of the awesome work they’ve done in creating the destructible environment. As you break down the planets and make your network of tunnels and holes, the character and especially the vehicles you drive around will drop and pop around as they travel over holes, and I’d had more than a few times where the camera clipped through cave walls and showed me behind the scenes, or an object or vehicle fell through the floor only to bounce into the sky when it’s eventually freed.
Astroneer give you seven wide-open planets to explore with friends or on your own. But really this is one endeavour that’s far better with friends than it is on its own.
Even still, if you find yourself stuck on another planet with nowhere else to go, Astroneer will teach you the basics – energy, oxygen, and a friend to sing Happy Birthday with.
Astroneer was reviewed on PC using digital codes provided by the developer.
Game Title: Astroneer
Wide Open Space - 7.5/10
Best with Friends - 7.2/10
Bugging Out - 5/10
Lonely Happy Birthdays - 4.6/10