Procedural generation in gaming has received a bit of a bad rap as of late, what with certain high profile titles utilizing the technique and failing to live up to the community’s expectations. It’s a fantastic tool for developers to easily generate varied environments but if recent events have shown us anything, it’s that this is only one facet out of many that make for a fun gaming experience. Read on for an early look at a game that uses procedural generation in all the right ways!
For those that are still suffering from a disappointing dearth of credible planet exploration games, I have the perfect antidote for what ails you. System Era’s Astroneer has quietly entered the Game Preview program on Xbox One and I have been busily base-building and crafting my way through the alpha and yes, dying horribly as well. Even in it’s unfinished state, this enjoyable little title is putting similar games to shame. I’m very much looking forward to playing Astroneer when it is feature complete; judging from the state of the alpha, the potential here is huge!
You play as a brave astronaut who lands on an uncharted planet. As far as setup and narrative goes, that’s basically it. There is no story to speak of. Gameplay involves scouring the planet in search of resources required to upgrade your basecamp. These resources can also be used to construct helpful gadgets for your spacesuit enabling you to forage further out into the unknown. Gathering is done by way of a special tool that resembles a giant vacuum; set that sucker to full power and watch the goodies pour in. Your trusty vacuum also acts as a sort of terrain molder which allows you to dig into the environment but to fill it out as well. Do you see a juicy outcropping of precious copper but it’s on the other side of a canyon? Just build a bridge over to it with you magic vacuum! Very cool!
Planets are procedurally generated each time you start a new game so you will rarely see the same terrain twice. Even at this early stage, visuals are crisp and colorful with varied foliage and flora that give each region a unique aesthetic. I ran into a number of graphical glitches that sometimes required a restart but they were rare and to be expected for a game that’s still a work in progress.
Survival is what Astroneer is really all about and everything you do has the potential to lead to a horrible death. As I found out very quickly, sensible oxygen management is imperative if you don’t want to see your little spaceman face down in a hole somewhere miles from base. A blue meter on your backpack represents available air and while it is possible to stumble upon O2 out in the wild, you really want to make sure your supply will last before venturing abroad. An ingenious tether system has been created that allows you to link oxygen lines from your camp in any direction. These become essential for survival the further out you go.
Asphyxiation isn’t the only thing you’ll have to worry about on these new worlds. I was innocently fossicking for goodies when a giant dust storm blew up over the horizon. Cool, I thought, a storm should be interesting. My astroguy hunched over into the wind as the sky darkened ominously; then the debris started flying and within a few seconds, death from a boxy rock to the noggin. Some of the local plantlife is also deadly with spikes and noxious gas waiting for the inattentive explorer. Fall damage can be fatal as well and there are pitfalls all over the place so watch your step. Yep, everything can kill you in Astroneer. The thing is, I didn’t really mind. Death doesn’t feel cheap here and you respawn back at base with the option to trek out to your body to reclaim the loot you lost.
Resource gathering is paramount if you want to progress and there are outcroppings aplenty just waiting to be sucked up with your super vacuum. Common materials are relatively bounteous on the surface but the real good stuff is squirreled away underground in complex cave systems filled with many dangers. All the best base upgrades depend upon these rare metals so braving the terrors of the dark underworld is essential if you want to play with the coolest toys. Building new modules is simple. Add the appropriate resource and choose which addition you want. Research stations, metal smelters and vehicle bays are all possible options and some are prerequisites for the construction of others. For instance, in order to build the vehicle bay, you first have to get a smelter as it is needed to refine the raw metal required.
Vehicles make a fun game even better and Astroneer is no exception. I have only gathered enough to build a basic buggy but there is an option in the bay to construct a shuttle which enables you to break atmosphere and visit nearby moons and planets. I have seen footage of players doing this and it looks amazing. As with everything else, resource management is the order of the day and even my space buggy needs constant surveillance of it’s power levels to stay functional. One great thing about vehicles is that they can act as a sort of mobile base, providing a source of oxygen for you to forage on foot. Just don’t go too far!
Being a work in progress, Astroneer has it’s fair share of bugs. However, System Era seem to be quite attentive to the community and have released a series of patches which have improved the game greatly. Improvement will be an ongoing process and with no end release date announced, it could be awhile until we see Astroneer in it’s final form. The devs have a road map detailing features that they want to add and some kind of narrative structure is high on the list. A story goal to work towards would be a great addition to a game that already has gameplay and mechanics basically nailed down. Perhaps, a dedicated tutorial might be useful as well. Controls are tough to get a handle on for first time players especially on the Xbox gamepad.
Even in it’s present form, Astroneer is hitting all the right buttons that could make it the planet explorer survival game we’ve all been looking for. I am certainly looking forward to watching it evolve. Now, it you’ll excuse me, I need to scrounge up some materials to build that shuttle. I’ve seen a beautiful planet gleaming in the night sky and I want to go there. Because in Astroneer, you can. How cool is that!