At first glance, Astroneer seems like a melding of two popular genres: resource collecting with construction and survival. Many would sum up the description as Minecraft in space, and they wouldn't necessarily be wrong. Astroneer shouldn't be dismissed, as the resulting game is both intriguing and calming.
Going by the information released thus far, you're out exploring the cosmos one planet at a time — in the name of profit, not scientific discovery. It seems as if you've entered an era similar to the old California Gold Rush, where getting resources from planets earns you some fast cash. Wanting to get some of that success, you go on your own expeditions to secure loot. The minute you get into the game, though, you see no hint of those story beats taking place. There's no opening cut scene to explain this, and money isn't mentioned or even counted. The story seems to exist for the sake of existing, but that's about it.
Right now, Astroneer is a game about exploring each planet at a somewhat casual pace. The highlight is a terraforming gun that can be used to dig into the environment and build up from it. For example, you can build land bridges over long chasms, you can dig into the land to discover tunnels, or you can create your own cave system. The gun has an infinite source of energy on board, but it needs time to recharge, so your initial terraforming abilities have to be done in spurts instead of continuously.
The gun also acts as a resource collection system, and it is here where Astroneer seems to handle resource management better than most other games in the genre. To start with, there are a few basic elements to collect, and your backpack can only hold eight resources at a time. That seems rather paltry until you realize that the game lets you create loads of things from those few elements, and each slot in your backpack represents bunches of one element. It also helps that crafting things, like solar arrays, only takes a few units of one element, so you can create a number of arrays until you need to dip into your second bundle.
Survival elements are always a big part of these types of games, and they're simplified here, just like the other mechanics in Astroneer. The only thing you have to worry about is your oxygen meter, and that doesn't go out until you are disconnected from your air supply line at your landing pod. You mitigate this by constructing tethers that extend your oxygen line, and while the lines aren't too long, the ease with which you can construct more of them means that running out of air is a rare occurrence. As for enemies, there are none, with the exception of plants that spit toxic gases and the occasional windstorm that can chuck debris at you. If you kick the bucket, you immediately respawn at your base with all of the previously constructed items in place, so it's easier to return to your body to retrieve the collected elements.
The result is a calming exploration title. You'll pockmark the landscape with tethers in order to expand your searching area. You'll crater the lands and make it look wildly different from before, unless you're conscious enough to smooth up the lands once you've drained the resources. You'll enjoy finding new things without having to worry about keeping too many meters topped off to prevent death. One thing the game does right away is allow for an online multiplayer experience with up to three other friends, so exploration isn't lonely. As with the rest of the game, that seems like a small number to play in one world, but it also means that base building won't devolve into a cluttered mess.
Astroneer also seems like a title that'd be good to play right now if you aren't concerned about some type of goal. All you can really do now is explore the planet, construct bases, and get enough stuff done to explore another planet and do it all again. It's a good gameplay loop, but there's no reason to stray from your current planet and make it your sandbox forever. Without a storyline goal or new gameplay mechanics later in the game, you'll feel like you've seen everything there is to see in a short amount of time.
Aside from some of the mechanics, the graphical style may remind some of No Man's Sky. The pastel colors for the planet terrain are present, so the landscape looks more inviting instead of a more realistic approach with rocky terrain. Things diverge from here, as the voxels used to create the environments have a rougher, polygonal look instead of the expected cube look. It contrasts with the almost cartoony look of your astronauts, who show hints of cel shading here and there. This is all tied together with a lighting system that makes each dawn and dusk scenario gorgeous enough to ignore the constant pop-in that occurs when you move in the world.
As admitted by the developers on the game's Early Access page, Astroneer is very light on content right now. However, what's here is quite good. That core loop of exploration and building elements to keep the exploration going is done well enough to keep people interested. The overall mechanics are simple enough to understand without a tutorial, and the early inclusion of cooperative online multiplayer makes this a standout title among similar space-themed games. There's still a long way to go before Astroneer reaches a beta state, but this is certainly a title worth keeping tabs on.
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