Even after spending the better part of 12 hours exploring it, I still don’t quite feel like I have a handle on Astroneer.
It’s got a decent tutorial mission, which explains the most basic details of its gameplay, but after that, you are decidedly on your own. You’re dropped onto a randomly generated planet with a few starter modules and a crude shelter, then left alone to sink or swim. The in-game “Astropedia” offers a number of more useful tips, but for every piece of information I pulled from it, there were two or three more that I had to figure out on my own, or look up using tools provided by the game’s Early Access community.
The obvious comparison here is to Minecraft, or any of a handful of similarly open-ended crafting and survival games. You start in Astroneer with next to nothing, but you’ve got all the time in the world and all the resources you can wring out of your environment. Gradually, over the course of hours, and possibly with the help of friends, you build an empty planet up into a humming, glowing research colony.
Astroneer is the maiden project by the Seattle-based studio System Era, and has been in development since 2015. It was initially released on Steam Early Access in December of 2016, and officially graduated to version 1.0 as of Feb. 6, appearing both on Steam and Xbox Play Anywhere.
The game is set during the 25th century, in an Age of Discovery, out on the ragged edges of explored space. You’re one of a handful of Astroneers, each one of whom is anonymous inside a bulky spacesuit, out to find your fortune on newly-discovered worlds. It’s just you, a bunch of 3D printers, and the resources of an empty planetoid, to be strip-mined, researched, and turned into tools, habitats, and vehicles.
At first, Astroneer looks like a light-hearted, open-ended adventure, but it’s out to build a specific sort of mood. The music is calm and strangely melancholy, like a Tangerine Dream soundtrack, and every world I’ve ever visited is littered with the debris left over from previous, presumably failed expeditions.
You’re utterly dependent on the oxygen supply from your base, and securing your continued access to it is always your top priority, by building a tether network that connects you to your home. The moment your O2 runs out, your character instantly drops. Even when you’re in good shape, you’re never more than a couple of minutes away from sudden death.
The penalty for dying in this is relatively slight, as you simply respawn at your landing site minus whatever items you had on you when you died, and have to do a corpse run to get them back. However, it’s also not a game that’s afraid to be unfair. Fall down a hole too far from your closest tether, trip over a cliff, or get a little too close to the wrong piece of fauna, and you’re just plain out of luck.
It makes for an interesting balance. It’s a cheerful, colorful game that also delivers a real sense of isolation. Death doesn’t mean much, but your survival is always balanced on a razor’s edge. This is always going to be an alien environment, and unless you’re careful, it’s going to find exciting new ways to kill you.
The opening moves of a new game of Astroneer are simple. You get a small shelter, a save point with an attached generator, and a landing pad right off the bat. You can deploy a “starting package” to get an oxygenator, which fuels power and air for your tether network and lets you explore in a greater radius around your landing site; a small printer, which you can use to build a few new machines; and a platform, which you can mount devices on in order to hook them up to the shelter’s generator. You’ve also got a small 3D printer in your backpack, which can be used to make a few simple devices like a backup oxygen tank.
To do any of it, however, you need compounds and resins, which are usually easy enough to find somewhere near your landing site. You’ve got a device that digs out giant chunks of the landscape wherever you point it and slings any useful resources it finds into your backpack. You can also use it to dig through walls or create earth ramps.
It’s really easy to use — maybe a little too easy. On one of my save files, there were a ton of useful compounds right next to my initial landing site, but by the time I dug them all out, I had a giant crevasse next to my base, which limited my ability to expand. I wasn’t totally out of options — you can build a canister that turns your mining device into a big caulking gun, so you can make ramps and fill ditches back in — but it put me at an early disadvantage.
Once you’ve got enough compounds to build some tethers, you can start exploring the planet in earnest, which is where Astroneer starts to get opaque. You start finding resources you can’t use, devices with no obvious purpose, plans you can’t build yet, and debris you can’t salvage. You’re supposed to take samples of the local flora and fauna to turn them into “bytes,” with your backpack or by building a Research Module to break down larger items, and use those bytes to buy new plans from the catalog built into your backpack.
Those new plans, in turn, offer you new options, like land rovers and recyclers, but none of them come with a manual. It took me some experimentation and a tutorial on YouTube to figure out most of the machines, and there are a few I still haven’t been able to use.
Astroneer is definitely a water-cooler sort of game. It feels like it’s designed with co-op in mind, or at least a big online community, so you’ve got someone else around to help you figure it all out, or at least to cart raw materials back to base while you sit there puzzling over a new machine. When I played it alone, I often felt like I was trying to put together a complicated model kit without its instructions.
This is all by way of saying that Astroneer has a significant learning curve, particularly by comparison to most of the other games like it on the market, and the ways of providing information that are actually built into the game are barely enough to get you started. Most of my time with Astroneer was spent with its official wiki open on my second monitor, with a couple of tabs devoted to video tutorials and the Astroneer subreddit. If something like Minecraft is a bucket of LEGO blocks, Astroneer is a particularly complicated erector set.
As I write this, Astroneer has already built up an audience of enthusiasts over the course of its time in Early Access, and System Era is in the process of updating its official wiki to account for all the changes that have been made to the game in its progression to the retail version. It’s got a lot of love put into it, and a lot of love’s already been shown to it in return, but even more so than your average addictive building game, Astroneer is a lifestyle choice. This isn’t something you install to dink around with while you listen to podcasts. You’re going to want to keep notes and bring friends.
None of this is to say that it’s a bad game. On the contrary, I can see it being appealing to everyone from little kids to hardcore aerospace nerds, and the focus on co-op means you can spend hours tweaking your base alongside a few friends. What primarily characterizes it in my mind, however, is the learning curve and its cheerful, matter-of-fact lethality. You won’t regret the time you spend with Astroneer, but you really ought to know what you’re getting yourself into.