A lovely space oddity.
From Astro, to Exo, to Astroneer, this game of survival, exploration, and base building is about to take flight from its Alpha state and tackle the new frontier of polished 1.0 gameplay. Having never played Astroneer before, I approached it with very few expectations but for the most part, left very impressed.
There are times during the early stages when Astroneer feels more like a sensory experience than a straight-up game, with uniquely rewarding tactile elements. Smooth, rounded assets click and beep their way into purpose-built slots, while your little astroneer bounces atop hills and mines resources as if moulding soft clay. I could write a love poem for these slot features in time for Valentine’s Day – everything functions on the basis of little universal couplings, allowing you to store resources, equipment, and augments on pretty much anything else in your base. The inventory system is equally unique, doing away with in-game menus entirely and replacing it with an ever-present backpack covered in yet more slots.
The elephant in the room here is obviously No Man’s Sky, due to the perceived similarity between the two regarding procedurally generated planets, soaring post-rock soundscapes, and mining various resources to build your fortune. That really is where the similarities end though, and the further you go, the more Astroneer proudly holds its own.
Astroneer can be many things to many people. If you want to make an elaborate base full of commercial assets and thrumming equipment, go ahead; if you want to go full exploration and reach for the stars like so many outdated S Club references, you can. If, like me, you want a replacement for adult colouring books… then yeah, have at it. I’d be happy to aimlessly play this as an inventory management simulator for years.
The only real threat is a lack of oxygen or the occasional plant puffing some poison at you, leaving the player free to explore in their own time, provided they equip themselves with plenty of tethers. Combining acidic colour pallets, responsive ambient music, and simple assets results in a beautiful calm that resonates throughout, making you forget quite how long you’ve been playing and easily sink another few hours.
And therein lies the problem – several more hours and things takes an unexpected turn. Like a relaxing bubble bath that sends you to sleep, waking you up to icy cold water and a soggy book, Astroneer has the ability to uniquely frustrate you and leave you with a sense of unjustly revoked comfort. As soon as you start to establish a plan, the game can leave you hanging, with patchy procedural generation of planets that allows for vital resources to be unreachable.
In my playthrough, space travel was off limits for the first 10 hours due to the sparsity of ammonium on my origin planet. I searched carefully for what seemed like forever, dropping oxygen tethers and never straying too far, until it got to the point where I lost it and just started driving off into the distance on my tractor with no way to get home. Two more hours of this aimless driving and I had finally found a tiny deposit of ammonium. Another hour and I finally located my home base.
Honestly, this was just frustrating, though not the only issue. Astroneer also presents a difficulty curve that is as yet unjustified. The visual tutorials are nice, but leave most of the game to be worked out through lots of trial and (mainly) error. As charming as this concept is, in a game so smooth, neat, and minimal in style, there really needs to be a better handle on the controls and a more refined planetary generator. Elements of this game reek of potential but this is what ultimately leads to some of the biggest disappointments. The smooth graphics and neat slotting feel clean and rewarding, but the controls are far from self-explanatory. It is painfully easy to make mistakes, and the minimalism gives way to a real lack of direction, instruction, and guideline.
Don’t get me wrong, Astroneer carries with it a range of exceptional strengths: it is a beautiful, intelligent, fascinating game with outstanding replay value and a promising depth. But this is a frustrating game to love. You will love it, and you will sink hours of your life into it, but it would be nice to feel that things were a little more user-friendly and, well, complete.
In short, Astroneer is a calming, vibrant, genuinely enjoyable experience until you start to set goals for yourself. At this point it becomes a bit of a chore and strays into frustrating grind territory that has no real guarantee of tangible results – and suddenly the buggy menu system, tangled controls, and lack of resources culminate in an inevitable fit of rage. Luckily, if you need a bit of post-anger stress relief, we have just the game for you… have you played Astroneer yet?
[Reviewed on PC]