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Last edition I raised the challenge of bringing a survival game to market, a market that's now so glutted with them that you'll have a hard time choosing between the various running and tree punching simulators. It's strange then that the title I've had the most fun with this month is that very same style of game, albeit on a more astronomical scale. Astroneer is an early access survival game. Red flag. Set in space. Sounding better. That's procedurally generated. Another red flag. You can also travel from planet to planet, harvesting resources and upgrading your equipment. "Wait," I hear you ask, "are you sure you haven't been playing No Man's Sky?" Luckily for me, I haven't, but the art direction and gameplay loop do feel very similar, with just the one difference. Astroneer does it well.
You begin the game plopped on a random planet, landing in a pod that's just been jettisoned from an orbiting space ship. That's it. The world is your oyster. The game is so early access that there really isn't any tutorial, which forces you into an amusing struggle to learn the controls of your character, stumbling around an alien planet with literally no clue what you should be doing. The game isn't a chore though, it's delightfully simple, and within ten minutes you can have your own base up and running, generating electricity with solar panels, completing research and building your very own rover to criss cross the planet's surface.
This is a coop game at heart, and learning the perils of underground mining on an alien world with a friend is a fun, if somewhat death filled experience. The difficulties with early access games in particular are their lack of features, and this is Astroneer's main problem. I can, and have, spent hours in the evening labouring away on a base, only to realise it's been three hours since I told myself I'd write that essay, but you will eventually hit a wall where you can't build anymore, and there's just nothing new to do. If the developers stick to their road map however, this shouldn't be a problem in the main game, with a whole raft of features from food and water, to more intricate spaceships, planets and habitats set to come.
For the game's measly price of £15.74, it's really hard to claim it's a bad deal. The cartoony visuals and the eerily atmospheric soundtrack make it by far the best space survival simulator I've had a chance to try, and for that fact alone I have to recommend it. Buyers beware: as an early access title it won't run great, and it has plenty of bugs, both highly amusing (getting blasted into space in a rover) and highly frustrating (realising you're stuck in space on a rover).