Friday, January 6, 2017

Astroneer Preview (XONE)

No Man’s Sky minus hype equals Astroneer.  No Man’s Sky was a disappointment more because it
didn’t meet gamers’ expectations rather than because it was actually a bad game.  It wasn’t what was promised, so people got mad about it.  Astroneer, a game currently in the preview / early access program on Steam and Xbox One, offers the same space exploration ambitions and freedom, and even the endless resource collecting, of No Man’s Sky, but without the years of hype and broken promises.  Astroneer still has a ways to go, though, as it is still in a pre-alpha state, but the potential for greatness is evident.  See our full Xbox One Astroneer preview for more.

Astroneer is currently an Xbox Game Preview title, which means it is far from finished and still pretty rough.  By paying the $20 MSRP you acknowledge that it might not ever actually be finished and you are fine with the current state of the game.  Xbox Game Preview FAQ

Astroneer page at

In Astroneer you play as a little astronaut that has landed on a procedurally generated 3D planet and has to find resources to build up a base, explore the planet, and eventually make a spaceship so they can travel to another planet and do it all over again.  Yeah, it’s just like No Man’s Sky, but the way you do things is a little different in Astroneer.

Equipped with a nifty vacuum gun that both sucks and blows, you can suck up resources and instantly dig massive holes in the ground like you’re playing Minecraft or reverse the flow and easily build up bridges and structures however you like.  You can’t freely explore right away, however, as your astronaut only has a limited amount of oxygen and power so you can’t stray too far from your base.  Instead, you have to build little tether pylons that extend a lifeline from your base out to wherever you want to go.  As long as you’re connected to the tether system you have oxygen and power and can do anything you want.  You can also, eventually, build bigger oxygen tanks, a wind turbine to keep your batteries charged, and lots of other things to make exploration possible, like building vehicles(!), but at first you’re somewhat limited.  That’s fine, though, as the slow burn of learning how to play the game and building up to the good stuff is part of what makes survival and exploration games like this fun in the first place.

As I mentioned, though, the game is still pretty early in development and there are some rough edges.  At this point there is no tutorial whatsoever so figuring out how to do anything, what different build options do, where to find specific resources, and simply how to survive are pretty much up to trial and error.  You have to figure it out as you go, which can be somewhat frustrating as the first several hours you spend with the game don’t exactly go smoothly.  Once you do figure some things out and can actually start really exploring, it gets better.

A bigger issue at this point in Astroneer’s development, however, is that the controls and interface are pretty awful on Xbox One.  The game was clearly designed to be played with a mouse and keyboard and will need some fairly substantial tweaks to be acceptable with a controller.  What do I mean?  Well, when you use the vacuum gun you just sort of move a cursor around and it sucks or blows wherever the cursor is, but the cursor is so sensitive and feels so awful that it takes a long time to get used to it.  I’d much rather have just a normal simple third-person-shooter aiming reticle.  The interface and inventory management are also less than optimal as things aren’t just automatically picked up and used like you’d expect.  You have to manually select everything with a cursor, open your backpack, and then physically place the item into a slot on your backpack.  And to use an item it is the same process in reverse.  It is clunky and awkward and feels bad, to say the least.  I’m sure it all feels fine with a M&K, but it doesn’t work very well on a gamepad. 

That is one thing No Man’s Sky was successful at – making things intuitive and accessible even though the scale and complexity of the game was massive.  Astroneer still needs some work in that area.

The good news is that Astroneer is still technically in pre-alpha, which means there is a lot of time to make changes and fixes before the game is actually released for real.  What that means currently, however, is that I don’t think I’d recommend you buy the Xbox Game Preview version of the game quite yet.  It can be fun and you can learn to deal with the controls as they are now, but I think it is probably a much better plan to wait a few months for some updates to come out that will, hopefully, address the control complaints.  The whole point of the game preview program is so developers can get feedback and make their games better, so I’m optimistic, and confident even, that the developers at System Era Softworks will get things polished up before too long. 

I’ll be sure to update this preview with any significant changes.