At some point in almost everyone’s life there was a time when they wanted to be an astronaut. Maybe they didn’t want to undergo the grueling mental and physical training necessary to actually make it into low earth orbit, which is the best anyone can hope for seeing as the technology of today can’t hope to match the incredible feats of the best of the 1960s. Maybe the dream of walking under the light of a new sun got hit hard by the twin mental wrecking balls of high school and puberty. Maybe what we actually know about space took the wind out of the sails of the fantasy. Astroneer cares about none of these problems and is going to explore strange new planets underneath their alien skies, exactly as you might once have dreamed of.
Unlike a game such as No Man’s Sky, Astroneer stars a proper astronaut rather than a space adventurer. You’ve got a space suit that looks like a slightly sleeker version of what an astronaut out on EVA would wear, complete with giant bubble helmet and reflective visor. Your job is to set up an outpost on a new procedurally-generated planet, mining ores and creating modules to link together to create a functioning base. Successfully claiming one planet means you can do it again on a new world, one after the other until you’ve got your sector of space explored and have hopefully gotten rich in the process. Whether alone or with friends, Astroneer is a game of discovery and creation in space, but its lack of combat doesn’t mean you won’t be fighting to survive.
The playable demo saw the astronaut plopped down onto a small moon, with its planet taking up a good chunk of sky. The moon was a tutorial to get the player up to speed, with the devices necessary to progress already in place and just needing to be used. The back of the space suit has two stripes running up it, one for oxygen and one for power, and initially the yellow power stripe is empty. A short walk to home base sees a long yellow tether snake out the nearest power supply, though, and it doesn’t take too long to get a full charge. Poking around the base turns up a few devices and a three-footed lander, but the lander needs fuel. A nearby mining drill at the end of a robotic arm is conveniently placed right beside a pile of icy rock just waiting to be mined. Drilling into the rock sends the ice to a hydrogen converter which is conveniently hooked up to both the output from the drill and the lander, meaning that drilling ice automatically generates hydrogen fuel that’s delivered straight the the empty tank. At this point it’s time to launch, then land at another base on the big planet and really start exploring.
The new planet has a few toys up and running but the big one is the rover. I’m pretty sure I did something wrong because, like all the tools in the game, the rover needs a power source and I end up running out of juice near a cave away from base. I can scavenge for energy with the terrain deformer, though, which is easily one of the most fun tools to play with. Use it to carve out caves, smooth a driveable entrance into a ravine, or create an overhang to protect yourself from the ravages of a sudden storm. The terrain deformer not only removes and replaces the ground but also mines ore, which is very handy when you’ve got a space buggy that’s out of gas.
If there was one thing I learned from my far-too-short hands-on time with Astroneer, it’s that I wanted way more time with Astroneer. Getting to grips with the controls, learning which items do what and seeing the expanse of the planet stretching ahead filled with hidden minerals and wreckage to uncover made it hard to stop playing. The gorgeous zero-texture modeling makes every vista worth taking a few seconds to view, proving that good art design is more important than simply delivering the expected. If Kerbal Space Program is a fantasy of sim-science then Astroneer is a fantasy of space exploration, sending you to the stars not to zap monsters but to claim and explore planets using real-ish looking tech. The actual universe may be a little too harsh and far too large to ever send people beyond the edge of our solar system, maybe, but if we can ever figure out how to bend space into zero-travel-time knots it would be nice to think that our outposts would turn out even half as nicely as Astroneer‘s.