Astroneer Review - The Comfiest Time You'll Have In Space

Easily one of the best games you can buy on Steam right now.
9.5
  • Windows
  • Xbox One
  • Action-Adventure
  • Open World
  • Simulator
2016-12-16
Astroneer Sunrise
Looking at this makes me want to play again. System Era Softworks

Seven months into 2019, and it’s evident that this is the year for space titles to shine through. I’ve had one heck of a trip playing through Observation, Risk of Rain 2 and Outer Wilds, and all of them fueled me to find my next big space title.

On a whim, I get Astroneer during the Steam Summer Sale, and it easily paid for itself within a day.

Having played it nearly every day for the past three weeks, I can say with some certainty that Astroneer is easily one of the best games I’ve played this year, carried by its very decent sense of scale, whimsical nature, and its surprising accessibility. If you’re ever daunted by space exploration titles, and the fact that they can easily be huge time sinks that have a very steep learning curve, you’ll find that only the former applies here – Astroneer holds something for players across different skill levels, all beautiful and definitely worth the time playing.

Astroneer Cave
If you want a good challenge, go deeper underground. Photo: System Era Softworks

The bulk of what makes Astroneer so special lies in the way it plays. The game is first and foremost a planetary exploration title set in a distant system, where there is no set goal in place other than to survive and keep playing. This part was where I was really, really hesitant at first to dip my toes in the game, as titles where this kind of open-ended gameplay is presented usually fall short, mostly because of how gimmicky and atrocious it sounds on paper.

Astroneer avoided that pitfall entirely, however, with a deep focus on making things easier and more convenient for the casual and average player. Everything in the game is presented with intuitiveness and ease of understanding in mind, which lets you play in a more relaxed state, as opposed to worrying about management and tension all the time. Of course, there are still stakes to be had, and if you want to advance you have to make decisions that involve risks, but there’s no rush to get into them, allowing you to enjoy the game at your own pace.

Astroneer Tether
The game's tutorial placed a deep focus on the tethers, which are probably the most important items in the game. Photo: System Era Softworks

Despite Astroneer’s easy-going and relatively casual nature, players should start the game off with the tutorial, which teaches you the basics of how the whole system works. In a nutshell, Astroneer is based on a system of progression, wherein you unlock tiers of items that are suited for multiple aspects of gameplay – mining, storage for the materials you mine, power sources, processors for organic materials to turn them into more complex ones, research pods, vehicles, ships, platforms to place your structures on, generators, batteries, and so much more. At first glance, the system can be complex and off-putting, but should you do the tutorial before you start actually playing, you’ll be in for one easy and relaxing time.

Astroneer Start
Humble beginnings. Photo: System Era Softworks

Astroneer starts off by dropping you into an Earth-like planet called Sylva, one of seven astral bodies in this fictional solar system. At the start you only have a shelter, which provides you with both power and oxygen whenever you are near it. You also get a landing pad, which can spawn some starting items. After that, what follows is up to you. Getting out of range of the shelter, or any other sources of oxygen, will steadily deplete your oxygen bar, so at first you have to mine relatively close to shelter. Once you get a grasp on the system, it’s smooth sailing from there on out.

There’s not a lot of complications with regards to the core loop, which basically has players mine materials and use these materials to construct stuff from printers to further yourself in the game. There are no incentives to hurry up and unlock all tiers, and you can easily spend a bit of time just mining compounds to build tethers to explore further and further away from your home base. 

Astroneer Suit Printer
The most basic items can be printed directly through your backpack. Photo: System Era Softworks

Progression is tied very neatly into four printing tiers, while most of the items under each tier requires you to spend research points on make. These systems goes hand-in-hand with each other – you can’t really unlock new stuff to build without a new printer, and printers sometimes need materials that are not even on the planet.

This brings us to the next major area of gameplay, which is exploration. Astroneer features a number of different natural resources which you gather to make basic materials, but not all of them can be found on all of the planets. For instance, Sylva, the starting planet, only has the most basic materials, just enough to let you construct a small spaceship and a basic thruster to get you on a round trip to another planet. This allows you to mine different natural resources on other planets, which you can bring back to your home base in order to advance in the progression system. After some time, you’d find that you can build shelters as well, and with a bigger ship you can start colonizing the other planets in order to streamline your mining experience.

Astroneer Mine
The terrain tool can mine every kind of terrain there is - but some will need upgrades before you can do so. Photo: System Era Softworks

Going back to exploration, not everything grows above ground. The most basic materials like compound and resin are found abundantly above ground, but for the actual minerals that get turned into metals for more complex structures, you’ll have to dig deeper underground. I actually adore this part of the game the most, as the underground caves in Astroneer are really well done and pretty immersive. It can get quite scary at times, seeing as there are really dangerous plants lurking around, but other than that it’s quite a serene experience that really makes you feel tiny in terms of the solar system’s massive scope.

For most of your exploration on foot, you will rely on tethers. The tethers are a great way to introduce intuitiveness into Astroneer, and really ties into everything I love about this game. With a single unit of compound, you can craft tethers with your suit’s printer. These tethers can be connected to your base, and as long as you are within range of them, you get power and oxygen, plus a way back to your shelter. Think of it as like using a string that you tie on one end, and until you run out of it, you can explore any area as you please – above or below ground. It’s a simple, yet very effective way to give some new players incentive to explore outside of what they’re comfortable with, as you always have a path back home.

Astroneer Plant
These oversized fruits can be mined for research points if you have a research chamber. Photo: System Era Softworks

Exploration isn’t reserved for mining materials, though, as you also need to gather research points. These research points can be acquired through materials that can be scanned, like the fruits of the flora, or the big hunks of gems that can be found above and underground. Scanning these manually or through a research chamber will yield a number of research points, which you can then use to unlock new schematics to print. It’s a great way to branch out from just mining stuff, as you also need to look for these research materials in order to progress – which in turn incentivizes further exploring.

Astroneer Alien
Scattered around all the planets are these big alien structures, which you can power on to activate a fast-travel point of sorts. Photo: System Era Softworks

After all this exploring and managing your burgeoning base of operations, you can also undertake expeditions to power large alien structures. Power more than one of these structures and you’ll be able to fast travel between them, which can be pretty useful. These structures are scattered throughout the world, and I even saw one spawn underneath stone, which meant that I had to dig it out in order to access it. It gives players another set of goals for when they eventually get tired of just mining and exploring.

Digging is also a pretty big aspect in that you can use your handheld drill to pretty much dig anywhere you please. Craft a canister to contain the soil you dig, and you can even shape new terrain, which can be useful for getting you out of sticky situations. You can also create bridges with soil to cross crevasses, or turn soil into a slope for you to climb on if you ever find yourself falling in a deep and dark cave. If you want to take it even further, there is a pretty big incentive to digging underground as you make your way to the planet’s center, which is no easy task to pull off. Between layers of caves underground, you’ll find that the flora takes on a new form, which makes for a very beautiful and exotic-looking atmosphere.

Astroneer Base
Pretty soon your base is going to get crowded, so it's always better to plan ahead. Photo: System Era Softworks

It’s this gameplay loop for Astroneer that’s kept me up at night as I obsessively tried to plot out my base for effectiveness, sketching out details in my head for my next trip underground to mine that huge quartz deposit. The progression feels amazing, often showcasing at times just how far you’ve come and how far off you are from actually completing it in its entirety. It never felt overwhelming for me when I started out, and when the micromanaging came it amazed me just how intuitive and easy it was. Astroneer is an exceptional title built on a simple, yet incredibly solid system of gameplay progression, where the only barrier of entry is your own pace.

If I do have to criticize something, though, it’s that after a certain point playing in single-player can get kind of lonely. Make no mistake, this game shines the best when played with a friend or three, as Astroneer features a drop-in, drop-out cooperative multiplayer mode. Your mileage may vary when it comes to single-player, and it should be a fitting game for those who fancy themselves as Matt Damon in The Martian, but again, since the game has no interactions with NPCs whatsoever, the game may feel too empty at times.

Astroneer Ship
Flying from planet to planet is mostly automated. Photo: System Era Softworks

Another thing that’s certainly amiss in a title like this is the ability to create and fly your own ships. You can create a rocket ship, but its flight is purely automated, allowing you to fly to and from different planets with relative ease. While this may sound good to some, I found it a bit unsatisfying, as the game would’ve been perfect if there were options for both automated and manual flight. However, with the developers promising more content in the future, I wouldn’t rule out something like this happening.

Heading over to the visuals, it’s pretty clear Astroneer’s art direction and graphics closely mirror its easy going nature, and for the most part it works well. The game is very pretty, and you will often see a lot of variation for the different planets you explore. There’s a clear distinction between the various resources you can mine, and the materials you craft from them. There’s distinction between the soil, the stone and everything else in between, as not all can be penetrated by your drill at first.

Astroneer Planets
There's huge variation in terms of art design and aesthetics between the different planets. Photo: System Era Softworks

The structures you build boast this very neat, minimalist look that takes on a white and red color scheme. I wished there was a way to change the color to something more appropriate to my suit though, as early on Astroneer allows you to pick between different spacesuits and color schemes for them.

The animations are also very well crafted. Every item in the game is designed to be moved around – smaller objects can be placed in your backpack, medium-sized ones can be carried around using your hands, and the bigger items can be dragged from one place to another. This allows for some deeper-level micromanagement scenarios, where you can pack up your base structures and move them somewhere else very easily. The entire system does take some getting used to, and be wary of some mis-clicks and wrong button pushes here and there, but once you’ve got it all figured out, it starts to shine.

Astroneer’s music is very sparse, but the moment it kicks in, you know you’re in for a treat. Music only plays at some moments in the game, and most of the time you’ll find yourself accompanied by the howling wind and the sound of your feet on the ground. It’s really pleasant on the ears, and allows you to realize the scope of the world you’re in. The music itself is more of a satisfying companion piece that complements certain points of the game rather than overwhelm it, a feat I distinctly remember from playing Outer Wilds a few months ago. It’s surprisingly thoughtful and deep, and I actually looked forward to hearing it after going some time just listening to nature.

Astroneer Tech
The game runs pretty smooth in the open spaces. Photo: System Era Softworks

On a technical level, Astroneer is very well-optimized, although I did experience minor stuttering once my base started growing. There’s also some bugginess associated with the physics system when working with bigger objects that cover the entire screen, as it doesn’t really detect your pointer well in a 3D space – the result is you find your item hovering nearer to your screen rather than farther away from it whenever you try picking up something as big as the bigger ships. It gets annoying at times, especially when you’re doing some arranging in your base.

Overall

Astroneer Ride
Moments like these are often the best in Astroneer. Photo: System Era Softworks

Astroneer is a severely underrated game, and out of all the space exploration/building/management titles of late, this is the one I would recommend the most, especially to newcomers in the genre. There’s this huge slew of great mechanics that complement each other to form a rewarding progression system, which is then presented with a whimsical and child-like wonder.

If you’re looking to dip your toes into space exploration, planetary mining and all the grind that goes along with it, consider Astroneer instead of No Man’s Sky, Space Engineers or Empyrion. While all three are good games now, even No Man’s Sky to some extent, Astroneer is easily the most reliably solid thanks to its intuitiveness, superb presentation and absolutely comfy gameplay mechanics. It’s a stand-out single-player experience, and it’s an exceptional multiplayer title all in one, as Astroneer reminds you what it’s like to actually play a fun and engaging game that you can obsess over for hours on end.

(Review of the game is based on 34 hours of gameplay for the PC version using a controller.)

REVIEW SUMMARY
Astroneer
9.5
Astroneer Review - The Comfiest Time You'll Have In Space
Astroneer is a lot of things - base management sim, mining game, exploration title, open-world sandbox adventure - yet all of it works, easily outclassing its contemporaries in the genre. If all you ever wanted from a space exploration title is to have fun and enjoy the game at your own pace, then there is no better choice out there than Astroneer. It's an exceedingly good title that's made even better with the many ways you can play it.
  • The good kind of timesink, where the value lies in the journey rather than the endgame.
  • Very accessible, especially to newcomers in the genre.
  • Intuitive mechanics and controls.
  • Neat, pretty art design; lots of variation between the different planets.
  • Great music and sound design.
  • Enjoyable across different skill levels, and for both solo and co-op players.
  • Your mileage may vary in solo, as it gets lonely after a bit.
  • Some problems with the diagetic UI mechanics, especially with bigger objects.
  • Lack of clear goals and objectives may turn some people off - but if you already knew that then this genre is not in any way up your alley.
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