It's a sad fact that, despite the daydreams of millions of children worldwide, the jobs which we want to do when we're young actually turn out to be pretty tedious.
Take train driving, for example - that's pretty boring. Like normal driving, but without the steering, roundabouts or the drive-through McDonald's. Firefighting's another, with every dramatic rescue of a beautiful woman from a burning orphanage bracketed by a million and one calls to get a fat child's head extracted from the school railings.
With Moonbase Alpha another childhood illusion is shattered - the life of an astronaut appears to be largely slow, dull and pretty repetitive.
That's not to say that there aren't any exciting bits. Boosting out of the atmosphere at 26,000 mph is probably quite exhilarating, as is popping out of the shuttle for a bit of EVA and snap-taking for the folks back home. But Moonbase Alpha isn't about any of those things.
Because Moonbase Alpha is basically a NASA recruitment tool - developed in partnership with the people who created US Army propaganda game America's Army - fantasy and drama largely tip their moon-hats to the prosaic and mundane, at least in deed, if not in concept.
This free game is designed around online collaboration, with small-scale instances available in three different sizes depending on how many players you can gather. Unsurprisingly, the servers are about as sparsely populated as the moon itself at the moment, so collaborative play was out during our play-test. Instead, I tackled the smallest map, recommended for one or two space-faring hopefuls, bravely stepping out solo onto the unforgiving lunar regolith.
It all begins with a glowing, neon back-story, presented in a textual, seventies vision of the future. NASA has established a moonbase, it explains. Everything is hunky-dory, despite the Agency deciding to name it after a fictional settlement from a Gerry Anderson sci-fi show. My nameless, faceless astronaut is on his way back from a little jaunt around the satellite when disaster occurs - the life support systems for the moonbase are struck by a meteorite, causing massive damage to solar panels, power couplings and oxygen generators - leaving a matter of minutes in which to fix them before the researchers inside asphyxiate.
As it turns out, either everyone at NASA is on enough diazepam to keep both Keith Richards and Shaun Ryder doing jigsaw puzzles all day, or they've actually been conditioned so brilliantly that their response to a massive, life-threatening crisis is to request your help in an impossibly calm, flat, even monotone. That, or they really couldn't find any decent voice actors.
Either way, it's down to you, or you and a few others if you find a populated instance running, to get out there and perform those menial repairs before total system failure destroys the cream of the Western scientific community.
Let the excitement commence!
It's not a massively visually arresting experience. Depicted in the ubiquitous Unreal Engine 3, the moon is grey, dusty and pitted with craters, which seems reasonable enough, although it seems unlikely that the lunar surface is quite as jaggy. A star field (fictional) is an optional extra, and the Earth sparkles wistfully above the horizon. To be fair to Moonbase Alpha, looking good is rarely a point of pride for educational software, but my hopes of total lunar immersion are quickly dashed, despite the constant Darth Vader noises I'm making at my desk.
My heavily-suited avatar bounces across the dusty plain with what I can only assume is realistic joie-de-vivre, en route to the beleaguered processing plants, off in the distance. Once at the "tool shed", the action begins in earnest - it's time to start making choices.
At one end of the wrecked equipment chain are the solar panels, with a line of power cables joining them to the gas-producing modules. The cables and the panels can be fixed by hand, or at least by welding torch, but the coolant spewing from the oxygen plants is far too dangerous to approach in person - necessitating the use of a remotely controlled robot.
Each stage of the repairs gradually increases the survivability of the life-support modules, but leave the power couplings too long and their condition will deteriorate, eventually resulting in them failing completely. Dilemma.
Well. Sort of dilemma. The remote droids come in a handy deployable suitcase, so, break out a robot case, customising it to prioritise speed or battery life and choosing between welding and manipulating arm attachments, and get your bounce on. Dropping it by the business end of the oxygen production line, I skip off towards the solar panels. Towards salvation for the researchers huddled, breathless, within their expensive polymer cocoons. Towards science. Towards glory.
Now it gets interesting, because this is where the gameplay mechanics really begin. It's welding time, baby.
I decide to prioritise the repair of the solar panels, figuring on taking a top-down approach to the problem solving. Handily, somebody has left a tool box right by the power units, so I spring over and extract a torch. I lower the panel, a simple left-click doing the job of months of complex NASA technology lectures, and begin the unimaginably precise process of repairing a delicate solar panel with a welding torch. Wearing a space suit. Against the clock.
Breathe easy, though, space cadets - it's just a mini-game! Left to its own devices, this repair would take precious minutes, and time is a resource which is almost in as short supply as oxygen. Instead, I'm able to chivvy proceedings along a little by performing a little bit of non-textbook repair, bypassing faulty wiring by soldering together various points on a worryingly basic circuit board which pops up when notches on a set of rotating circles align. To do this, I have to click on one end of the circuit I'm attempting to fix before, and beware, because here comes the science bit, dragging the mouse to the other end.
Success! The first panel is repaired and the electricity begins to flow into the power cables once more. But the cable goes nowhere - the first coupler has been disconnected by the impact of the meteorite.
There's literally only one thing to do. Collect a spanner and bolt it back on. Which I do. It's not terribly dramatic.
There are a few damaged couplers, too. I fetch the welding torch again and fix those. Power surges through the cable and reaches the crippled oxygen-maker-box-thing. Efficiency rises to five per cent. Oxygen is being pumped back into the living areas once more, but at far too slow a rate. Once more, the fate of scientific discovery lies in my heavily gloved hands.
Or at least the sveltely-jointed manipulators of a remotely controlled robot, because that deadly coolant is still pumping from the rents in the O2 plant. Robot control is surprisingly nippy. I weld. The efficiency increases. Oxygen flows.
Performing these largely repetitive and tedious tasks against the clock, hampered somewhat by slow-motion physics and an awkward interface, generates a bit of tension, but not a great deal. In fact, as the whiny scientists' radio me updates about how hard they're starting to find breathing, I really couldn't care less. Call me a Luddite, but at this point the scientific future of mankind can go take one giant leap.
Being the conscientious workman I am, however, the job is soon done, oxygen levels are up to maximum and the researchers breathe a collective, and literal, sigh of relief. Another day's work on the surface of the moon is done. Sadly, it feels more like I just spent twenty minutes rewiring a rubbish Walkman which has a tape of Bros' greatest hits stuck in it.
This, though, is a recruitment tool, not an entertainment product. It's free, and by only playing in single-player, I've experienced a fraction of what it has to offer - especially if NASA go ahead and develop this one scenario into part of the space-based MMO which it has spoken of before. I can't judge it too harshly.
One thing, however, I will say. Please, for the love of God, science and the progress of mankind, don't send anyone to space on the basis of their experiences with this.
Moonbase Alpha is available as a free download from Steam for PC only.