Your Christmas game isn't always the one you unwrap. Sometimes it's simply the one you spend your Christmas break thinking about. In that case, there's a clear winner for me this year. Astroneer, a wonderfully pretty Early Access sci-fi survival job is my Christmas game of 2016. I loved playing it, and now I can't stop pondering it. Underneath all the easy brilliance, genre has done something slightly strange to this game, and I'm still trying to unmuddle it all.
Astroneer starts beautifully, each new game launching you from lofty orbit and down to the procedurally-scrambled surface of a low-poly planet, where you have to collect resources and build stuff in order to survive, explore, and thrive.
Gosh, it's a looker, lovely purples and oranges and lime greens slapped all over the ground and the distant mountains, origami paper flowers scattered about, and, if you're lucky, fragments of previous space launches scarring the earth and littered with salvage. It all looks sweet and sugary. If Starburst is looking for a sponsorship opportunity, Astroneer would be a good fit.
You play a chunky astronaut, faceplate an unreadable pool of gold mirrored metal, and initially you're kept on a short leash, since your oxygen starts to decrease whenever you leave your landing site - and its life-giving tether - behind in order to poke around your new neighborhood.
Early on, you learn to use your main gadget, which allows you to vacuum up the ground, terraforming it and extracting a range of useful resources as you go. You also learn to turn these resources into helpful objects, the first of which - and it's also Astroneer's absolute best idea so far - are tethers, which let you extend your home-base's oxygen supply out in whichever direction you fancy, dropping a futuristic breadcrumb trail, in effect, of glowing blue lines strung across little tripods.
Forget breadcrumbs, actually. As I played I felt like a spider making the tentative framework of a new web. I love the way the wires sag between the tripods. I love the way the tethers make your exploration feel so tentative and vulnerable. What an elegant way to provide a pace for early exploration, too, these lines not only allowing you to travel further (while giving you a resource to keep your eye out for so you can make more of them) but also affording an easy means of working out where you've already been, and how far you got last time before you expired.
Before too long, I was expiring just about everywhere, getting caught in sandstorms that hid my tethers from view and left me disoriented, getting too greedy as I raced towards the horizon in search of something interesting and found out I couldn't get back to safety in time, or simply being offed by mysterious alien fauna deep underground, where Astroneer's planets reveal themselves to be honeycomb cave networks, filled with the very sweetest resources - if you can get in and out alive. Every now and then I encountered a big alien artefact - normally some kind of bulbous seed pod - that I could lug home and place on my research unit to unlock a new item template for future crafting. Then there were those wrecks of previous spaceships, which came with their own trinkets to salvage.
If there's a slight worry - and I appreciate that this is largely a worry that's down to the fact that I haven't played an enormous amount, and that I'm bringing my own, very personal expectations and hopes with me - it's that, over the opening hours of play, I started to realise that the things I was really excited about in Astroneer were all back at the base. They were the stations I could build that allowed me to research new gadgets, smelt metals, and even construct and launch vehicles, such as jouncy little rovers. In the face of this, going out into the gorgeous alien world was in danger of becoming little more than a way of getting the resources I needed to use back at home. I might encounter a stockpile of resources, or I might be killed by a new species of plant, but by and large the planet seemed increasingly low on its own kind of wonder once I started to understand just how closely Astroneer - in its Early Access state - currently slots into an established survival framework. (Even the alien pods I was bringing back to research were unlocking new spaceman gadgets rather than anything more extra-terrestrial.)
I doubt this will matter much to me over time - Astroneer is already slickly rendered and entertaining, and its survival and expansion ethos provide a strong incentive to travel further and further and collect more resources as you go. I'll definitely continue playing in the new year.
And maybe as I play I'll be hoping that the updates that mark the game's journey through Early Access find the space for something genuinely unprecedented in amongst such pleasantly familiar territory. Astroneer is extremely enjoyable as is - but what marks it out for me is its amazing potential.
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