When I sat down to play Astroneer for this review, I had a lot of things planned for my weekend. It was going to be productive. I was going to catch up on all my laundry. Clean my windows. Finally exorcise the ghost haunting my toaster. Right after I try out Astroneer.
None of that got done, because Astroneer had the nerve to be an open-world sandbox survival crafting and resource managing game without feeling staid, overdone and unpolished. In a market full to the brim with unfinished, underwhelming examples of the genre, Astroneer truly shines. It’s slick, it’s polished, and it’s thoroughly engaging.
UI, Inventory & Crafting
The UI of Astroneer – or, rather, the lack of one – is a refreshing change of pace from similar titles. From the main menu – which is a delightful live view of the starting planet – clicking “New Game” brings pans smoothly over the planet and downwards. No loading screens; straight from menu to action!
Absolutely nothing is on screen that does not need to be. Anything that can be incorporated into the world rather than a menu, has been! Your character’s oxygen and energy meters are grafted to the back of their space suit, Isaac Clarke style. Items you are currently carrying on your person are in nodes on your backpack – which doubles as a tiny 3D-printer for crafting – and ditto for any storage solutions you can build. Gone are chests bigger on the inside and unrealistically deep pockets – anything you own can be seen, always. Resources get slotted on to neat sockets on the crafting benches, each of which has its own easily navigable interface.
Research is done through a PDA slotted into your backpack. Leaving your starter planet to visit another takes you up through the atmosphere and into the vastness of space – again, no loading screens to take you out of the action. The only elements that remain menu-bound are meta things, like saving / loading and settings – which is totally understandable.
Terraforming & Base Building
System Era have crafted a wonderfully intuitive and organic terraforming and landscaping system that I wish I had more reason to utilise. The same vacuum-cleaner-like device that allows you to dig for resources allows you to shape the land around you in any shape you can imagine. I used it to craft bridges over chasms, a boundary wall around my base, as well as a 100 foot tall statue of Bob Ross. My only qualm about the system is that, other than helping you navigate the terrain, there’s no real mechanical reason to use the landscaping tools. No enemies or environmental dangers to hide from.
Gameplay & Progression
Astroneer’s core gameplay loop is typical of the sandbox crafting genre. Collect resources to build equipment to extend the range you can safely explore so you can collect more resources to… And so on. Materials are scarce enough that finding a large deposit is genuinely exciting, but not so rare as to make it tedious to gather enough to craft. The limited amount of storage space you have means you’ll find yourself leaving beacons around the map at large resource veins and points of interest. The cave systems in the game are deep – very deep. Core of the planet deep. You’ll easily spend many hours plumbing their intricate and mysterious depths. Not to mention – no spoilers here – the core is definitely somewhere you’re going to want to reach.
In the normal course of exploration and spelunking, you will find enough of the research-able bits of mineral and organic material that you can move your research on relatively quickly, but researching every available crafting recipe will take quite a bit of time, electricity and resources.
Astroneer rewards exploration. Each excursion that takes you further from home rewards you with new resources, new experiences, and new vistas. On top of this, Astroneer’s masterful design choices make exploring for sightseeing alone a rewarding experience.
The long and short of Astroneer’s design is this; it is beautiful. Its colourful, low-poly aesthetic is charming and tasteful. The landscape Astroneer’s seven worlds are unique in resources, palette, and character. It really feels like exploring new worlds, not just a reskin of Sylva, the starter earth-like planet. Everything from the palette to the surface topology to the atmosphere and the structure of the clouds has been tweaked to make each environment delightfully singular.
Normally, when playing a sandbox game like this, I’ll switch the in-game music off and listen to my own music. Astroneer’s minimal but masterful soundtrack dissuaded me from doing that this time. It’s far from overwhelming – the touch is very light, and even disappears at times. It provides another well-crafted layer to Astroneer’s lonely atmosphere of exploration and discovery.
In a sea of mediocre sandbox crafting survival games, Astroneer shows what the genre is capable of. It doesn’t try to do everything, and what it does do, it excels in. Everything is slick and polished and works together to drag you in and keep you hooked. I played the game solo, but the multiplayer component guarantees many more hours of gameplay and shenanigans.
Thanks for reading. I’m going to go play some more Astroneer.