Astroneer, the System Era Softworks simulation experience set in space, would be best explained as a space exploration game without the hardcore survival aspects (although there are some) that we sometimes see in the genre. Astroneer offers a delightful experience to lose oneself in, paired with wonderful visuals, and reviewing it was truly a pleasure.
There's something about comic/art inspired visuals in games, and Astroneer - which has qualities of both - really is beautiful. With vivid colours, delightfully adorable looking characters, skins and items, and fantastic, cartoon-style animations, Astroneer is a joy to experience or even just watch other people play. It's as much a game as it is a visual experience and with the gameplay being as laid-back as it is, you never feel like you're playing a game. Now, that may sound odd, as of course we were aware of the fact that we were using our keyboard and our mouse, looking at a screen, but there's little to no pressure to do anything at all while in the game. We found ourselves being completely immersed in the game world, just taking in all of the corners of space at our own pace. Sure, there are vague objectives, more so later in the game than early on (there's a tutorial-type introduction, which is most definitely needed), but the joy in playing Astroneer is in creating your own adventure by setting out towards the horizon, seeing what lies beyond, and building your own sweet base of space operations.
When dropping into the game's tutorial (which we highly recommend that everyone plays through), the player takes the shape of a chubby little astronaut, traversing space in a small shuttle escape pod and crashing to the surface of a small planet. When exiting the pod they're told to pick up some supplies and connect missing pieces of a pipeline running with oxygen to keep the player from suffocating while exploring the wastes. The tutorial goes through the basics of the game, so you'll learn how to forage, manage your inventory, dig, build, scan, and explore the planets in the best way a player can. If skipping the tutorial, however, the player spawns inside a small base. The game then blesses the player with a care package that will help out in getting started on solo-colonising your recently discovered homeworld.
So essentially, what Astroneer is all about is base building and exploring, as previously stated. There are survival elements, however, the survival element isn't too harshly implemented. Sure, you need to put the tethers (that are crafted using a compound that you simply dig for by pressing E and going to town on the ground) onto your line of oxygen tubes to be able to survive in the vacuum side of things. The tethers are easily crafted with common material and as you build your network of tethers you can explore more of the planet you're stranded on. That being said, there are few other things to keep track of to survive and you get into the habit of putting tethers down pretty quickly. Apart from the lack of oxygen, there are some environmental hazards to keep in mind such as poisonous clouds appearing after you dig for resources. As mentioned though, there's very little consequence here. If a player dies, in solo mode or in co-op mode, they're simply re-spawned at the base location.
With the game being sandbox-based, it's clear that the developer wanted it to be a player-created experience, and it is. Even though there are a lot of guidelines to follow - the player, for example gets the option to build, inspect, and unlock more crafting options for their base (which is great) - but the guidelines are there to keep the game going once the player gets bored of exploring and digging caves deep in the core of the planet they've arrived at. Understanding the game is simple enough - you examine with the F button on PC, walk around with the W, A, S, and D keys, pick up and interact with the left mouse key, and control the camera by holding the right mouse key, dragging the mouse around.
The player has a backpack with limited space (so managing resources is key, be it keeping the resources in your backpack or creating a hub by digging a hole by your base to drop materials into) but the managing of materials is simple enough and building something different if the scenery isn't to your liking is just as easy. The progression in the game is based on what you create, unlock, and explore, which means the more you uncover, the more structures you'll unlock and craft without even realising.
Now, exploring the planet you're on, be it the planet you started out on or a different one, after creating enough of a sturdy shuttle to leave the atmosphere, which is essentially the main objective, can be done in more ways than one. Every hill can be smoothed to the ground using the digging tool and every valley can be filled using the same tool. The world really is yours to shape and the freedom of what the player wishes to do being possible grants a whole new level of freedom. Building structures, be it printers to build bigger structures, tethers to keep yourself alive by extending the flow of oxygen on the planets, or whatever it may be, requires you to inspect and scan different elements as well as find different materials and minerals. Even though some can be hard to find, the hunt for them doesn't feel like a chore.
The co-op feature in Astroneer is essentially the same thing as the solo mode, the difference being that there's two of you digging around, and even though we didn't make a cooperative effort when trying it out, it was freeing to take off in different directions while talking the other player through what cool stuff we found on the other side of the map as the neat electronic music track played in our ears.
As for issues, however, there is one worthy of noting - loading into the game can take some time, with the main issue being the frame-rate. We found that the frame-rate was especially bad on PC (we ran the game on ultra and then high on a medium-tier gaming rig) and sometimes it got so bad that the game seemed to be running in slow-motion.
Astroneer gives its players free reign to explore an uncharted world while offering a wonderful landscape while doing so. It's a lovely little game to pick up when wanting to take it easy yet still get some gaming in for the night, and despite the frame-rate issues we had a great time. The frame-rate however was really immersion breaking and broke the acceptable FPS count more times than we'd prefer. That being said though if this issue gets fixed in the future, which we bet it will, Astroneer could be the next big sandbox game for all ages to enjoy. '