We venture out into unknown territory to sample an extraterrestrial survival sandbox.
Thanks to the success of Minecraft, Steam's Early Access program is filled with open-world sandbox games. Many feature survival and crafting elements and, sadly, many of them will never get finished. Planet Explorers is a unique take on the open world sandbox sub-genre, and it has been in development for almost three years now. We don't know right now if this game will end up like the rest of them, doomed to never be finished, but in the case of Planet Explorers, it would really be a shame if it went that way.
Planet Explorers was initially Kickstarted over three years ago, and was released through Steam Greenlight a year later, and it has been regularly updated ever since. Its store page says that they are hoping to have the game ready for release by mid-2016, yet we are approaching the year's end and it doesn't feel close to even a remotely finished state. That said, there are somewhat frequent patches, both introducing new features and fixing dozens of bugs, so progress is definitely being made.
When first starting up a new game and going into single-player, you're met with a character creator. Here you can change the face, hair, and proportions of the character you're going to be adventuring as. It's nothing we haven't seen before, but it's a nice addition to the game and it helps give a little bit of personality to the journey you embark on in the single-player story. After this, you're taken into a tutorial set on a high-tech space ship, which teaches you the basics of gathering, combat, and questing. Soon after, the ship you're on crashes and you're left with nothing except the clothes on your back, some food, and a small crew of your fellow survivors.
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In terms of gameplay, Planet Explorers looks and feels like an MMO, despite not being massively multiplayer. The UI, questing, and NPC interactions wouldn't feel amiss in something like Wildstar or Black Desert Online, and after a short time in the single-player you'll ask yourself why you keep getting the same objectives to kill the same monsters. Of course, there are quests that advance the main story that are varied and creative, but trying to manage those amongst all the crap you get quickly becomes annoying.
Crafting is one of the biggest components of Planet Explorers, and it is all done so through an in-game 'replicator.' It's simple enough; collect the materials you need to craft a certain item and, provided you have the recipe for it, you simply press craft. Many of the recipes used for crafting are either purchased from NPCs or given to you as rewards, which gives you something of an incentive to endure through the aforementioned repetitive quests. The variation in the things you can craft is seemingly immense. You begin by only being able to make a few basic tools, like wooden picks or swords, but later on you've got the ability to craft things like jetpacks, and there is a wide array of craftable guns and weaponry for you to choose from and create.
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There are many things in this game that need optimising, or just changing altogether. For a start, everything to do with combat is a pain. Melee makes the player stand still on attack, making it practically impossible to be able to consistently hit your target, especially when they are tiny and quick. Ranged combat is considerably better, as it borrows from third-person-shooters, bringing the camera close and giving the player a reticule that they can use for better aiming. It only works well when enemies are at range, though, which doesn't happen often; trying to continue shooting when your target gets within melee range is a quick recipe for chaos.
Speaking of combat, there is a surprising amount of variety when it comes to the enemies you'll come up against. Everything from small chicken-esque animals to giant dinosaurs can be found, as well as a good few humanoid-type enemies.
Another standout feature of this game is, like many open world survival games right now, the ability to mine and build things. Mining is pretty straightforward in that once you've got a pickaxe, you can go anywhere you like and start chopping away at the land around you. In order to find spots with valuable resources, you've got a scanner, which brings up an in-window mini version of the world, highlighting in different colours the many types of resources locked away underground for you to mine.
If you want to build anything in Planet Explorers, you're going to be in for a tough time. The actual system to build things has a lot of potential, but is made complicated by awkward controls. Hitting the 'B' key brings you into build mode, letting you place blocks down in a radius around where your character is placed. This sounds fine, but when combined with the hard to use camera that build mode makes you use and the fact you can't move your character whilst in this mode, it becomes a chore.
Planet Explorers isn't anywhere close to being perfect, but it has the potential to become a well-polished title that can stand on its own, unique from other sandbox crafting games that it might be compared to, like Ark or Rust. That being said, it's still going to be a while before we could recommend this game to anyone other than those who want to actively participate in its development, purely because of how much wrestling you need to do with certain systems of the game, most prominently the combat. One of the benefits of an Early Access program for developers who are committed to their game, is the fact that devs can keep iterating, and feedback can be easily collected from the community. If you're willing to wait for these improvements to be made by Pathea Games, then you will surely be able to have a good time with this title at some point in the future.