I have always had mixed feelings when it comes to Early Access games, but not always for the same reasons as everyone else. For example, one of the biggest dangers is getting hooked on a game that just never gets completed. Money dries up, development stops, you never get any sort of conclusion. I’ve never been too worried about that – either the game was fun when you played it, or it wasn’t.
No, my biggest concern is when the game gets better or more balanced… but I’m already done.
Oxygen Not Included (ONI) is a colony-management game from Klei that I started playing last year and it has gotten significant updates on the regular. Some new buildings, some new creatures, a sort of end-goal to strive for, and so on. Other things have not changed over the year, and it’s questionable whether they ever will. And that bothers me because some of the things that haven’t changed are broken mechanics.
One of the mid-to-late game threats in ONI is heat. In the beginning, you’re worried about Oxygen (hence the name), so you burn algae for air. Then you run out of algae. Switching to an Electrolyser allows you to turn water into Oxygen + Hydrogen, so you focus on getting clean water to burn, while finding a use for all the unbreathable Hydrogen (generally via Hydrogen Generator to power to the Electrolyser). This is another trap though, because the “free” Oxygen getting piped out is hot, and as your base heats up, your crops will fail. Thus, cooling things becomes a top priority.
While there are a number of “legit” ways to cool things down, the Water Sieve method is straight-up broken. Water Sieves are used to turn Polluted Water into normal Water, for use in bathrooms and such. The supposed downside of this is that the Sieve itself outputs relatively hot water at 40°C, which will gradually heat up your base and ruin your crops (which typically stop growing at 30-35°C). The real issue though is that the Water Sieve always outputs 40°C water… even if the Polluted Water was at a much higher temperature. Thus you get physics-bending/game-breaking (IMO) solutions like piping your clean water out of a Water Sieve and into an Aquatuner (which cools liquid down at the expense of heating itself up)… which is being liquid-cooled in a tank of Polluted Water… that you are piping to the Water Sieve.
Clever use of game mechanics, indeed.
Along the same lines, I have a 100% zombie-proof base in 7 Days to Die. It’s a tower with a nearby ramp and fence, along with a half-block on the other side of the fence. To the zombie AI, this half-block would allow them to jump again and land on the tower and start eating my face. In reality, once they hop over the fence, they miss the half-block, and plummet to the ground, taking damage. From there, they run back up the ramp and try again until they die again. I still try and kill them myself for the XP, but I have all the time in the world to line up the shots or try again if I miss. The devs have added a “tantrum” mechanic whenever a zombie tries to run a path and fails, but that just means the zombie will wail on a bunch of iron spikes.
There are two “easy” solutions to my “problems”:
- Don’t use these mechanics, and/or
- Don’t play these games yet
To which I would say:
- Handicapping myself via willpower alone isn’t fun, and
- These are precisely the type of games I want to be playing at the moment
If you have a list of non-Early Access survival/crafting games that I haven’t already played, by all means, let me know. Otherwise, I’m going to be over here stuffing my face with delicious cheese, and paying for it later.
Frackin’s Universe (FU) is a Steam Workshop mod that revitalizes (and complicates) the entire Starbound experience. It is not recommended for a first playthrough – go beat the base, vanilla game first. Then, just when you think you’ve had enough, come back, load the mod, and play what feels like Starbound 2.0.
Beyond FU itself, I highly recommend the following (compatible!) mods:
In particular, Improved Containers will change your Starbound life. They added a button to automatically stack anything you’re carrying into an existing stack in a container. Great for off-loading one of the dozens of new ore types introduced in FU after coming back aboard your ship.
Play or skip the tutorial. When it asks whether you want the default ship or the Build Your Own Ship (BYOS) option, choose BYOS. This allows you to skip a huge block of vanilla Starbound progression and immediately construct a ship of your dreams.
Incidentally, you can construct your dream ship out of any materials lying around. Including dirt. Despite floating in deep space, you are free to destroy the walls and background tiles of your ship at any time; there are no decompression mechanics in Starbound. Just note that “loose” items/blocks fall to the bottom of the screen, and walking onto a spot without background tiles puts you in an airless, zero-g environment. This will likely be fatal to you at the start of the game, so construct your ship from the other side of a wall first.
Get off the starter planet ASAP. Complete the required quests first, but try to get to a different Lush or whatever planet when you can. Tungsten Ore is an especially vital part of early-game progression, and the starter planet probably doesn’t have any.
Get a Mining Laser ASAP. It is better than Mining Picks, Mining Drills, and the best, most upgraded Matter Manipulator any day. You will still want to upgrade the latter over time though, as the Mining Laser burns through both normal and background blocks, which can be problematic in certain edge cases. Like when the background is full of lava, for example.
Roughly 99% of your deaths will be related to fall damage. That is not so much a recommendation as it is a fact. Mitigating fall damage is super important, but you won’t have very many options at the start, especially considering how dark FU is generally. Until you can get armor/Augments to assist with the issue, your best bet is to focus on unlocking Physics Field tech in the Tech Console. That way you can press F if you notice yourself falling to prevent all damage.
Cheese the lighting system by printing lighted signs. One of the FU changes is that you no longer emit a minimum aura of light. Combined with the fact that EPP upgrades are not cumulative, you will often be in a situation where you need to craft thousands of torches to see anything. Alternatively, once the Pixel Sign maker is up at the Outpost – unlocked after the first artifact – you can create a white, lighted sign that practically shines with the force of a thousand suns.
It also costs nothing but the effort of spam-clicking the print button. Torches are still useful in that they don’t require background tiles to work, but signs are otherwise better when you can use them.
Check every vendor you see. Most of the time, a vendor’s inventory is randomly set when you meet them. This can sometimes result in fortuitous situations like a vendor selling unlimited amounts of, say, Graphene for 28px a pop.
Build your first base on an Ocean planet. If you are anything like me, you’re concerned about where your “real” base should be located. So you go planet to planet, looking for the perfect spot, and meanwhile junk and crafting benches continue to accumulate wherever you placed them (probably on your ship). Eventually, by the time you find the ideal location, you’re overwhelmed by all the items you have to move, so you stick with your first “choice.”
I recommend an Ocean planet base for two reasons. First, it’s a planet. Ship bases are perfectly viable options, but you essentially forgo easy power generation from Solar/Wind stations, and easy materials from Atmospheric Condensers. Second, Ocean planets have infinite water tiles. There are craftable Wells and other water sources wherever you are, but nothing beats the convenience of holding down left-click and soaking up as much water as you need. Or automating it all later.
Keep a Sifter up and running 24/7. A full stack of 1000 Sand will keep a Sifter occupied for quite some time, but the end result will be a dozen or more different materials, some of which can be loaded back in an Alternator to power the Sifter to continue generating free goodies. The Centrifuge is similarly useful, but certainly less perpetual… unless you have Solar panels on an Ocean planet.
Did you build a base on an Ocean planet? Lobsters are EZ-Mode. Craft some Lobster Traps and watch as they magically fill up with free food. Lobsters stack to 99, do not require cooking to eat (but you can if you want), and actually sell for a decent amount (1980px per 99 stack). While there is an indication of freshness, lobsters do not appear to spoil; this may be a bug that is fixed later.
Rice is the easiest vegetable crop to manage. Uncooked rice stacks in your inventory, never goes bad, and you only need a Campfire to cook it. Wheat is similar, but Rice does not need to be replanted (assuming you aren’t using Growing Trays). You forgo any fancy buffs, but it is incredibly straight-forward. If you haven’t found rice on a planet yet, “purchase” it from a Greenhouse.
Grow Trays/Hydroponics are niche tools. On paper, they sound amazing: drop in three seeds, a stack of water, maybe some Fertilizer, and off you go. The problem is that there isn’t a good visual indication of when the product can be harvested. Or when it runs out of water. Or when all of the output slots are full of spoiled food.
Where Grow Trays excel is when they are used either with a stackable product, such Silk, or with a food item that normally despawns when harvesting, such as Wheat. In most other situations, I prefer planting crops in dirt.
Aeroponic or Hydroponic Tubing is strictly better than dirt, once you unlock them. They are kinda expensive considering dirt and the broken sprinkler are so early in the tech tree, but there are benefits to be able to pack more plants into a smaller area (sprinklers need height to water everything). Just keep in mind that you do have to “till” the tubing before planting.
If you want the most-filling food, then you’ll want Ultimate Juice. Incidentally, it also provides +20% Jump/Energy/Health/Run Speed and a Rage effect. This requires six different crops to craft though: Boneboo, Feathercrown, Oculemon, Neonmelon, and Toxictop. Finding these crops before reaching the endgame will be a challenge.
Critical FU Functionality
Frackin’ Universe adds a lot of very complicated systems. Here are the most important/useful ones.
Power – Both Power Generators and Batteries (when charged) output X number of Watts. Plugging a 4W battery into an Arc Smelter (req. 40W) isn’t going to work. That said, wattage is cumulative on a wire. Connect ten 4W batteries to that Arc Smelter – or preferably, to a Wire Relay – and you will be in business. Just note that if you are using 40W, that is 40W less on the wire. If you have multiple stations running simultaneously, you will need a power surplus to keep all the lights on.
Terminals – A Terminal is a clickable interface that grants you access to an “Item Network.” Linking all your storage units together into an Item Network means you can use Terminals to search for and retrieve your items from a single location, e.g. the Terminal itself, instead of having to manually look for it across all your storage units.
What you’ll need:
- Storage unit(s) full of stuff
- Craft and place Storage Bridge near storage unit(s)
- (optional) Craft and place Repeater to hook into multiple Storage Bridges
- Craft and place Terminal near crafting stations
- Connect the blues to the reds, e.g. Storage Bridge to Repeater/Terminal
Item Movement – If you want to take something from one container and physically put it into another container, you want an Item Transference Device (ITD). If you click on the ITD, you will get a bunch of pseudo-programming options that I have zero interest in learning or explaining. Instead, all you really need to know is that it basically works out of the box. Connect the red circle of your container to the blue circle of the ITD, then connect the red circle of the ITD to the blue circle of the other container. Bam. All items that appear in the first slot of the first container will get moved.
For me, the most practical use of an ITD was moving items from a Lobster Trap or Growing Tray to a box automatically. If the box is actually refrigerated storage, then all the better. Red, blue, red, blue, done. If you want something more fancy, you are on your own.
One of your quick-slot items should be Dirt. If you find yourself in trouble, close off the tunnel you’re in with dirt; it will block melee and the majority of ranged attacks while you heal yourself or escape. While it’s a kinda cheesy move in vanilla Starbound, the enemies in Frackin’ Universe are exceedingly more deadly. Some enemies can pass through walls though, and explosive damage can penetrate tiles, so take care.
Always deploy with your Mech on new worlds. Depending on how much (if any) time you spend with the Mech-building side of things, your Mech will not make you invulnerable to planet effects or damage for long. That said, it will absolutely extend your life by a few precious seconds in case you get beamed down in the middle of a USCM camp full of snipers that can one-shot you. Just note that if your Mech explodes, you die with it. So either beam back up to your ship or bail.
Craft a few dozen flags and plant them everywhere. Flags are cheap to craft and act as bookmarks that allow you to get back to where you want to be quickly. Think you might die or encounter a tough fight? Plant a flag. If you come across a planet with a lot of good resources, plant a flag and name it “Penumbrite (Acid, Hot)” or whatever. This will save you oodles of time if you find yourself in a situation of needing more of X resource but being in a Y system instead.
Get an X (Radiation, etc) Ball Wand/Staff. Regardless of your fighting style, having a Wand/Staff with Radiation Ball (or whatever) will change your life. Specifically, it will allow you to attack enemies around corners/from range with guided death. Even better, you can dig a 1-block hole in a wall or floor and then squeeze your orb of death through it to murder your foes with impunity.
Cheap? Sure. Effective? Hell yeah.
Armor Combinations – There are over 100 sets of armor added with Frackin’ Universe, so determining what you want to wear can be a challenge. For the most part though, it’s best to craft a bunch of mannequins and just have specialized sets ready for each planet you beam down on. That said, here were my go-to options:
Nautilus Armor / Kraken Armor / Leviathan Armor
This armor series eventually grants you Acid, Poison/Bio, Gas, Pressure, and Oxygen immunities once you reach the end. If you combine this with the Thermal Shell EPP, you will be immune to the most common damage types. A Field Generator EPP will make you further immune to Radiation, at the expense of making lava a concern again. This will cover just about everything aside from Shadow and Insanity, which can handled with EPP Augments.
With this set, you get Oxygen, Gas, Pressure, and Radiation protection, plus technical immunity to fall damage (you float downwards). This seems like considerably less protections than the same-tier Leviathan Armor set, and it is, but the Valkyrie gear boasts a 500% weapon damage modifier instead of 276%. Definitely a glass-cannon set, with half the armor of Leviathan and a third of War Angel.
This is a “War Angel-lite” tier-6 set that provides Radiation, Heat, Cold, Breath, and Pressure immunities. Additionally, there is an extra 40% Radiation resist and a +15% bonus to Plasma weapon damage.
Basically an endgame armor, this nevertheless makes you immune to Pressure, Cold, Heat, Radiation, knockback, and all fall damage. On top of that, it provides 35% Physical Resist, so you’ll be taking less damage from mobs. Oh, and 93 Armor and tons of extra HP. Definitely a tanky set. Chain Swords deal 250% extra damage in your hands with this set as well.
EPP and Augments – Much like with Armor, there are dozens of different types of EPPs and Augments to slot into them. The ultimate goal is find a combination that works for your play-style and providing the necessary protection to survive whatever planet you’re on. That said, some of the choices are better than others.
[EPP] Thermal Shell
Providing protection against heat, cold, lava, and burning on top of 20% Fire and Ice Resistance, the Thermal Shell is one of the most useful EPPs in the game. Many armors can give you heat immunity, but none of them will save you from taking damage in lava, which is weird. Even the Field Generator, which appears to be a strict upgrade to the Thermal Shell given how it includes Radiation protection, makes you vulnerable to a lava bath once again.
[EPP] Repulsor Field Pack
While outclassed in the midgame, the Repulsor Field Pack is a fantastic early-game EPP since it provides 20% Physical and Fire Resistance. The “penalty” to Cosmic Resistances isn’t particularly relevant until much later in the game.
[EPP] Plasma Light Pack
The final word in backpack light generation, the Plasma Light Pack doesn’t appear until the endgame and may end up being a fool’s errand to chase after. While it provides Breath and Pressure Immunities, most armors offer the same by then.
[Augment] Immunity I & Immunity Field
Pretty much the final word with Augments, Immunity I provides protection against Heat, Cold, Gas, Radiation, and Proto-Poison at a base level. Immunity Field is a recent, stronger addition that grants a 2nd level protection to those same qualities while adding on Radiation Burning, Poisoning, and Liquid Nitrogen immunities. Still does nothing versus Shadow/Insanity/etc damage, so be wary of what planets you are beaming to. Although having a specialized armor set against those qualities with a Thermal Shell with an Immunity Field Augment to handle the rest will do you well.
So, about 100 hours later, I continue to play Starbound’s Frackin’ Universe (FU) mod.
Just to reiterate: FU is a mammoth mod that fundamentally changes complicates nearly all aspects of the vanilla Starbound experience. For example, the vanilla experience has you leveling up an Environmental Protection Pack (EPP) to survive the elemental rigors of planetary progression – from no breathable oxygen to radiation immunity to cold immunity to fire immunity. Each EPP upgrade was a strict upgrade, incorporating all of the immunities of the prior ones. This progression path ensured that you went to the correct systems in the correct order on your journey to defeat the giant tentacle monster final boss.
In Frackin’ Universe, all that is thrown out the window. There are now at least 33 EPPs with wildly varying effects, none of which give you blanket immunity to everything. You are expected to use the proper EPP with a relevant Augment (21 choices) with a corresponding armor (101 new sets) tailored to the planetary conditions. Which have gotten more granular as well, of course. A fiery planet might have three degrees of flammability, tied to 20/40/60% resistance levels, affected by all the previous items plus your race’s innate resistances (if any). Having high resistances might be good for normal exploring, but extreme weather events might end up overcoming said resistances too.
Does all of that sound too complicated? I agree.
What has won me over are all the changes made to support the above complexity. Dozens of new elements and ores have been added to the game. There is now a large number of completely new planet types, and every planet has been infused with micro-biomes. Difficulty is increased across the board as well, making the exploration and exploitation of these new worlds require a lot of attention.
After every night that I play this game, I spend a few minutes in bed thinking about what I plan on accomplishing during the next playing session. “I need to restock my supply of lead.” “Okay, I built the armor set that gives me immunity to proto-poison, so I should be able to get some Protocite Ore.” “I should really create an ocean base for the free water.” “Why haven’t I gotten my crop situation in order?” It never seems to end. Which is great because, at the moment, I don’t want it to.
That said, I did struggle in the beginning. There was too much to take in. There are some tutorial quests that kind of guide you around, but almost all of them simply exist to get you to construct one of the many new crafting stations and leave you staring at yet another huge list of miscellaneous nonsense. The only way past the Analysis Paralysis is to hyper-focus on the one thing that you want to craft, and follow that one thread all the way to the bottom.
A few days ago, I finally constructed my Terminal network. What does it do? It allows me to link together a bunch of storage containers and then output the results on terminal stations placed around my ship, such that I can type in a name of something, then have it spit out the requested item into my inventory. You know, functionality that… exists by default in most of these sort of games. But it doesn’t here, and now it does, and I feel very satisfied about it.
One additional positive I want to mention here is that I like how the mod author(s) included means to bypass some of the systems. Between the various vendors in the new science outpost and a craftable Ansible Network station, you can outright purchase a lot of the more rare ores and components, if you haven’t been able to track down their locations on planets. It costs pixels (aka money), sometimes A LOT of pixels, but it is there as an option if you just so happen to need three more bars of Quietus Ore or whatever.
What I will say though, is that not every aspect of the game is especially coherent. The Medical Station allows you to craft healing items, like in the base game. The Medical Kit II recipe requires Honeysilk Bandages though, which requires you to to engage with the whole Beekeeper system. Meanwhile, Medical Kit III goes back to more typical FU materials, and you don’t need to have crafted the prior version to unlock this one. The armor system behaves similarly – there are redundant sets (sometimes a good thing), many completely useless ones (comparatively), and a few that are clearly superior in every way.
Oh, and you can craft booze too. Unlike the Bee things though, I can’t tell that any part of it is necessary. Maybe for roleplaying purposes?
In any case, there it is. After ~100 hours of mucking about, I feel like I’m within spitting distance of some of the best armors in the game, and likely the end of novel experience. The skeleton of Starbound’s linear story remains in place, but I’m not sure that I’ll continue on with it once I get bored of flying around. Unlike other random-gen games, Starbound doesn’t benefit from multiple playthroughs, as you can pretty much go wherever you want, making anything you want, as soon as you want.
That is, of course, one of it’s biggest strength too.
As of Battle for Azeroth, WoW professions have become almost entirely disposable.
I noticed this last night as I was puttering around on some of my alts. Three of them wear leather armor, so I was hopping onto each one trying to remember which had Leatherworking. As it turns out, none of them did. So, without much thought, I dropped Skinning on the rogue and then… paused. “Leather is cheap, but those Blood-Stained Bones are relatively expensive.” Then I decided that my druid would likely be more efficient at AoE farming for leather anyway, so I logged onto her and then dropped Enchanting without a pause and gave her Skinning.
If you have not been keeping track at home, Blizzard had been moving towards the Single Expansion Relevance model for a while now. Professions used to start at 1, and you would need to dedicate tens of thousands of gold/hours farming to level them up to 300+ just to get near where current-content gear was. If you kept up, you were sitting pretty, because everyone else just coming back from a break or brand new players had a huge grind ahead of them.
It was not a particularly elegant model, but it still felt… reasonable. Plus, the constant need for old-world mats for newly profession-ed characters meant that lowbies had a good shot at become rich by just gathering herbs/ore as they leveled. There was a whole micro-economy that existed there, including the savvy Auctioneers who were able to throw together a “profession kit” that would allow someone to max out to current content within 30 minutes. The dedication needed to remain in your own professions would inspire people to level alts just to have additional options, who then needed to be leveled and geared and fed a diet of AH materials, and so on, and so forth.
Then things started to change.
The first steps were allowing players to harvest current-expansion nodes even as a starter herbalist/miner. Blizzard made sure that the product extracted was basically junk, or 1/10th of the normal result, but you could at least tap the node. And that was reasonable, especially for the gathering professions, as it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to force high-level characters to be scouring old Azeroth for Tin nodes.
Then came the gimmie recipes for crafters, which allowed them to use current-expansion resources to rank up 400+ levels. One would think that such a feature killed off the old-school profession kits, but all it really did was set a price ceiling at which it was cheaper to just buy new herbs/ore. This was especially true at the beginning of an expansion, when the latest herbs/ore were selling for hundreds of gold apiece.
Somewhere in there, Blizzard also introduced profession books, which would allow you to “relearn” all the recipes you had lost when abandoning a profession.
With BfA, the circle is now complete. Professions are entirely stratified into expansion-specific tiers. Profession bonuses, which were the bane of hardcore raiders, were watered-down and diluted into irrelevance. Once a part of your character’s identity and story, professions are, at most, a (temporary) economic decision. Hell, in the heady days of a new expansion release, it can sometimes be worth the 1000g fee to relearn a profession if you can make ten times that amount in a night of being a temporary whatever. Blizzard helpfully removed most of the dungeon requirements for 3-star ranks, so the barriers has never been lower.
And all of that is probably for the best.
I sat here a while, exploring my feelings on the matter, before coming to that conclusion. I am a huge critic of any game design in which someone can lose on the character select screen, and WoW’s profession bonuses combined with the grind back up to max rank was just another form of that. That is on top of the ~5%/month churn rate which could see your entire MMO population turn over every 20 months. A new expansion is usually released how often, again? It’s just not a good design IMO to require people to pump out thousands of useless pieces of junk to increase a number to a sufficient degree to get to starting line.
Nevertheless, yeah, there is a part of me that had fond memories of the old system. My namesake paladin has been a Jewelcrafting/Alchemist since 2008 and none of that matters. I spent hundreds of hours leveling up a fleet of alts to cover every profitable base each expansion, and now the same thing could be done by one toon and a willingness to drop 1000g.
I am sort of waiting for the day when Blizzard just goes full GW2 and lets you buy extra profession slots for real money and otherwise just be done with the restrictions altogether.
(e.g. Why I Stopped Playing: The Forest.)
Let me start off by saying that The Forest has almost ruined other survival games for me. Nearly everything about it is incredibly slick and intuitive. The titular forest feels (and sounds!) like a forest, and walking through it can be a relaxing experience.
The crafting and building game is on point as well. Instead of filling your inventory with hundreds of rocks so you can craft a furnace in your pocket, you instead lay out a blueprint out in the world. From there, you start building it piece by piece, by essentially “using” the items in your limited inventory. Most of the larger constructions require logs, which you cannot fit in your pocket. So you are out in the world, chopping down entire trees, and then either hauling 1-2 logs on your back or crafting a sled to move ~10 or so at a time. This makes each structure feel important, as you spend a lot of time crafting it and seeing it come together a piece at a time, in a way that doesn’t exist just chopping logs for abstracted resources. It’s hard going back to any other survival games after this one.
That said, the game lost me when it went from being The Forest to The Caves.
Basically, nothing you do out in the world really matters – story progression is essentially exclusive to the cave system that snakes through the landscape. Sure, you need sticks and stuff to craft bows and your other weapons, but the experience of slowly creeping through dark, linear passages and encountering scripted amounts of enemies is basically the opposite of everything that led up to this point in gameplay. Those elaborate traps and your fortified treefort? Pointless. That house boat you built after felling a hundred trees? Pointless.
I mean, I get it. This game is technically a survival-horror, and even the craziest mutants lose some of the horror bits when you see them roaming around in the overworld instead of stumbling into them in a poorly-lit cavern. But really, these are two different games. The most you are crafting in the caves is a tent as a temporary Save location, so what was the point in expanding your carrying capacity? Or exploring the different biomes?
So, I stopped playing. The caves are both nerve-wracking and boring, simultaneously. I have heard that I’m pretty close to the point at which the plot starts to unfold in interesting ways, but that plot is at the end of more caves, which is further from the truly fun and innovative parts of this game. And that’s a real goddamn shame.
Going forward though, I do hope every survival game copies certain elements from The Forest. Don’t let us keep Furnaces in our pockets, especially if we’re basically allowed to build them out anywhere in the world anyway. Make things feel more grounded in the open world. And, yeah, please keep the open world and not goddamn caves.
Conan: Exiles (hereafter Conan) is basically ARK where the dinosaurs are people.
Not really… but kinda.
The first thing I want to say about Conan is that this is perhaps the first survival game I have played that has completely nailed the setting and tone. In a lot of these games, you are a faceless protagonist, or a random nobody who just suddenly is completely fine with butchering cannibals within minutes of regaining consciousness. In this game, you are a barbarian, in a barbarian land, doing some very barbaric things. And it fits.
In ARK, you tame dinosaurs by beating them unconscious with clubs, rocks, or narcotics. Then you… put food and more narcotics into their inventories. In Conan, you beat warriors/cooks/etc unconscious with a club. Then you… tie a rope to their legs and drag them along the ground back to your camp, and lash them to your Wheel of Pain, feeding them gruel or even human flesh, until their will to resist finally breaks and they join you. Crom would be pleased.
Like I said, it fits the theme and tone of the game. All of that is further reinforced by the demonic mobs, corruption of mad gods, and other sort of weirdness that permeates the land. It feels right.
Having said all that, there is a lot of jankiness all over the place. I’m not just talking about the typical survival game tropes like carrying 500+ stones in your loincloth inventory, or how your Thralls will sometimes unequip themselves of their weapons. I mean the very consistent outright bugs, like how attacks don’t register if you are fighting under a tent. Or the overall jarring inconsistencies in progression, like the ridiculous hoops you have to go through to complete the early-game Journal task of “skinning a creature with a knife” (literally a dozen+ steps). Or the general incongruent nature of a more “realistic” game in which you cannot simply loot the items that NPCs are wearing, or interact with any of the set pieces that dot the land.
I think that, more than anything, there is one thought that is draining most of my enthusiasm away from playing Conan: “Elder Scrolls Online did it better.” Can you slaughter a camp of people and drain the Unfulfilled Desires from their corpses to fuel your ritual offerings to Derketo in TESO? No. You can, however, interact with the world in a meaningful way, like… you know, sitting in a chair, opening a crate, stealing a bowl. Certainly the whole dungeon thing works a hell of a lot better when death does not send you back across the map, naked and alone.
For the record, my experiences in Conan have been from the viewpoint of someone playing it single-player on a local server. I ended up cranking up the resource gain to x4 rate, which is probably too high, but farming iron ore for days and days is just dumb. It was dumb in ARK too, but that was on purpose: you were meant to tame dinosaurs to make collecting resources more efficient. In Conan, it’s just mindless labor meant to create PvP opportunities in which someone jacks all your stuff.
We’ll see how long interest lasts. I tried my first dungeon the other day, and was slaughtered by the boss all the way at the end. Despite having admin powers and the ability to spawn all my equipment back on my body and teleport back to the area, there was a very tangible part of me that felt like that was an interest-terminating loss. I never felt deprived in ARK for not seeing the bosses there while playing single-player, but dungeons in Conan are more of a thing. Probably because there are less “things” in the world otherwise.
Tropes are a thing. A lot of people feel like tropes are the worst thing imaginable, and every new title should be breaking new ground every time, or what is the point? That’s a bit unrealistic, I think. To me, tropes can be comforting. Experience in one game does not often transfer to another, so when it does, it can help in understanding the mechanics that interact in new ways. Plus, sometimes the tropes make the genre what it is.
That said, I have been playing a lot of survival games lately, and some of these tropes have got to go.
Starting out naked with no items? That’s good, important even.
Crafting recipes that require a resource that should be abundant, but turns out to be super rare? That shit has got to go. I’m in Conan: Exiles and there are two early-game arrow recipes: one requires bones and the other requires feathers. Just guess how many bones exist in the average human or animal. If you guessed “a similar number to the amount of feathers that are contained in a clearly-feathered ostrich-like creature,” you would be correct. Zero, specifically, on average.
Although, arguably worse is how little bark you can harvest from trees.
Shit like that didn’t phase me much in the past, but I think I was spoiled by The Forest. In that survival game, you can just chuck dead bodies on your campfire, and 6-7 bones would pop out a few minutes later. Oh, and it has the best building mechanic in any survival game I have played: you set down a blueprint and then have to carry the materials to that location. That makes way better sense than putting 540 stones in your (loincloth) inventory, crafting a Furnace that mysteriously weighs 50% less, and then plopping it down wherever.
At the same time, having experienced the ability to climb anywhere in Conan, it will be tough to go back to other survival games in which a waist-high cliff is an insurmountable obstacle.
One step forward, two, three, sometimes forty steps back.
Project Zomboid (PZ) is an Early Access, isometric post-zombie apocalypse survival game set in Kentucky. While the pared down graphics and isometric camera might give one pause, I was fairly excited to give the game a try. What I discovered is possibly one of the more “realistic” survival games out there… and that realism is way overrated. And less fun to play.
Honestly, I was actually surprised how much I disliked PZ almost immediately. After character creation, you take control inside the one for-sure non-zombie house – your own. From here, you go through houses and find… normal stuff. Fully stocked refrigerators and freezers. Ovens to cook raw meat. Working lights. Faucets that deliver fresh water directly to your mouth. While your character starts with no skills, you are fully capable of surviving quite a while just fine doing nothing.
That does not last for long, of course. Within a month or so, both the electricity and water will shut off permanently. So the game’s central conceit reveals itself: how long can you survive?
In the abstract, this is not dissimilar to, say, Oxygen Not Included, wherein there is no win condition per se. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find myself immediately repulsed by PZ, conceptually. When you wake up naked on a beach in ARK, there is a very obvious, grokkable progression path towards survival. All of that is turned on its head with PZ. I found myself ransacking houses for supplies, and then asking myself why.
The answer is supposed to be “to prepare for self-sufficiency and safety after the lights and water turn off,” but that feels like such a weird, abstract endgame. It’s definitely unique in this particular genre, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like it’s probably unique for a reason, e.g. it feels bad. You aren’t building up to self-sufficiency, you’re building down. It is also harder to feel any particular sense of urgency without metagaming the entire experience.
I dunno. There is technically a starting game mode which takes place 6 months after the start of the zombie apocalypse, which features the water and lights already off, and most things already looted. In other words, a more typical survival game experience. But after spending a few hours with the base game, I don’t know that I feel it.
This is definitely going to be one of those Early Access titles that needs more time in the oven.
After becoming a bit impatient with Oxygen Not Included, I decided to buck my principles and buy the never-on-sale RimWorld. Technically though, I did get a discount through the Humble Store (10% off), so that’s the way I’d recommend going.
If you have not heard of it before, RimWorld is a sort of colony-management game in the vein of Dwarf Fortress, with the visuals of Prison Architect. In the default scenario, you pick three survivors of a starship crash, and shepherd them through the trials and tribulations of life on a titular RimWorld. There is technically an end-goal of researching technology/production far enough to send at least one person back into space, but it’s a bit more of a sandbox than that.
Much like with Oxygen Not Included, your colonists are basically controlled via a granular priority system, augmented by their own mood and predilections. You can request that trees are cut down and the wood used to build a new room, for example, but it’s possible your colonists will start playing horseshoes or lay down on your solar panels to gaze at the clouds.
They can and will also do things like plop down a stack of turkey leather right in the doorway to your freezer, letting out all the cold air and potentially ruining your entire meat supply. There’s no real way to force a person to do one particular thing (aside from Drafting them for combat) – the best you can do is prioritize one thing to the maximum level, disable everything else, and hope for the best.
If the above examples seem silly… that’s kind of the point. Each colonist has an entire background narrative, with expanding needs and desires that influence their actions at any given point. Romances will form between two people, then a break-up, and suddenly one or both might experience a mild (or major) psychotic break due to the mood penalty said break-up causes.
Well, that social interaction plus seeing the colony pet terrier get killed by a Cobra, the fact that their bedroom is too small, and a number of other interactions over the last few days. Butchering the dead dog for its meat and then turning the leather into a hat probably also didn’t help things.
The emergent narrative formed by these random, interacting systems is the heart of RimWorld.
Speaking of “random,” at the beginning of the game you get to choose the AI Storyteller and difficulty of your game. The default AI will throw increasingly difficult encounters your way (modified by game difficulty), ensuring that you never reach a point at which you become entirely stable. The other two AI choices give longer periods of calm, and completely random ones at random intervals, respectfully. I can appreciate the transparency of the system, even though it makes things… a bit game-y, I suppose.
In any case, I am enjoying my time thus far. There are still a lot of game elements that do not make complete sense – the Research system in particular is difficult to wrap my head around – but the sort of little narratives that emerge are pretty interesting. So, we’ll see.
Oxygen Not Included (ONI) is a base-building and resource management game currently in Early Access, in the vein Dwarf Fortress and RimWorld. At least, that is what people tell me, as I have not played either one of those. What I have played is Craft the World (pt1, pt2), and ONI is basically that, minus the dwarves and goblins.
The premise of ONI is actually kind of compelling. After picking three Duplicants from a roster of randomly generated ones, they appear in the middle of an asteroid. The ostensible goal is to survive as long as possible using what resources you have available. Instead of controlling them directly, you the player can generate and prioritize tasks like digging out certain squares, constructing machines, etc, and your Duplicants will work to make that happen. Contrary to the title, some basic oxygen is included in the form of oxygen-generating rocks, but it is not nearly enough to last long-term.
Indeed, oxygen-management is indicative of what you will be working on over the arc of the entire game. In the beginning, you will create machines that convert algae (mined from special squares) into oxygen to supply your base. However, your Duplicants exhale CO2, and that will gradually accumulate in the lower reaches of your base (science!). So, eventually, you are going to need to either research technology to convert that CO2 into some other form, or at least pipe it elsewhere. Meanwhile, you also have to grow food, find water, and research some method of disposing of all the poop (or polluted dirt, if you prefer) your Duplicants generate. Have I mentioned there are germs and stress to worry about too? And the fact that you are in the middle of an asteroid, so the whole “pump the CO2 elsewhere” is really just delaying the problem for another day?
As of right now, I do not believe there is a story or “campaign mode” for ONI, and I do not know if there is any planned either. The goal is to survive as long as possible, and there are some very optimized base configurations out there to ensure that is the case. However… I’m not sure that is enough for me, game-wise. Klei’s other popular game, Don’t Starve, also features an implicit goal of surviving as long as possible against escalating threats. The end-state of death there though, usually comes from violence or mistakes rather than slowly running out of finite resources. I felt much more agency in Don’t Starve, in other words, even if the outcome was very similar.
What I will say is that Oxygen Not Included grabbed my attention very early with a compelling premise, and makes me wish there were more Terraria/Starbound/etc survival games out there that I haven’t already played . Hmm… maybe it’s time for RimWorld then…