If it seems as though I fell into a hole… I kinda did. Specifically, in the form a mod for 7 Days to Die called “Darkness Falls.”
I have mentioned it before, but 7 Days to Die (7DTD) is a game that somehow pushes all the right buttons for me. It has zombies, crafting, loot progression, skill points and XP, base building, a sort of tower defense angle (during the 7th day Blood moon), resource gathering, scavenging post-apocalypse buildings, and so on. A lot of those mechanics synergize with each other in interesting ways too. For example, you have to weigh the costs/benefits of clearing buildings of supplies versus mining for resources to build out your base to survive the Blood moon every 7 days. And knowing that a horde of strong zombies will be able to hone in on your position on a regular schedule gives meaning and structure around your day-to-day decisions.
The base game has been really good over the years, despite it still being in Alpha, but after 200+ hours the novelty wore off. Updates are more often on a yearly cadence, and sometimes the improvements are a step backwards in some respects. In Alpha 19, for example, loot progression has been tied to one’s “game stage.” What this means is that if you end up clearing out the Shotgun Messiah weapons factory early on – a sort of Tier 5 (the highest) dungeon – the big loot at the special chamber will include… Stone Axes and maybe a Blunderbuss. This was done to prevent people from potentially cheesing hard buildings and walking away with an AK-47 within the first two days, but come on.
In any case, Darkness Falls is one of the many (!) complete overhaul mods available for 7DTD. It takes the current game (A19.4) and rolls back some of changes made over the years while adding new enemies, new resources, dozens of new dungeons, and an actual endgame. The core gameplay loop is still there, including the Blood moon. But now you can choose two classes (out of 8) when you roll a character, and each class has exclusive access to some of the new (or old) mechanics. If you max those classes out, you can collect Skill Notes to build another class book and start unlock additional perks.
I have played so much in the last two weeks that I have perhaps burned myself out on it. Also, sometimes the mod just trolls you a bit. In some of the “custom” added dungeons, for example, they will have a full room of zombies just pop out of a wall and mob your face within seconds. Under default settings, you drop all your loot on death, and thus be extra boned from such maliciousness. I have tweaked my own settings so that I get to keep whatever is in my toolbar, so I don’t accidentally get stranded 2 km from my body, naked and alone.
So, yeah, that is what I have been up to. Like I said, I may be on the tail end of being burned out from playing the mod for so long. At the moment, I am stalling before heading into the endgame biome because I know that’s where the demons are and I don’t exactly have the proper endgame weapons/armor to take them on in a straight-up fight. But I am also getting concerned that the “surprise room of demons” gimmick is in my near-future and I don’t like it. That sort of thing would work better in co-op or something. When it’s just you, there is every incentive to cheese the zombie AI as much as possible to survive. Which… works, but also kinda sucks.
I think I figured it out, what I want most in a game. I want this:
That’s a Post-It note I scribbled upgrade materials on and kept near my keyboard. While the Bow portion was for Valheim, the rest of it is for a Survival Management game called Dead in Vinland that I have played pretty heavily lately. Indeed, Steam says 48 hours in the last two weeks.
It’s difficult to discern whether Dead in Vinland is actually that fun. Hell, I don’t even know where or when I got it. After digging into my account history, it looks like it came from a January 2020 Humble Bundle? Anyway, I had been listlessly jumping from game to game because the games I want to play are unfinished Early Access titles. Which may be redundant but nevermind. Titles like the aforementioned Valheim, 7 Days to Die, Grounded. Basically every survival game ever – just got to add “content” to the list of things you have to scavenge for.
Thing is, I’m starting to realize that it may not necessarily be the survival genre per se. What I truly enjoy, what pushes all my buttons, is exactly what is on that Post-It note: Planning. I looked at all the camp upgrades in Dead in Vinland and winnowed them down to the seven that might actually have a meaningful impact. Then I could start making rational decisions on which to build first based on my available resources. It would be suboptimal to complete the two that both take 20 Wood, for example, as that is a resource that would take focused harvesting at the expense of everything else. Plus, Wood has other users whereas with Pelts I only need 30 of them total.
I do find it annoying in how few games allow you to take in-game notes. I have fun with Metroidvanias but dislike how next to none of them let you mark the map so that you know you need to come back to a particular area after getting the double-jump ability, for example. Technically, Hollow Knight let you mark the map, but only with weird icons that you had to purchase with in-game currency. Games like My Time at Portia let you make notes, but not in the way I wanted – if I’ve figured out that so-and-so really likes Apple Pies, let me attach that somewhere on the crafting screen itself. So, again, I can look at my available crafting materials and plan out the optimal route to utilize them.
I bring that up because it is not as though I necessarily enjoy just writing stuff on Post-It notes.
Well, actually, I do.
And pondering further, it is not even necessarily that I want games where planning is required. Dead in Vinland can certainly punish you for a lack of planning – the antagonist demands a revolving tribute of goods every 7 days – and that’s not necessarily fun. It certainly drives the gameplay and gives you a reason to head certain directions, which is fine. Fun? No.
In any case, when I bust out one of my half-dozen Post-Its and start writing stuff down, I know that something is cooking. The game itself may not always warrant that level of planning – perhaps it will be a shock, but I do have a tendency to over-analyze things – but the act of doing so absolutely increases the net level of fun that is occurring. Or perhaps is just indicative of something occurring deeper beneath the surface and the product is fun.
Now, I just have to find a (finished!) game that is worthy of that attention.
I am still playing Valheim, off and on. I haven’t felt the need to write about it though, considering how many other bloggers are filling space with their survival narratives. How many times do you need someone to talk about taking down the 2nd boss and (initially) struggling in the Swamp biome? For a minute there, even I started to wonder whether we all entered some kind of writing prompt class and had to elaborate on the same Youtube video of someone else playing Valheim.
What I have come to understand though is that all of us playing the same game and making progress in roughly the same timeframe really puts a mirror to us as gamers. Blog posts by their very nature do this all the time, of course, but when the base experience is so austere, we can’t hide in the minutia.
In examining my own narrative though, I keep coming back to… annoyance.
The above is a map of my adventures, starting from the 2nd boss who was like two major islands away. Which is fine. Having them so far away serves as an enforcement mechanism to engage with better boats and creating portals. Which highlights how you can’t take ore with you through portals, and oh you still need to explore the Black Forest to sweep dungeons for the necessary cores. And since you drop everything on death, you have to really be on point when exploring or else you’ll have to build a new boat and sail all over again, so make sure to stop and drop a portal every so often.
The real non-fun happened after killing the 2nd boss though.
The Swamp biome is fine. It’s oppressive and dark and tough to navigate and does a real good job of highlighting how much you do not belong there. The prep work necessary before venturing in (Poison Resist, etc) is precisely the sort of things that make survival games so addicting. If you never bothered to learn what the Wet debuff means on a practical level before, you sure as hell are paying attention now. The desperate struggle to flee while both Wet and Cold, spending what precious Stamina you have left zigging and zagging to avoid Draugr arrows in your back, all while you watch with dread as Poison ticks your remaining HP away is something that I think all of us experienced in our bones.
The non-fun for me was how it took more than 5 hours of “exploration” to find a Swamp biome that even had a Sunken Crypt in the first place. I found Swamps, yes. But Sunken Crypts with their Scrap Iron is the only real reason to ever set foot in one. What I found instead were crypt-less Swamps and a world seed that is apparently 90% Plains, which is a biome two ahead of where I should be. And so I sailed and sailed and slapped portals as far apart as I dared, knowing that dying too far out would likely put an end to my playing Valheim at all.
Then this happened:
With portal “Swamp 5” I finally located a Swamp biome that actually had Sunken Crypts. Three of them. All within sight of one another. And within one such Crypt I got a read that the 3rd boss was… right next door. Next to another 3-4 Crypts.
Now, perhaps it would be too much to ask that every Swamp has a Sunken Crypt. Too formulaic. On the other hand… come the fuck on. Legitimate Swamps 1-4 were not legitimate enough, eh? I keep thinking how much my perception of the game would be different had I discovered a Sunken Crypt in the first Swamp biome I went to. Then again, maybe not, considering how I’ve clocked another 3-4 hours of “gameplay” finding and exploring Mountains that contain no Silver.
“Okay, you just don’t like exploration.” I mean… maybe? I can agonize for hours and hours in 7 Days to Die or ARK where is the ideal place to create a base. Because that sort of thing actually matters in those games. Valheim is about creating shanty towns next to resources and then portaling everywhere or white-knuckle sailing back to “home base” with a hold filled with ore. Really reminds me of Starbound and No Man’s Sky in that way – “home” is all but an abstraction, a loading screen at the end of an ever-expanding portal chain. The only real anchor in Valheim are carrots, beets, and beer, as those take a few game days produce. But, again, those be located at the ass-end of the world for all it matters.
In any case, I do not consider Valheim’s present state to be a particularly compelling argument for “exploration.” Am I literally “traveling in or through an unfamiliar area in order to learn about it?” Yes. But if procedurally-generated emptiness is what floats your boat, allow me to introduce you to No Man’s Sky, (vanilla) Starbound, and another small indie title called Minecraft.
There doesn’t have to be a treasure chest behind every waterfall, but if there are never any chests or my progress through your game is dependent upon a 10% chance of a randomly-generated waterfall spawning a chest 5% of the time, well, fuck you.
Perhaps I am being too harsh. I talked about ARK a lot before, but I sure as hell wasn’t using standard settings that would require 10 real-world hours of unconscious dino-sitting. So perhaps I uncover the Valheim map a bit via cheats (or view my world seed map) and at least note the next 5 mountain ranges of adequate size so I stop spinning my oars in the wrong direction. Because I have no problem collecting 500 whatever to do the next thing. But I have a huge problem spending the time going to the place where the whatever is supposed to be, and finding that the princess is in another castle, in a different game, and have fun playing through it all over again.
Like the rest of the world, I too succumbed to the call of Odin and bought Valheim.
But unlike the rest of the world, here’s my hot take: Valheim ain’t special.
This isn’t to say it’s bad. Valheim is indeed clever in many ways… assuming that it’s austere design is intentional, and not a result of it being an Early Access game built by two dudes. Part of that cleverness is the fact that Valheim put a tutorial inside an otherwise open-world survival game. Just think about all the other survival games out there, and how they all proudly lean into their cold opens and lack of direction. I have spawned into ARK with a level 1 character on what was supposed to be a safe(ish) beach and was immediately eaten by a raptor. That may be par for the course for survival games, but it doesn’t have to be. And so it’s no wonder that Valheim with its exclamation mark raven has hooked millions of people into an experience they don’t quite realize is about to get very survivalish.
By which I mean the tedium of resource gathering.
After killing the first boss, the player unlocks the ability to craft a pickaxe with hard, deer god antlers and otherwise move on to the Bronze Age. Which requires the exploration of the Black Forest biome to find Copper and Tin deposits, which can be smelted into Bronze that can then be crafted into better armor and weapons. It is at this stage that I realized I could have been playing ARK, Conan, No Man’s Sky, Subnautica, The Long Dark, The Forest, 7 Days to Die, State of Decay, or Fallout 76. And probably should have instead, because Valheim is incredibly basic at this level. Whereas I could tame dinosaurs to speed up resource gathering in ARK, I’m stuck sloooooooooowly collecting 20 Copper Ore at a time, bringing it back to the Smelter, and eventually turning it into Bronze. Meanwhile, you get attacked by Greydwarves every minute and a half, punctuating the tedium with a different kind of tedium. Oh, and make sure you scour every hillside on your gathering missions so you can find instanced crypts and collect enough red cubes to create your Smelter and stuff.
Seriously though, I’m reading these other bloggers and then looking at my game and wondering if they have never played a survival game before. And maybe they really haven’t. There is nothing particularly approachable about ARK (etc), especially in comparison to Valheim. But thus far, it appears all the really interesting genre innovation died with Eikthyr.
For example, a lot of hay has been made regarding how Valheim is a survival game in which you don’t actually die to starvation/thirst. Supreme innovation! But what really happens is that you trade off ignoring food at the front end to becoming obsessed with it for the rest of the game, when the opposite is true in every other survival experience. In Valheim, both your HP and Stamina meters are dictated by what food you eat, and you must eat three different varieties to keep them topped off. You can get by with just cooked meat from boars and deer in the beginning, but later generic enemies can almost one-shot you if you aren’t eating cooked meat, neck tails, and then something else like Honey or Mushrooms. That is a lot more varied farming for food than I would need in ARK or 7 Days to Die once I’m past initial hump.
I will continue on playing for a bit and see if anything fundamentally changes after defeating the second boss. Based on writings of people who have already logged 60+ hours though, it sounds like it will be more of the same with a slightly new resource. Which is literally the formula for survival games, I know. Thing is, other survival games typically have an X factor that sets them apart from one another.
As of yet, I don’t see what that is with Valheim.
I was gifted Factorio from one of my friends whom I had gifted Rimworld. We’re cruel like that. Given how much I enjoyed Rimworld and Oxygen Not Included and other resource-collecting/crafting games, it seems like Factorio should be right up my alley.
For some reason though… it’s not.
I am in the very early stages of the game. The tutorial, in fact. And while I very much enjoy crafting/survival-esque games and colony management games, Factorio is neither. It is an automating and stand-around-waiting game. You directly control an engineer and initially collect resources 1 at a time until you build machines that can do it for you automatically.
For example, you discover an iron ore field. You can mine it yourself, one nugget at a time, until you can build a Stone Furnace to smelt the ore into an Iron Plate. Use those Iron Plates to build a Burner Drill, which will automatically mine whatever you set it on top of, e.g. iron ore. Then you build conveyor belts so the iron ore can fall out of the Drill and be moved elsewhere, where you build robotic arms that can place iron ore into Stone Furnaces and more robotic arms to place the Iron Plates directly into a storage box. Or onto other conveyor belts to move it to Assemblers which can convert them to Iron Gears, which are necessary to produce the next dozen things down the tech tree. You will also need a similar setup to mine/process copper, stone, and coal to power everything.
In principle, this is the same sort of thing you’re doing in Oxygen Not Included. But that game… is fun. I’m not sure what Factorio is yet.
There’s a rather annoying part of the tutorial in which you are specifically tasked with creating 50 gun magazines per minute while also consuming 12 technology per minute. I get that the point of the exercise is to push the player into understanding you can build a dozen Lab buildings to accelerate research, and same with the mass-production of magazines (to feed turrets to fend off hostile wildlife). That said, I was the closest to quiting the game outright at that moment. All prior tutorial steps were “build X, which takes a half dozen steps,” which was fine. The magazine/tech thing was arbitrary though, and I was a little worried I would run out of technology to research before I successfully built enough Labs. Nevermind how many extraneous magazines were crafted as I trialed-and-errored my way to figuring out how to achieve that, again, arbitrary rate.
At this point, I may abandon the tutorial altogether and give the “real” game a try. Not having any express goals is not something I typically enjoy in gaming generally, but is not something that bothered me in Rimworld or Oxygen Not Included.
We’ll see if I have the same sort of success (read: fun) in Factorio.
Tension in gaming is an interesting experience.
Tension feels uncomfortable. Relieving tension feels satisfying. Ergo, the introduction of tension-producing elements in your game can naturally propel players through the gameplay loops necessary to remove the tension while also rewarding them for their efforts. This pathway is different than one that relies on the player seeking rewards; the designer is instead threatening the player’s status quo.
While elegant, tension comes with risk. If a player is unable to relieve the tension, e.g. fails the test, that failure state can be a permanent stopping point. Players can become discouraged. Even when successful, players can also burn out from being under stress all the time, feeling as though the satisfaction states are either too infrequent or too brief. Even players who thrive and seek out tension scenarios may burn out in the other direction, mastering the game systems enough such that even the tension that still exists isn’t enough to ring their bells.
I have been thinking about this lately as I continue to be engrossed with Oxygen Not Included (ONI). While it may not immediately look like it, or even feel like it, ONI is decidedly a survival game.
In the beginning, the tension is apparent. You start with three Dupes and they have nothing but a little bit of space and some air (starter oxygen is included after all). If bathrooms are not created within the first day, all three Dupes will pee all over the floor by the morning of the 2nd day. After that, you have a bit of a reprieve… but it’s kind of a trap too. The calories provided by the starter food will only ever dwindle, and I hope you didn’t build their beds where all the CO2 lingers.
Although I have over 90 hours in the game now, I nevertheless still fell into the mid-game trap regarding (mostly) non-renewable resources. I started a game on the Oceania map, which had an absolute abundance of Algae and Coal. Algae in particular is a finite* resource on the default Terra map and its scarcity often forces you into Electrolyzers early on, which forces you into taming Steam vents, etc etc. Conversely, having 21 tons of the stuff on my map allowed me to keep the early-game Oxygen-creating machines running longer. I was even good on Coal too, as I had a Hatch ranch going which was producing Coal at a good clip.
If those details sound ominous, they should. While my Coal reserves were fine for everyday use, I had been building a Metal Refinery to make refined metal for future projects. Simultaneously, I was setting up a Hatch ranch to breed regular Hatches into Stone Hatches into Smooth Hatches, the last of which eat metal and poop refined metal exclusively. Normal Hatches and Stone Hatch eat basically anything and poop Coal, so I didn’t think twice about crafting two Incubators to speed the process along. As it turns out, adding nearly 2000 kJ stress on my power grid will burn through Coal pretty quick, as will replacing normal Hatches with ones that don’t poop Coal.
ONI has a particular tendency to punish complacency, going from Comfortable to Colony Collapse within a matter of a few Cycles. If you are not creating enough Oxygen for your Dupes, the game will give you a notification with the exact discrepancy. If your Oxygen-creating infrastructure is entirely dependent on Algae and you’re about to run out though, you get no warning. Well, you will eventually get the “not creating enough Oxygen” notification, but by then you will have to be scrambling to Electrolyzers regardless of whether your infrastructure currently supports it.
In some respects, ONI feels like the ideal tension-based game. The tension of keeping all the survival balls in the air exists, driving you ever onward. But you can also engineer stable systems such that you solve (some) problems permanently. Or “permanently” until the rounding errors in your design round up to whole errors. It can be frustrating though, coming from other tension-based games where the tension is more immediately apparent.
SynCaine has his 30-minute impression of Fallout 76 up and, spoilers, he’s not impressed:
If you ever wondered what a Fallout game would be like if you removed all the story, all the reasons why you might play and care, F76 is the answer. It’s the same gameplay, the same systems, basically the same world, just empty of reasons to care.
While I am sure that is intended to be a damning indictment of Fallout 76’s failure… it really isn’t, IMO. The overwhelming vast majority of any Fallout gameplay is, well, gameplay. Specifically, it is wandering around, collecting junk, killing Super Mutants and Ghouls, experiencing environmental storytelling, and otherwise exploring the post-apocalypse wasteland. You know, all of the fun bits that occur inbetween questing. So when SynCaine says something like:
In Fallout 3, you also start in a vault, but as a child surrounded by other humans, including your family. Shortly after leaving the vault, you had to a fairly large settlement of humans that gets you rolling.
…I had a puzzled expression on my face. When I emerged from the Vault 101 for the first time – still in the top 5 videogame experiences in my entire life, by the way – I must have gotten turned around because Megaton was not where I went next. Instead, I explored some burnt-out buildings, fought some raiders, collected a bunch of junk, and basically hit up a bunch non-story locations.
I was not trying to avoid whatever the main story quest was supposed to be, but I wasn’t particularly bothered in speeding towards it. And while it was interesting finally getting to Megaton and having to make those moral decisions regarding the sheriff and the nuclear bomb in the middle of town and all the rest… that wasn’t everything that Fallout is. Shit, some of the best narratives in the entire series do not involve NPCs either, e.g. Father in the Cave.
Is there anything approaching Father in the Cave level so far in Fallout 76? Nope. Of course, there really hasn’t been anything of that level even in the main story quests for any Fallout game. Were you really that enmeshed with finding your father, finding your son, or deciding who rules the Mojave? Or was the main plot just a vehicle in which you drove around the wasteland, finding all the poignant stops along the way? Fallout 76 has that same vehicle, that same main story quest, getting you to explore every corner of the map. It’s a beater instead of a Porsche, but it still gets you from A to B.
Which is astounding for a survival game.
SynCaine would surely not care that Fallout 76 was never intended to be anything but a spin-off survival game and not some Fallout 5 substitute. But that is a distinction that matters. There is no plot reason to care what occurs in ARK, or Rust, or Conan: Exiles, or most other survival games. And yet there is an overarching plot to Fallout 76, complete with hours of voice acting, tragedy, and dark humor. There are no moral decisions, true, and yet that is about to change with upcoming patches in a natural way, e.g. everyone died from Scorchbeasts, Vault opens, we followed in footsteps of the dead but succeeded in eliminating the threat, newcomers are now moving in.
The devs did not set out to construct the plot this way; they honestly felt like “players are the NPCs” would work, which is some Silicon Valley startup fantasy bullshit and any actual player of videogames would instantly say is dumb. Bethesda is trying to turn the ship around though, and they have largely succeeded thus far with monthly patches and new quests. Some of it is a bit grindy, like the recent Boy Scouts-esque stuff which comes down to Achievement hunting to unlock a backpack. But, well… it fits this game, and gives you a reason to go back around the block.
I dunno. People aren’t still playing Diablo 3 for the plot, or Destiny 2, or Anthem (at all, *rimshot*). They play because the gameplay loop is fun. Complaining about Fallout 76 not having the same narrative quality of actual Fallout games just makes me question why you played Skyrim so much, and possibly still do. Was it for the engaging faction warfare? Or for whatever the situation was with that one dragon final boss that I 2-shot from stealth? Is that why any of us played and enjoyed Skyrim so much? Or was it perhaps the walking around, the fighting, the exploring caves, and otherwise existing in that world?
Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps you played Fallout and Skyrim exactly one time, never went anywhere other than towards a quest marker, and turned it off the moment the credits rolled. If you don’t play these games that way, well, you are in for a treat. Not because there is a grand narrative you are missing – although it ain’t that terrible – but because there is a huge map full of nooks and crannies actually filled with things worth picking up, killing, or looking at. And it’s getting better all the time.
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.