Preview: Starbound

Today I touched down on a desert covered landscape, greeted by passive pink and green aliens that took some interest in my cobblestone mining. I traveled to see this desert make way for bright green grass, it’s surface inhabited by trees with leaves the colour and style of puffy clouds. A steel and glass laboratory revealed deep underground passages sporting tesla spikes capable of frying me on contact. Tunnels opening into chasms. Unexpected sand slides. Unusual chests and even more unusual-looking monsters. Starbound is shaping up to be a remarkable game that offers an endless list of potential.

• Developer: Chucklefish
• Reviewed on: PC
• Also Available On: Mac & Linux
• Release Date: Beta Early-Access Available Now

Being a sucker for a well-written story and character progression, sandbox games usually aren’t at the top of my list. Perhaps it’s a personal lack of patience that doesn’t gel well with a game that requires rather a lot of resource-finding and collecting before you can actually equip your character, create interesting items and reach beyond the sensation of novice-hood.

I always preferred to appreciate and indulge in successful and innovative sandbox games like Minecraft from an outside perspective; some in-game creations can be marvelled at for hours. After all, there’s something very special about having such enthused and  lengthy participation in a game of which the final result portrays this love and hard work. When news of WesterosCraft reached me, I was thrilled at the prospect of being able to tread paths I feel a real sense of familiarity with through being a great fan of the A Song of Ice and Fire series. The sheer immensity of the task and the detail it contained reaffirmed a belief that there is really nothing more special than someone reaching creative milestones and generating works of creative brilliance as is now possible in gaming, purely out of fun and interest.

Starbound is another example of a procedurally-generated sandbox that offers the same creative freedom as it’s spiritual predecessors, styling itself on the 2D pixelated environment found in Terraria. Yet playing this game offers more than what I’ve personally gained from previous titles of its type.

Perhaps it’s the random possibilities that procedurally-generated games put forth; the lack of foresight as to what the environment will spring on you next, along with randomly generated monsters and seemingly never-ending tunnels. Yet this is coupled with the unknown element of reality, that being the infinity of the universe. Chucklefish have reanimated the exploration and excitement of games like Terraria, and placed it in the much more appropriate and intriguing setting of outer space.

Starbound1

Each race has its own ship style; here’s a starter human ship

With this idea, Chucklefish have already struck gold. Starbound really is a game all about potential, and that’s the vibe you get from playing the beta. It’s nice to feel a hint of progression for your character in a world that is so open. Starbound begins with simple objectives that allow you to grasp the basics; you’ll touch down on a random planet (my first single-player planet was full of oppressive-looking buildings overrun with armed Apex, an advanced ape race. Eeek!) with instructions to find resources such as iron and copper ore, build useful starting tools like the crafting table and have your first try at hunting some dinner.

Monsters are greatly varied and odd-looking; amusingly, when playing multiplayer with one other person we had different models on each of our screens, despite us attacking the same thing. The designs are weird and wonderful, befitting the variation each planet should provide. The good thing about playing such an open-ended game whilst it’s still in beta is the knowledge that even if some elements are lacking, there’s always potential for improvement; the enemies, for example, could be more lively and varied in ways other than aesthetics. With previous updates this has been improved, with added special attacks making combat more interesting – jumping out of reach whilst shooting an enemy is less effective when your target uses gravity slam, for example.

In games like Starbound, there is an emphasis on the resource-collecting that appeals to our inner obsessive, but this can run the risk of becoming a bit mundane after a time. This is where Starbound‘s uniqueness comes into play. The RPG elements that balance out the sandbox-style gameplay make Starbound a game that one can enjoy for different reasons; there are boss monsters, powerful weapons and treasure to uncover and salvage, as well as unlockable new systems with higher threat levels to make for further challenges and discoveries.

Planetsnavigation

Multiple sectors. Countless star systems with numerous orbiting planets in each.

Your first boss battle occurs through the game’s instructions – you’re charged with building a distress beacon that, once set up, results in an unwanted visit by a horde of penguins. Angry penguins. With tanks and guns. This can be a bit of a surprise, but a hilarious one; as you may struggle with your lack of gear whilst fending off gun-toting penguins, there’s the added complication of restoring or providing shelter with whatever materials you have, as it’s likely the unfriendly UFO will blow up your base and the surrounding area. The open-world feel is maintained, yet it feels easier to feel involved with role-playing elements as you find fuel and upgrade your character, the necessary steps towards facing higher threats on new, untouched planets. The inclusion of a codex makes for some great laughs, some articles wonderfully comedic and offering meaning, despite the overwhelming broadness of Starbound‘s space-faring scale.

Absorbing though the game is, it’s often clear that Starbound is in beta development; whilst there have been significant updates and a number of appropriate fixes courtesy of what appears a very dedicated team, the simplicity of the game’s basis is clear. We can feel excited for improvements and changes – and now that the final character wipe has happened with the latest update, there’s no fear of investing too much too soon.

Starbound has been a solution for my disillusion with the openness of sandbox, procedurally-generated gaming. For £11.99, it’s an absolute steal as, despite being in beta, it is a joy to follow its development (previous character and ship wipes not included, perhaps). Maybe try it out on a friend’s computer first; you will know within the first ten minutes whether Starbound is going to suck you into it’s starry, adventurous depths. Even so, the creativity of its players leaves some exciting ideas in the mod community that can offer some tie-ins with other games, new biomes and planets, and added RPG focused content such as additional quests and objectives to achieve. I just can’t wait to recruit me some pets, Pokémon style.

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Official Game Site

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