10 Thoughts on… the Starbound Beta (PC)

With the success of Minecraft and Terraria on the PC, it was inevitable that more people would try to get into the act of making games where you start with nothing in a procedurally generated world and become God-King through lots of building and crafting. While a lot of games that are trying to do the concept are basically screaming “ME TOO!” and hoping to generate interest, a few, like Don’t Starve, are trying to take the idea in different directions to expand the concept and make it sing. Developer Chucklefish falls into the latter category with their upcoming release Starbound, though their solution to the “expanding the concept” is less “make it a whole new experience” and more “make it bigger, MUCH BIGGER.” You could be forgiven for thinking that Starbound is basically just “Terraria IIIIIIN SPAAAAACE!” because at first glance, that’s sure what it seems like. As part of Steam’s newest efforts to allow players to play Beta versions of games and pay for them as they’re in development, Starbound is available for purchase, and since I’m a huge fan of Terraria, I thought I’d check it out and see just how much different it could be. The answer to that question, it turns out, is “quite a bit,” and while there’s still a lot more Chucklefish has to add to the final product, what’s here so far indicates that the final product should be very promising indeed.

1.) The first thing I should probably note here, for any prospective players looking to jump in of their own accord or because what they read here sounds promising, is that Starbound is essentially in a Beta period right now. What this means is that, while you can play it, the game is routinely updated with patches that implement new and modified content as additions and changes are made by Chucklefish. In essence, you as the customer also get to be a part of the development process, as suggestions and bug reports you make can potentially improve or change the experience. The downside of this thing is that any progress you make in the game can potentially be completely wiped out because of an update, if the game requires you to make a whole new character due to game updates, and you’re basically expected to accept that going in. So far I’ve been somewhat lucky in this regard; I bought Beta access just after the most recent character-wiping update, and my character has been more or less intact since creation, but I’ve not escaped unscathed. The most recent update forced me to fight the first boss over again because the game wasn’t aware that I’d completed this thing… oh, and it turned my home planet into an asteroid field and wiped out all of my decorative additions, so there’s that. The point here is “be aware that the game is still in development and do not expect to make an amazing amount of progress until the Beta is complete,” but by all means, take part in the scientific process if you wish. Just make sure you know what you’re getting into.

2.) Once you jump into Starbound, the first thing you’ll likely notice is that you’re not restricted to just making a semi-generic human character as you might expect. Part of that comes from the fact that there are a fairly large amount of customization options to work with, so you can make a fairly unique looking character pretty easily. The more interesting part, however, is that there are also six different races to choose from, each with their own bonuses when equipped with a racial armor set. Humans are your standard Earth humans, and can carry more items when equipped appropriately. Avians are bird people who can glide around when equipped appropriately. Apex are humanoids who sacrificed physical evolution for mental superiority, and are capable of jumping higher in the right gear. Florans are carnivorous plants that can eat basically anything and can use photosynthesis to regenerate energy in the right duds. The Hylotl are basically space’s version of the residents of Innsmouth, and can swim and breathe better underwater in their appropriate gear. Finally, the Glitch are sentient robots (think the Geth, but more medieval in mentality) that can mine faster when equipped appropriately. A lot of this, I should note, is taken from official information about the game and the game’s official wiki, and not from the game ITSELF, because it’s not specifically THERE just yet, or at least not that I can see. More than likely, these will be added in down the road during the beta process, as will a seventh planned race, the Novakid, who dress like they fell out of the Wild West. What is here, however, is actually really interesting, both because of what it promises down the road and because of the variety it offers immediately, so you’ll almost certainly be able to look different from your friends when you play no matter how you go about it.

3.) Once you create a character, the game dumps you into your ship just outside of a planet and gives you some basic missions to take on, to guide you along how to make progress. This acts as something of a connected tutorial, telling you how everything on your starship functions while also giving you missions to undertake to progress forward in general. You won’t spend a lot of time on your ship all in all, but it acts as an important hub for you, as you’ll use it to travel between star systems and planets to mine and make progress. The ship comes equipped with a storage locker for storing much of your important acquisitions, a 3D printer for printing items at a pixel (cash) cost, a tech machine for equipping skills you find, a fuel depository for refueling the ship, and a captain’s chair for traveling to new star systems. You’re also given wall and floor space to place various furniture and functional pieces, so you can put up functional panels and decorations, or place useful furniture or chests on your ship as needed. This gives you a good way of having the necessities available to you instantly, since you can use the ship as a quick home base, for storage, item creation, and more, depending on what you place in the ship at any point in time.

4.) In the beginning, you’re out of fuel, so you’ll basically have to drop down to the first planet you find and hope for the best. The mission system walks you through the basics, telling you about your multitool, which essentially acts as an all purpose foraging device, allowing you to dig, cut, and manipulate your way to survival, at the cost of being miserably slow to work with. As with similar games, your objective is basically to collect the supplies you need to build a place to live, tools to work with and weapons to fight against anything that wants you dead. The game helpfully guides you through a lot of the basic ideas you’ll need to know to progress, such as building a crafting table, crafting various useful implements and so on. You’ll eventually find that you’ll want to experiment with making your own tools, such as weapons, supplies and armor, but the game does a good enough job of walking you through the basics so that you can figure out what’s what and how you want to proceed.

5.) Mechanically, Starbound uses a WASD setup, along with the mouse for aiming and interaction and a few other keys for functional activity, and for the most part it works out well enough. You’re given a hotbar at the top of the screen, to which you can map various items you feel need to be instantly accessible, which you can pick from as needed so you always have the right item at the moment. When placing environmental blocks or using tools, left clicking generally targets the foreground while right clicking (when applicable) generally targets the background. For digging and placing of biome blocks, the game defaults to a larger pattern (2×2 for placing, 3×3 for digging) but you can reduce that to a single block with the press of a button for precision work as needed. The mouse makes constructing and gathering very easy to manage, and allows for as much precision as you might want at any given moment. Combat can get a little awkward when you’re trying to kite an enemy or avoid attacks, however, mostly because the WASD setup isn’t quite ideal for platformer play. Chucklefish has made the observation that they’d like to get controller support into the game, and if they can implement a hybrid approach, where you can use the controller for everything, but swap to the mouse for world building, that would basically make Starbound the best possible version of this sort of game on the market. As it is right now, the mechanics are good, but don’t expect to find the platforming to be ideal, is the point.

6.) The first planet you come across should generally be livable enough to work with, though it may not be the most ideal choice, depending on what you’re looking for from a home world. Each planet you come across falls into a distinct biome, which you can see immediately from your ship’s navigation computer, so you’ll know if the planet you’re orbiting or want to travel to is suitable for your needs. Planets can range from more conventional types, such as arid, jungle and forest, to harsher environments such as volcanic and tundra conditions, and even bizarre types like “tentacle,” which is about what you’d expect. Each planet you land on can potentially have a number of odd novelties that make it unique, however, so multiple planets in the same sector can share the same base biome and offer a completely different experience. You can find anything from towns of other aliens to functional sewer systems to research facilities to giant tombs to massive underground flesh and slime biomes and beyond, and the more you explore, the more crazy things you’re likely to find. Planets are also generally full of minerals and supplies you can use to develop new tools and items, so you can cut down trees or dig underground to find ship fuel, copper, gold and more abnormal minerals, depending on the type of planet and the sector, as higher level sectors have more useful ores. They also tend to have more powerful native fauna, however, and while some of the fauna of the planet may be passive, most is not. Assuming you find a planet that speaks to you, though, you can always set it as your home world, meaning that you can teleport back there as needed, so you can pick a homeworld with a nicer environment to build a house on, then explore terrible planets for minerals (since they tend to be more mineral rich) to upgrade your capabilities. Ultimately, you might decide you want to live on a desert planet for all the difference it makes, but it’s really up to you.

7.) Eventually, after you get through all of the basic tutorial missions, the game gives you one final mission, to build a distress beacon, along with the warning that you should be suitably prepared before doing so. There’s a good reason for this, as it turns out, as this is the first of a series of items you can build that, when placed into the world and interacted with, summons the boss monster that prevents you from moving to the next sector. The first boss, the Penguin UFO, isn’t terribly challenging all in all; it summons small minions and uses some pattern-based beam and charge attacks, but can be defeated easily enough if you’re patient or have a decent gun. There are several boss fights like this in the beta (four in total, so far), and each is designed to measure your ability to progress to the next sector of the game, as you’ll need to be equipped with the best possible gear from the current sector to beat said boss, and beating each boss unlocks a new item which, in turn, allows you to craft a Starmap upgrade. Each boss, so far, follows the same basic pattern: you craft a specific recipe for an object that summons the boss (Distress Beacon, Inactive Robot, Decoy Princess, Peanutbutter Trap), interact with it, fight the boss (Penguin UFO, Robot, Bone Dragon, Giant Jelly), collect its rare drop, and move on to the next sector. All of the bosses can be cheesed out at this point with specific building patterns, which is probably for the best, as at this point, kiting the bosses is really the only effective way to fight most of them, but there are still several ways the game could be modified to increase or change the challenge the bosses present. There is also plenty of opportunity to add even more bosses, since there are several high level tiers of equipment in the final sector that could require specialized parts, and making them at this point requires items that the game even says will likely only be temporary when you craft them. The game also features random mini-bosses that show up on various worlds that are more powerful than the normal fauna you’ll meet, and defeating these mini-bosses can yield powerful weapon and item drops should you be successful. These are simple additions to the combat formula, but they make planetary and system exploration a lot more interesting in the long run, and they’re honestly pretty neat once you see them in action.

8.) Once you beat the Penguin UFO, you’ll find that it’s time to move to a new planetary sector, so long as you have the fuel to accomplish this. Finding fuel to move around the planetary systems is surprisingly not as bad as you’d think; in the beginning of the game, you simply dump coal into the ship’s fuel systems, which can either be dug up normally or converted from wood you’ve cut down in your explorations. Later, however, you’ll find more powerful fuel sources, such as Uranium and Plutonium, which provide much more fuel to your ship, and can be made into rods, which increases the amount of fuel you can hold in one place relative to the small amount of fuel coal offers. There are literally thousands of planets you can explore across the five different systems (so far) the game offers, so you’ll find that there are always new adventures awaiting you for as long as you’re interested in exploring. Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is the fact that the game generates the worlds in its star system universally, meaning that planetary coordinates can be shared with other players to share discoveries and home planets as you wish. This is an interesting way to expand community discussions and input, and it makes for a great way to help out other players beyond simple “do this to get this” discussions, as everyone can share the weird stuff they’ve found while exploring, sort of like a wide-scale space exploration concept.

9.) The game also makes a good effort toward trying to do new things with upgrades and character management, and while some of them work out better than others, for the most part the expanded concepts are all pretty neat. Your character can build various different weapons, armor, and tools based on the minerals and upgrade stations available to them, so you’re constantly finding new upgrades to work with and new items to build, including drills, bows, weapons and so on. You’ll also find various new blueprints to make tech that can allow your character to jump higher, teleport, run faster and more, so you’ll have useful skills available to you beyond the gear you have equipped. The game also has an eating and environmental comfort system in place, which increases the difficulty somewhat in the early going, although it’s mitigated somewhat in the late-game play. Basically, as you play, your character will become more and more hungry, and you’ll have to eat to fix that or, eventually, die of starvation. As you explore more worlds, however, you’ll find seeds and recipes for food, vendors who sell food and so on, and you can hoe out land to plant crops on your home planet (or anywhere really) to make more food to sustain yourself. You can also build cooking tables to make advanced foods, which can heal you or massively fill your hunger bar up, as well as contend with foods that might not work so well for your chosen race, so really, there are all sorts of possibilities at play here. The environmental system is also pretty simple once you get the hang of it: in short, different planets have different environmental effects that can negatively impact your character based on their race, and you’ll need to take that into account and plan appropriately. Planets with cold nights mean you’ll need to stay near fire to keep warm, low or no oxygen planets will suffocate you in time, and so on, so you’ll need to work around these issues. You can do so by building structures that mitigate the issues, to a point, and higher level armors and accessories can also help this out significantly. The game also gives you the ability to equip backpacks, which can do any number of things, from casting light around you for digging in dark areas to creating an environmentally sound bubble around you for exploring low oxygen planets and beyond. These are little additions, but they can dramatically change how you plan for and consider exploration, and they make the game more interesting and challenging in the long run in comparison to similar titles.

10.) Starbound is looking to be the most advanced game of its type, between its expansion of the base concepts that make such games work and its additions to the formula, and the fact that it still has much more growing to do makes it all the more exciting in the long run. There’s another patch planned to be released shortly that will add in new, harder game modes, new weapons, new decorative clothes and possibly more content, as well as (hopefully) the final major character/world wipe before the patching system can implement new content without wiping all your progress. The long-term goals, where procedurally generated monsters can have special abilities based on their core parts, spawn points can be dictated by the player, planets can be terraformed by the player and more, can only help to make the game bigger and better. Assuming the next patch does remove the need to wipe players and home planets, there’s no better time to jump into Starbound and see what all the fuss is about than now, and we’ll be eagerly looking forward to its final release and everything that makes the cut for that final product.