(alt. title: Subnautica Is So Good And Has Ruined Me For Every Other Game With Even a Passing Resemblance To It)
Interior. Friday evening. Rain lightly patters on the skylight above me. I'm seated in front of my computer. I take a deep breath and remind myself that I am a human being worthy of dignity and respect, regardless of how much I debase myself in the pursuit of building the perfect logistics pipedream. I'm about to launch the pre-alpha Satisfactory during its free Test Weekend.
A first-person Factorio? A land-dwelling Subnautica? Those are the 2 most obvious inspirations for Satisfactory, but how much DNA from each will be visible in it? The people at Coffee Stain Studios (makers of Sanctum 1 & 2 and Goat Simulator) know how to make neat weird games, and I have been anticipating Satisfactory for over a year. The game starts up smooth. Stutter-free intro animation, just like I like it. Clean main menu, no frame drops. I hit New Game, and wait. Less than a minute later, kudos to UE4 and the devs, I'm in the game.
The loading screen is revealed to be a literal screen, that is pulled away and up from my perspective (I love diagetic fades). Hot damn, this game looks good. I'm seated in what to my wizened eyes is pretty obviously a spaceship drop-pod, even though I can only see blackness through the small rectangular porthole. The screen slides back down to eye level and flickers on to show a comic-style video tutorial. It makes mention of a "FICSIT Incorporated" which presumably is the evil (or just ambivalent, per Subnautica) corporation behind my mission of extracting and exploiting. Nice. I love a good anti-corporate framing device in games.
The blackness through the portal is starting to brighten, and I can make out starlight and the beginnings of an atmosphere. Good shader tech, and the vertically rectangular porthole is a clever way to show the landscape during planetfall. I'm still waiting for something to explode or at least hit me in the head à la Subnautica, but the landing is uneventful (again, the effects fidelity is fantastic). Except for the giant flying alien I can see in the distance, this looks like a carefree and pristine green world. I am so excited to see what I can do in this world and how the developers will frame the very basic "survival crafting" loop of extract->refine->build. Will there be hunger and thirst meters? How many basic materials will there be, and what will be the first tech jump? How dangerous is this world? Only one way to find out, I cliché-ly think to myself as I exit the pod.
The voice from the tutorial video speaks again, names herself ADA, and runs me through a couple of basics. ADA asks me to dismantle the drop-pod for the resources to build my first shelter, using the de-/construction tool in my hand. Interesting; there's a giant departure from Subnautica. Forcing the player to deconstruct their one human habitat immediately is a strong choice. ADA continues, asking me to equip the FICSIT "Xeno-Zapper" before leaving the dropzone; as she speaks, an industrial-looking cattle prod appears in my hand. Uh-oh, will there be combat? I'm not thrilled about getting handed a weapon this early on, since that's a clear indication that combat will be a core mechanic. I try not to think about how well Subnautica handles this and instead I focus on the fact that hey, at least a cattle prod is kinda non-lethal. Maybe it's for stunning a dangerous creature while I make an escape?
Next, ADA tells me about scanning, which is essentially the expanding-pulse scanning mechanic in No Man's Sky, except you have to specify which material you're scanning for. I like that it just happens when you press the button, no waiting for a little meter to fill up before it scans. With ADA's explanation complete, I get my first objective: mine some iron so I can build the HUB (base). A quick scan reveals a spot of iron some 180 meters away. Here I go.
On the way to the iron patch, I Press [E] to pickup Leaves on some trees and plants. +4 Leaves. +1 Wood. Nice. Don't know what those will be used for, but I'll be damned if I'm not going to pick up everything I can. I'm getting close both to 200 total leaves and the iron patch when I hear a growl coming from the bushes. It's startling because 1) I was heads-down grabbing plants and 2) I can't see what's making that sound and 3) it kinda sounds like those skeleton dogs from Serious Sam and those scare me a little bit.
The growl gets louder and then I see this alien boar charge at me from a few meters away. Yikes! I jump to avoid its charge, which is fairly easy thanks to a generous jump height and hang time (much less than Earth gravity, must be a small planet?). It runs through where I had been standing, then it curves around and charges at me again. I jump again to evade. It misses and comes back around. It charges, I jump. Repeat, repeat. Am I dead if it hits me? What will happen to my 200 leaves? I'm still trying to get to the iron patch, so I stay on the ground and zig-zag to avoid its charges, but after a few tries it hits me. I'm not dead, but it's taken a chunk off the health bar I now notice in the bottom left of my HUD. I also notice that the boar has no lateral momentum, only forward, and it's always pointing toward me. It's a pretty simple AI behavior that makes it predictable, but also hard to dodge as I'm running away.
At this point, I've been dodging the boar for a good 90 seconds, and I've reached the point where I'm convinced I can't make the AI leash back to its patrol zone. I take a swing with the Xeno-Zapper (I really don't like that name), and the boar is stunned for a split second before it charges at me again. I hit it again, and again, and again. The fourth time, it dies and leaves its shell on the ground. Press [E] to pick up Alien Carapace. Oh great, killing things gives you resources. That was where Satisfactory started to break for me.
One of the many brilliant aspects of Subnautica is how there isn't much benefit to killing the creatures in that world. There's fish you can use for food and water, and if you play on the default mode, you'll do plenty of that. But inventory space is at such a premium, you'll never want to acquire too much. And in the midgame, you'll have an easy way to get cleaner, better water, and grow your own food from a few different types of plants (and their nutrition has better stats than you get from fish, though you can preserve fish for longer). There's also defensive combat encounters, like those crab spider things and the bloodsucker fish, but they're possible to avoid and give no reward for killing. Same with the much larger enemies that are outright monsters toward you; if you manage to kill a leviathan, you get no mechanical reward. In Subnautica, you're never incentivized to farm death, and that keeps you more grounded in the world.
Back to Satisfactory. I scooped up the alien carapace and some iron from the iron patch, then built my HUB. This opened up a pretty clear technology progression tree, from Tier 0 to Tier 3 (and beyond, but those weren't available in the Test Weekend build), with each Tier breaking down into a few different challenges unlocked by delivering resources to the HUB. Some challenges unlock extra inventory slots, some unlock new buildings and materials, others unlock new items like the Scanner and upgrades like the Xeno-Basher (ugh). I love a good unlock tree, so the next hour or two I'm happily roaming around gathering iron and copper and limestone and rare strange items, setting up a network of portal mining machines, and generally feeling like the game is starting to shine.
Until I start to need a good amount of electricity for Smelters and Constructors. There's a generator on the back of the HUB, which burns biomatter fuel to produce electricity (those 200 leaves got turned into 20 biomatter bricks). I think that's a fine way to mechanically allow electricity generation without needing a hard-to-justify sophisticated technology (Factorio sort of has this problem with pumps). The problem is that my base has grown quite a lot since the basic HUB, and I'm now spending more time picking leaves and wood for fuel than anything else in the game. Plus the plants I pick aren't regrowing, so logistically I have to roam further for fuel, and fictionally I am literally deforesting a growing patch of the planet to feed my industry. Which I am noticing more and more is vomiting black clouds from the top of each smelter, constructor, and generator. This is where Satisfactory fully breaks for me.
In Factorio, it isn't just a visual quirk of progressing along the tech tree, pollution is also a mechanic. It's used like a general level of player progression, and is an aggression multiplier for the usually-passive biters (the bug-like natives of the Factorio world). When they turn hostile, they run at you quickly and they do lots of damage, so it's wise to stay out of a biter nest. However, if pollution reaches a biter nest, they will search for and attack its source. Higher pollution also increases the numbers of biters in those attacks. You are incentivized to limit your pollution (by limiting your productivity), or to build walls and defenses along with your industry, or to be ultra-aggressive and destroy biter bases before they destroy yours. No matter how much you try to mitigate your ecological impact, you will have to burn tons and tons of coal and oil to progress down the tech tree. Your industrial exploitation is rightly seen as a threat, and the biters have just cause to attack. And they do, often.
I played another few peaceful hours of Satisfactory. Finished out Tiers 0-3, built a Space Elevator (which was legit awesome as it built), and had a pretty solid circulation of resources. There were a few great moments when I accidentally drove my tractor off a cliff, and when I realized there were other crashed drop pods around. Some of the UI is phenomenal, making it strikingly easy to place conveyor belts and (to a lesser extent because of the connection limitations) power lines. I wish inventory management was easier, but maybe I'm spoiled because of how incredible it is in Factorio. All told, I spent around 7 or 8 hours in Satisfactory over the Test Weekend. I know I didn't see everything there is to see, and I don't intend to judge the final game based on a pre-alpha build. But I think I did play enough to get a good impression. It never un-broke itself for me, but it gave me enough glimpses of ways it could be great that I'm writing this.
Satisfactory is going to be launching in Early Access next week, so with that in mind, here's some fully subjective recommendations I have for making it more like something I want to play:
- Solar power, thermal power, handheld-black-hole power, I don't care just give me something I can use that doesn't throw up nasty pollution clouds
- -AND/OR- Make the pollution a mechanic (see Factorio), so that I'm incentivized to research ways to generate clean(er) power or ways to defend my base against a justified threat
- Change the AI leashing to give a more generous opportunity to lure creatures away from desired areas and to escape combat
- Give me properly non-lethal weapons and defensive tools. Not just rubber rebar (there's a rebar gun that is admittedly very cool-looking), I'm talking ways to resolve combat encounters with stunning, impeding, distracting, pacifying, negotiating, miniaturizing, putting to sleep, making weightless, forcing a crisis of conscience, etc.
- Flesh out or reconsider the framing device of FICSIT Inc. My days of being happy to unquestioningly follow the bidding of some faceless corporation are over (in games), especially when its only goals are to exploit and destroy. And if the framing is actually a deadpan burn on capitalism, then it flew way under my radar and kudos to you
Y'all made Goat Simulator, I have faith you can add some fun whimsy to this game. I hope you do, because I think it both needs it and deserves it. There's a great foundation here, and I think it'd be a damn shame for it to uphold just another colonizer simulator with a technology twist. I'll be keeping an eye out for updates during Early Access.