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Spacebase DF-9: Early Access Preview

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Editor’s Note: When a game comes out on Steam as early access in an “Alpha” build, it is generally accepted that the game is going to be full of problems. However, when an organization charges full price for a game, it’s also important to note if the game is worth getting into, or worth waiting until it is during a more stable build.

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Last week, Double Fine dropped a bomb on the gaming community at large with their surprise early access to Spacebase DF-9 on Steam. This space-based homage to the great civilization builder Dwarf Fortress (double meaning Double Fine/Dwarf Fortress), was conceptualized during this year’s Double Fine Amnesia Fortnight, where the studio gathers everyone into teams to work on whatever crazy idea that Anne the secretary or Billy the janitor has for a game. The best ideas get fleshed out and turned into full games, such as other graduates from Amnesia Fortnight like Costume Quest and Stacking.

For a scant $25 (whoa), you too can get your foot in the door to Spacebase DF-9 and help Double Fine work out the kinks of the game…and boy, are there kinks.

The idea behind Spacebase DF-9 seems simple enough. Your civilization sends a trio of explorers into the far flung reaches of the Milky Way to create a new outpost for humanity. Upon selecting the location you wish to send your settlers based on the size of the galaxy, the relative closeness to warp gates and the over all threat rating, you fire your hapless citizens into cryogenic sleep. Upon arousal, your floating three man team has an extremely short amount of time to build an emergency shelter before their suit oxygen runs out.

Once your little space thatched hut is stable, your job then becomes to mine nearby asteroids for the generic all-encompassing building material “matter), which can be used to synthesize everything from oxygen scrubbers for your life support system to neon bar signs for your recreational pub.  You slowly start expanding your base out to deal with the random encounters that start coming in the form of ships that show up from nearby warp gates.

Take all this and slap a fresh coat of Double Fine paint all over everything, and you’ve got a hell of a great concept. But as of right now, Spacebase DF-9 is nearly unplayable. And I’m not even talking about in an “alpha” build way.

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I spent the better part of two hours attempting to get my three-man space trio to manage to put together enough of a spacebase so that they didn’t asphyxiate in the blackness of space. Seemed like a simple enough task: exit the life capsule, immediately build an airlock and a room for oxygen scrubbers. Easy, right?

Wrong. One of the major issues with the game straight out of the gate is pathing and basic AI routines are regularly broken. I unpaused the action from planning out my build, set my team to work building, then hit the fast forward button to speed things along. However, on multiple occasions following building the absolute basics needed to survive, my guys would refuse to use the airlock and refresh their suit’s eight-minute oxygen timer. They would listlessly float about in space as they slowly suffocated to death by breathing in their own recycled farts. Annoying, especially when life-giving oxygen is just on the other side of the airlock they are floating in front of and the game’s automated tooltip is telling me that “An airlock consists of a spacesuit container and an airlock!”. Builders will let themselves happily die in the vacuum of space, not going back into change out O2 canisters in the airlock to continue their building.

Here was an interesting issue: I was finally able to trick the AI into building a full base full of essential rooms and items for a six-man crew (we had some folks come to visit): crew chambers, a bar to hang out in, more oxygen scrubbers and plenty of matter. However, when I tried to add some beds to the crew chamber for the new guys, it wouldn’t let me build them, but charged me the cost of putting a bed in the room. If I canceled out and re-entered into the build menu, the 150 matter units it cost to buy a bed was still in my “cart”, even though I didn’t have a new bed ready to be built. It was literally charging me every time I canceled out of the build menu…and then the beds I purchased never actually were placed in the room. I had to blow out a wall to add more crew chamber space because the bulk of my crew chamber was filled with dressers and rugs (for whatever in the hell THOSE are used for in game, they don’t tell you why you even need them).

OH, and this was a treat. My crew chambers wasn’t only short a few beds; apparently, there was an opening into space somewhere in the room that I couldn’t find, but every time someone entered the crew chamber and then tried to leave, they suddenly were floating around the room as if the gravity had been sucked out. They would float around haplessly for up to ten seconds, and then try to move back towards the door, only to have it happen again. The problem is was that each time, they would get closer to getting to the door and freeing themselves, when they’d fly backwards into the room. I would have a whole team of crew members all flailing about in the crew chambers because guys would come in to the room to use the non-existent beds that had disappeared as the rest of the ship fell apart.

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There’s definitely something here, and something I’ll look forward to sinking many afternoons into, but right now, I’m not sure where the game is going. Even the game doesn’t appear to know what it’s trying to do. There doesn’t appear to be any kind of metagame here; maybe there isn’t one with Dwarf Fortress, but Spacebase DF-9 will get remarkably old quickly if the whole point is to just continue to expand using the same “build oxygen scrubber, add new bed” mechanic to controlling population growth. With open ended rogue-like titles like Don’t Starve, there was the whole mechanic of high-end dark magic requiring a lot of homework on the player’s part to get towards the end of the game on top of and having countless numbers of crazy recipes to build. There are no tech trees or any recipes: everything appears to be available to be built from the moment the game starts if you have enough matter and space on the ship to do so. There doesn’t appear to be a “save 5,000,000 matter to build a final McGuffin” or ” you have 2000 space years to create a fully functioning starbase”. So far, a new ship pulls up, says it would like to join your colony, you let them, they send over a guy or two, you wait five more minutes, it all happens again.

I know this is a simplistic way of looking at things, but Spacebase DF-9 is barely playable right now and it makes me quite the sad panda. I don’t expect this kind of slapdash out of Double Fine; their products have a high caliber spit and polish to them; their putting Spacebase DF-9 on the market and charging quite the premium for “early access” when the game is barely functional…not good.