I’ve always been conflicted about playing a game before it’s finished. On one hand, you get to play that game you’re really excited about well before release, but on the other, you’re playing a game that’s often far from finished, and nowhere near polished. This conflicting nature doesn’t end there either, as depending on the genre of the game in question, you could be spoiling the story for yourself, or getting a nice head start in the competitive multiplayer.
Going back a few years, the only common way to get to play a game before its release would be through some form of beta test, and a large number of betas were designed specifically so people could try out the game in advance, with bug, balance and QA testing often playing second fiddle to simple mass marketing. And while that honestly hasn’t changed much, the concept of paid ‘Early Access’ has recently been gaining lots of traction, particularly as a result of waves of successfully Kickstarted games needing a way to remind the people who backed them that there’s development afoot.
When it comes to early access though, no two games are alike, and if you choose to take the plunge you could be looking at anything ranging from a graybox tech demo to a nearly finished product just waiting on minor bugfixes. Naturally then, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to early access games, other than keeping in mind that the game you’re playing isn’t finished. Thankfully though, that’s where people like me can help out by braving the waters for you, and shouting back some soggy impressions.
Today’s foray into the murky depths of early access comes to us courtesy of Habitat, a self-proclaimed orbital strategy game, from the fine folks over at 4gency and the fickle mistress that is Kickstarter. And as is more common than not, Habitat is still very early in its development, so there’s not a whole lot of game there yet, but what is there is fairly functional.
At its core, Habitat is a space exploration and survival game, in which you maintain a small habitat of survivors as they explore Earth’s orbit and scavenge what they can from the many bits and pieces of technology floating about. And by survivors, I mean of a non-specific set of calamities and/or wars that have apparently left the Earth’s surface worse off than a suburb in Detroit, and are likely responsible for the vast amount of trash that’s now littering its orbit.
You and your merry little band of space scavengers start off in a dilapidated shuttle with a couple of boosters strapped to it, on a indeterminately large space grid, with the simple mission of staying alive and taking out any hostiles you may run into. You accomplish this by navigating around all the space ruble, attaching various useful pieces to your habitat as you go, slowly building up a moving battle-station of space junk.
However, before I can get further into the mechanics, I feel the need to address the nature of all of this space junk. Since the game is still very early in its development, it’s rather light on story elements, with only the odd tooltip on a piece of space trash proving insight into past events, however, given the nature of what’s floating about everywhere, I can only come up with one scenario to explain the current situation.
At some indeterminate point in history, Las Vegas and Atlantic City must have managed to grow so big and acquired so much money, that between them they owned most of the civilized world and its armies. Of course, there’s only room for one autocratic global city state on the planet, and so they went to war against each other. This war went on for a while, and as mankind slowly dwindled in numbers, Atlantic City was gaining the upper hand. Their advantage was short lived however, as Las Vegas mechanized and militarized their vast collection of gaudy, world monument knockoffs, and brought itself to the verge of victory in a matter of weeks. But, since everyone in Atlantic City is a sore loser, they nuked the planet and that was that.
Now, there’s technically nothing in the game to back up my version of these events per se, but how else do you explain giant T-Rex heads that spit fire, enormous boxing gloves, laser encrusted Lady Liberty heads, or hadouken-shooting mecha hands randomly floating about in orbit? Weird nature of all the debris aside, this where the basic mechanics of Habitat come into play, as you get to attach all this stuff to your habitat as you run into it, in pretty much any configuration you like, using small support struts.
You do all of this with the help of your engineers, who are industriously floating about your habitat, always busy repairing whatever piece of it you’ve assigned them to. You start off with a mere pair of engineers, but you’ve thankfully got the ability to spontaneously poop out engineers at will, at the cost of a fair chunk of Omni, which is one of the three resources available to you. These resources are used continuously every time you turn on one of your various modules, and are otherwise generated over time by your habitat. There are various pieces of junk floating about that can increase the production rate of your resources if incorporated into your habitat, but these tend to be dead weight most of the time.
Speaking of dead weight, all it takes to attach a module in space to your habitat is ordering an engineer to move it into place, and attaching support struts to it as you like. However, getting to the module in question is the tricky part. As I mentioned before, your starting habitat is a shuttle, which can provide a fair amount of forward thrust, with a small booster on either side, which can be used to steer. The problems arise the moment you attach anything else to your habitat, and inertia starts to rear its ugly head.
Every module has a certain amount of mass, and depending on where you attach them to your habitat, they’ll throw off your center of mass, making it rather tricky to move in a straight line. And while turning is a simple matter of firing the appropriate booster for the right amount of time, this becomes difficult to gauge once you’ve got enough mass tacked onto your habitat. It gets even worse if you, clever person that you are, try to compensate for the extra mass with even more, bigger boosters, and things just start spinning out of control. You’d be surprised at how good at space drifting I’ve gotten thanks to some shoddy weight distribution.
Assuming you can get your habitat under control and to wherever you want it to be, you can build up quite the impressive little battle-station, armed to the teeth with weird, impractical weaponry. Of course, these weapons aren’t just for show, as there are both hostile space stations and nano-clouds out there for you to blow up. These stations are sitting ducks that may or may not have a means of shooting back at you, but the nano-clouds are the real threat.
These have a surprising, and enviable, amount of maneuverability, and will constantly pelt you with explosive projectiles, should you come within range of them. And unless you’ve built up your habitat with maneuverability and omni-directional weaponry in mind, good luck actually killing one. The far more likely scenario is that it’ll blow you up in spectacular shower of particles and debris, and if you’re lucky, there’ll be some of your habitat left intact, with which you might be able to rebuild.
And that’s pretty much all there is to the game so far, which is why Habitat is actually a great example of what you can expect from a game in early access; it provides a pretty good idea of how its fundamental mechanics are going to work once the game is complete, but it’s a long way off from being finished, so what happens between now and then is anyone’s guess. Whether that’s a good thing or not is ultimately up to you, and whether you prefer to keep up with a game as it’s slowly put together, or enjoy the final, polished product once its released.
Final note, keep in mind that everything I’ve mentioned about Habitat is the current Early Access state and is totally subject to change at any point.