Planetbase – Review

Title   Planetbase
Developer  Madruga Works
Publisher  Madruga Works
Platform  Windows PC
Genre  Indie, Simulation, Strategy
Release Date  October 15, 2015

Technology has progressed at warp speed over the last few decades. You don’t really get a sense of it until you sit back and look at where we once were and where we are now. I remember as a kid of ten in 1997, obsessed with all things space and hearing about the probe “we” had landed on Mars, the Mars Pathfinder mission, and the little robot ‘Sojourner’, thinking this is the greatest thing we had ever done. Sadly that little robot only lasted a few months and yet at 26 years old, almost two decades later, I watched the news (on my incredibly advanced smart phone) as “we” landed a rover the size of a car on the surface of a planet hundreds of millions of kilometres away. We are humanity, and we are crazy smart. When we take time out from murdering each other.

Now when you watch the news you’ll hear the odd story about the first human exploration of Mars; the idea has become part of popular culture in a big way over the last few years and we may not even be that far away from doing just that. How easy would it be though? If we could send a group of adventurers, a couple of robots, and tons of supplies to Mars, would they survive? Well, in Planetbase you can find out.

Planetbase, from Madruga Works, puts you in the space suits of a small number of explorers as they establish colonies on a number of inhospitable planets. The real-time strategy lacks any story, but this isn’t much of an issue when you consider it’s more of a simulation than your typical RTS game. Planetbase opens with your colony ship in orbit above a planet making its approach to land. You can select from three planets in the current build of the game, a class D (desert), F (frozen), and M (moon), progressing in terms of difficulty. Interestingly, you can then select your landing zone, which should mean there is some kind of replay value as the terrain will be randomly generated.

You start each game with your lander coming in and touching down on the hostile world, with your colonists disembarking in their space suits. Each colonist has a specific role: the worker, engineer, botanist, medics, and guards. The worker will carry out the very basic tasks, work in your mine to harvest minerals, produce basic metals and plastics, or move materials between areas in your base. The botanist becomes the most important colonist, though, as they are the only ones who can actually grow plants and feed your colony.

As you progress you aim to achieve milestones, unlocking the more difficult planets. This is really the main challenge of the game, beyond building a sustainable colony. Milestones can be things like Survival, which is simply to survive for one day, to the more advanced Megalomania, where you build a giant monolith, you know, just for the sake of it.

The first job of any new colony is to become self-sufficient, after all you can’t just call Pizza Hut when you run out of food. The opening of every game becomes a race against time to create sources of food, water, energy, and oxygen supply. This is done by placing colony modules such as the bio-dome or the research lab, each having to be linked in to this web of walkways. It’s fairly easy to make your colony self-sufficient; the real difficulty is balancing the arrival of new colonist with your food, water, and oxygen supplies.

After a while you can build the landing pad, which allows two or three new colonists to arrive and work in your base. Leave your pad open to new arrivals and eventually you will end up over populated. Remember that oxygen the colonists love so much? They won’t have enough of it, and will forget about food and medical supplies. The base can fall to ruin ridiculously quickly and there is no way to send those new colonists back. Everything then becomes a delicate balance of resources – both materials and people. Mismanage either and people will die, morale will fall, and the base will be crippled. The challenge here is tough, and that’s before we get to the natural disasters. Meteors will fall randomly, impacting all over the planet; in fact, as I write this one just fell in to my canteen and killed three of my colonists. The randomness of this is difficult to plan for as you can’t just build around frequent impact points. You can, however, build a giant space laser and shoot them out of the sky. This kind of project also brings its own ridiculous energy challenges, as well as some peace of mind.

Solar flares are a whole different story, essentially frying everything that happens to find itself outside of the base. There is no defence other than knowing when they will hit well in advance and bringing your people inside. If they find themselves outside when a flare hits very quickly they will become irradiated and be rushed to the infirmary, dying very quickly and requiring more medical supplies to recover.

Eventually the colony will expand as you manage the various emergencies; traders will drop by offering new tech and much needed supplies, and after building the rather expensive starport pad – the larger colony – trader and visitor ships will land. Visitors will arrive to use your colonies facilities, essentially parking on your landing pad and blocking it until they leave. They then pay for the privilege, becoming your only source of credits, which are great when you need to buy things from traders.

They do, however, bring another threat and can hide intruders who will do their best to screw your base up, destroying systems, and killing colonists. Your security guards will intercept, but make sure you give them guns to do this though – never bring a knife to a laser pistol fight. This can be a challenge and security measures also need to be built and managed as you progress through the game.

All of this is perfectly doable. I found the challenge to be pretty balanced as you go through, maybe restarting my base a couple of times when I first started to understand what the priorities were. Hint: build some mines and make sure you produce plenty of rice. From a gameplay perspective, don’t expect anything amazing in Planetbase; it’s solidly built and fairly balanced in terms of challenge, but there is little more here than a base-building simulation.

It’s incredibly visually appealing; in fact that’s one of the reasons I picked it up. Each model, from the colonists to the trade ships, is well produced and with a near-future aesthetic. There is also an attention to detail here that other games often don’t have, for example the night stars will reflected in the solar panels, or the way the colonists brace themselves while walking in a dust storm. The habitat modules of your colony all have this slight plastic vibe, with bold base colours used in many textures, which makes them easily identifiable from a distance.

Essentially, that is the game. Build a base, manage resources, and try to meet milestones so you can move to other planets, build bases, manage resources and… well, you get the point. Planetbase is essentially an incredibly well put together colony simulator. Don’t expect much in the way of story or action, but do expect to try and keep some people alive on a barren planet. If that’s your thing, Planetbase might just be for you.

  • It’s like that film with Matt Damon, but without Matt Damon
  • Space is pretty
  • Lacks story, or much of anything really
  • Space is mean

I love Planetbase. I said on Twitter just after I bought it that it felt like a game made specifically for me, to fulfil the weird space fantasy I had when I was a kid. That’s not to say it’s not without its faults, and essentially what you are paying for is a fairly basic simulation game where the main gameplay mechanic is balancing resources. There are no other players, no enemy AI building competing bases, and no alien invaders coming to wreck your shit. It’s just you, some survivors, and a planet out to murder them. Sure, there may not be a story or any warfare, but what Planetbase does give players is the purest near-future Mars colony simulator a space nerd could ask for. Well, at least until they send me on their one-way mission, you hear that NASA!?

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