It happens nearly every year - just when I'm about to sit down and write my annual Game of the Year piece - a sleeper comes out of nowhere. A game you never expected to dominate your time like the AAA releases that have dominated the last ten months. This year - that game is Starbound. Now don't get me wrong, the sci-fi sandbox, exploration title is far from perfect, and it's got some definite kinks to work out before it's wide release - this is a game full of ambition, one that allows you to let your imagination run wild. It's the type of game that makes you remember why you started playing games in the first place.
It's perhaps easiest to think of Starbound as Terraria and Minecraft meets classic sci-fi tales like Buck Rodgers and Star Wars. You'll start the game as a player of your creation as you've crash-landed on an unknown alien planet with little to no supplies. Much of the game is spent exploring alien planets and looking for materials to help you survive. It's sort of amazing just how much you can create here and while you'll start with smaller inventions like anvils and hammers (because, if you're going to make a building sim, it's law to have a hammer), eventually you can make things like entire ships and even giant mech suits.
"...a great job easing newer players into the rules and logic of the game..."
Most charming about Starbound is that while it allows people to just let their creativity flow and build whatever they can, there's also a great sense of progression to the game. You'll begin the game with a small matter gun that can pull apart objects and make them into manageable chunks. The game does a great job easing newer players into the rules and logic of the game, all while not holding back anything the players can manage to do themselves. Unlike other building sims, there's a definite object to Starbound and finding blueprints to build new items to propel you forward is a great feeling.
Be warned though, Starbound has a tendency to feel incredible grindy. A lot of objects require multiple resources to craft and it often seems like these resources are scattered around not just the planet, but also the universe completely randomly. It's a lot of fun to explore the world of Starbound, but it's a task that becomes laborious when you are just looking for that one little element needed for your next invention. There were a few times I just gave up on what I was trying to make because I was tired of looking.
"...always have to search for the items you need."
The main attraction of Starbound though isn't what you can do; it's where you can go. Starbound is a deceptively large game, with countless clusters of planets to explore, and they're all generated completely randomly. This means that you'll always have new things to explore and always have to search for the items you need. It's a novel idea, and I loved exploring the cosmos, but it's all hampered by a terrible navigation system. Starbound does not let you search for planets based on anything like threat level or resources; instead you'll have to scroll through a list of planets until you find one you'll want to navigate to.
There's a strategy element to Starbound as well, as you'll have to fend off hostile alien races day and night. You'll also have to plant crops and ensure that the your character can survive and breath on whatever planet they're currently inhabiting. Combat is as simple as you'd expect and it often feels like it's been added on just because the developers thought they needed to have it because similar games did as well. Don't get me wrong, there are some interesting and even thrilling moments that revolve around combat, but they pale in comparison to the rest of the game.
If it came out earlier in 2013, Starbound would undoubtedly be the sleeper hit of the year, but expect it to be big in 2014. It combines the building aspects of mega-hits like Minecraft and Terraria with an incredible sense of exploration that I haven't seen in quite some time. Even with it's flaws, Starbound is bound to be one of next year's breakout titles - do yourself a favor and get in early.
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