The base- or city-building genre hasn't been doing too hot lately. The latest incarnation of SimCity was something of a bust, and while we've got intriguing options like Prison Architect and Godus coming down the pipe, the days where all and sundry were weaned on Dungeon Keeper or Black and White are long behind us. So Spacebase DF-9 puts a smile on my face: you're building bases--in space--by indirectly managing teams of colonists, assigning chores and designing layouts and what not. And it's made by Double Fine, undisputed heralds of good things gaming. Unfortunately, as a $25 Early Access alpha, this game is actually something of a tough sell.
Blasphemy, I know--the Double Fine name has never failed to get me to crack open my wallet, and its pedigree certainly shines here. You'll start the game with three colonists and pretty much left to your own devices--a hint system prods you in the right direction, explaining the general rules behind creating rooms, establishing life support systems, and wrapping your head around the clear, concise UI. You'll assign tasks, and citizens in the right profession will complete them--these professions can be switched on the fly should you decide you need more miners or guards in a pinch, but citizens will only get better at particular roles with lots of on-the-job training.
The artwork is fantastic, the dialogue is comical, and the whole experience is already shaping up rather well. Your citizens look plenty lively as they amble about, gathering at the pub for a drink or chatting each other up in hallways during their off hours. There are lots of lovely little touches, like social network updates and rivalries, lending a great deal of life to the cold blackness of space. And while bugs and the like abound, they're pretty much all graphical in nature. I did encounter a door I couldn't demolish, but for the most part, there was nothing to complain about besides the odd funky-colored art asset.
But I still find myself running into the same wall o' wariness I usually encounter when wading through early access alphas and betas--you're paying $25 for a promise that this'll get better. Because there simply isn't very much here: much of the base-building is still theoretical, and once you've popped down some oxygen recyclers, beds, ore refinery and a bar, there isn't much else left to do. You'll fight off the occasional batch of raiders, and there are plans to introduce things like power management via fusion reactors, but as things stand, the otherwise charming experience starts to wear thin fairly quickly.
Open-endedness has always been part of the charm of sandbox building games, and I've certainly whiled away hundreds of hours tooling about in Dwarf Fortress and its ilk. But these sorts of games generally have the benefit of years of development time: there generally are multiple resources to manage, trading, intricate desire systems for your citizen...seemingly limitless things to do and see as you futz about procedurally-generated worlds. Spacebase and its developers promise that's all coming down the pipe, but don't toss $25 into their coffers expecting anything but a proof of concept.
A rather engaging proof of concept, brief though it may be. I've yet to play a game carrying that Double Fine logo that I didn't enjoy. Still, $25 is really, really steep for an alpha. It does look rather snazzy though--if you're willing to take the plunge, grab it from the official Spacebase DF-9 site or over at Steam.