It is quickly becoming a bit of a minefield to evaluate a video game in today's market since so rarely do they ever hit shelves or digital marketplaces finished. This is especially tough when dealing with the Early Access scene where gamers can put their money down to play games that are in beta and alpha states, making it hard to give a solid recommendation about most Early Access games. Most.
Starbound is a different kind of Early Access game. Developer Chucklefish has taken the Early Access model and used it so well that they should be an example for all to follow. What they have delivered is a complete experience that is only going to get better as more features are implemented into their game.
On its surface, Starbound is a mix and match of several other games, the most obvious being Terraria. The focus is on crafting and exploration much in the same mold of Minecraft, only set across a 2D plane. Once a character is created, either a human or a choice of five other alien races, players are given a ship that is hovering above a randomly generated planet. Beaming down to the surface, the first port of call will be all about resource collection.
Chopping down trees, building a shelter, staving off the local wildlife and surviving the first few nights will be the top priority before players can really explore the world that has been generated. There may be a prison with aggressive inmates, a peaceful yet cautious town, abandoned science labs, a huge creature to vanquish or even, sometimes, nothing. The random nature of Starbound makes sure that priorities are never set before beaming down to a new planet. It could be going out to loot locations or mining deep for rarer resources. It is just unknowable until the lay of the land is established.
After completing the first quest-line, the planet will stop yielding the quantity of resources needed to upgrade a character. At that point, it is time to beam back up to the ship, fill it with fuel and fly to greener pastures. At that moment, the massive scale of the game presents itself. Hundreds if not thousands of stars are available to travel too, each containing a few systems of several planets. Chucklefish has achieved a near infinite scope and it means their is always new planets to explore...to a point.
While there is a dizzying degree of possibility, a lot of the planets will begin to feel similar before too long. For the majority of the time players will be exploring the same biomes, just with different variables like gravity, weather, and wildlife. No two experiences will ever be exactly the same, but eventually they will begin to feel remarkably similar. Every once in a while a new type of planet will present itself with special requirements to survive, but they are currently few and far between.
That is an issue, but Starbound only set to get better since it is still in the beta phase. In the future the game is set to include spaceship fights, space dungeons, portals between worlds/servers, better AI, a much needed restructure of the combat system and a whole host of other features. That all sounds exciting, but what is available now is already a solid experience.
Worth noting though is that some of these features already exist through a fairly in-depth modding community. Players can add races, customizable ships, weapons, gear, resources and even the ability to start and manage their own village. It's hard to imagine that the team at Chucklefish aren't sitting up and taking notes at what the community is adding to their in-development game. A truly symbiotic relationship is building between developers and community and that is a good thing (just look at Minecraft as an example).
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A strict word of warning though. If players are looking to put hours and hours into a character right now, it may be best holding off for a few months. Character wipes are to be expected and if early adopters aren't crystal clear on that right now, it could lead to some nasty fallout later on. Also, much less important, but a discernible niggle nonetheless, is the inability to sell items. As locations are raided, inventories will quickly build up with inferior weapons that are of no use. It is not game breaking, but it makes collecting all but the best items cluttered and unsatisfying.
That considered, Starbound is mostly a satisfying and complete experience that is trying to iron out a few issues and add to what is already a decent experience. Understandably, character wipes will of course put a lot of players off, but drawbacks are a part of the Early Access experience. Chucklefish is currently putting its efforts into delivering a game with bags of potential. Few indie games could sell over a million copies in their early state, but Starbound has and that's through positive word of mouth. It is a big wide universe out there and Starbound is begging to be explored.