Early Access, as my mother always told me, is like a box of chocolates. Specifically, it’s like an unmarked cardbox box of rejected chocolates your aunt sometimes brings round because she works on the factory line at Cadburys and, whenever her supervisor isn’t looking, is able to swipe them before they go in the bin. That is to say, you never know what you’ll get when you purchase Early Access to a game. Will it be malformed, unusable and totally unlike the final product? Or will it be pretty much all there, feature complete but simply in need of a little tidying up?
If Spacebase DF-9 were a Twix, it’d be missing a finger. The wafer would be jutting out of the chocolate like a broken, biscuity femur and the caramel would have melted through the packaging, which would read “TWUX”. One day, Spacebase DF-9 will be finished, and it will be fun and delicious. But right now it’s not done. And it’s not fun.
Here’s what it is. It’s the very distant future and you are the manager of a mission to repopulate a tiny sector of the galaxy by constructing the nicest space base you possibly can. This space base will provide amenities for your few initial crew members as well as any travelling migrants who happen to stumble across your settlement. There are different kinds of rooms to build, from functional life support rooms with oxygen recyclers to recreational rooms like pubs. Well, not like pubs, just pubs, there’s only one kind of recreational room and it’s a pub.
Worryingly, I’ve already described roughly half of what the current version of Spacebase DF-9 offers. Your crew cannot be directly controlled but rather can be assigned to different roles such as building, mining, maintenance and security. Once given their role they’ll automatically go about fulfilling tasks based on what their AI brain deems important. They’ll slack off and play videogames or simply go to bed, depending on their mood, or they’ll help out around the base by fixing equipment, building new rooms, patrolling, mining, serving drinks or putting out fires.
They have Sims-like conversations about trivial things, gossiping and discussing food that they like. They've also got a Twitter-stream of feelings that betray a detailed thought process as they go about their duties. Nothing in the game plugs into their emotions yet, aside from basic luxuries of oxygen, sleep and booze, but the fundamentals are there to build upon.
Passing ships show up routinely, most often carrying migrants who wish to inhabit your space base in exchange for their labour. Sometimes hostile space villains will show up, attaching their ship to your base before boarding and attacking your crew. Defeat them and their ship, along with all of their amenities, their beds and oxygen recyclers (which allow for more residents), becomes yours. Similarly, derelicts will occasionally appear near your base, which can be explored by your security staff before becoming incorporated into your quickly spreading complex. In the current version there are perhaps just three or four different kinds of derelict.
And that’s pretty much it for now. Spacebase DF-9 is precisely that barebones at this alpha stage, desperately lacking in both content and challenge. That's the point, of course, this being an alpha, but it's worth understanding exactly what you're going to have handed to you in exchange for your £18.99. It’s relatively bug-free for such an early build: I encountered one game-ending crash fairly quickly, which forced me to start a new base, and in routine play you’ll come across a few pathfinding cock-ups that lead to deep space asphyxiation, but everything else feels vaguely in place and ready to be expanded upon.
The clear genre parallels with Dwarf Fortress and Prison Architect suggest a degree of deep complexity that’s yet to be introduced here. That’s a promising prospect in itself, but right now this game is a empty shell waiting to be filled with clever ideas.
How Early Access is too Early Access? Probably somewhere around Spacebase DF-9, I’d hazard. In a week's time this might be an entirely different game. Right now it's a blank sheet with a question mark doodled on it.