Early Access reviews offer our preliminary verdicts on in-development games. We may follow up this unscored review with a final, scored review in the future.
Planet Explorers made me appreciate the genius of Minecraft's basic building block: the simple, 16x16 pixel cube from which flows an entire universe of creativity. Planet Explorers tries expand on the genre Minecraft created by adding more options, more granularity—more everything. Its potential initially inspired me to explore and create, but eventually taught me that Minecraft's simplicity and comparatively limited scope are some of its biggest assets.
Take for example one of the most fundamental actions in both games: digging for resources. In Planet Explorers, I don't dig dirt out of the ground block by block, but more fluidly, with a sphere-shaped marker whose effect on the earth is determined by the quality of my shovel. Instead of digging straight down or in straight angles, my dig sites look more organic, spreading downward in roundish tubes.
In a way, the ant nest-like system of tunnels I ended up with was more impressive than what you'd see in Minecraft, but it was less functional, and created a lot of frustrations along the way. In Minecraft, a cube is a cube, and you always know what to expect when you swing your pickaxe at a rock. In Planet Explorers, the more realistic textures are not as informative, and the amount of material you're removing, from where, and in what shape, varies a lot. I didn't have a problem digging in a certain direction, but the way there was created with many little imperfections and awkward geometry I'd slide down while trying to do something else.
Digging is just one of many, many aspects of Planet Explorers, but it demonstrates on a micro level what is wrong with it on a macro level. It consistently chooses quantity and complexity over quality, almost as if offering you more and more to do in order to hide the fact that it does none of these things well.
It does everything Minecraft does, with more items and more recipes (scripts, as they're called here), but it also has role-playing game elements, with NPCs handing out quests for rewards, party members, factions, and a fairly in-depth arsenal of weapons.
The set-up is great, actually. You and a crew of interstellar colonizers crash land on an alien planet and pick up the pieces from there. You literally start without even a pair of pants and with some time and dedication can reach the point where you're operating a huge base with defense turrets, and driving around in a tank of your own design.
It's neat that all these different elements exist in the same game, but not one of them is satisfying on its own, and in its current alpha phase, some of them are barely functional. For example, there's a great 3D map that shows where exactly to find different types of buried materials. On my current save, the map stopped showing certain types of material and finally stopped working entirely. A Google search, a look at the wiki, and several forums didn't yield a fix.
This is one of many technical issues, the most offensive of which is the mysterious disappearance of all my quest data, which as far as I could tell will force me to restart the game from scratch.
Other elements that worked just fine were disappointing all the same. I was really happy, for example, when I finally got the materials I needed to build a rifle, but firing it felt so awkward, weak, and inconsistent with the game's PG tone, it was downright embarrassing. Worst of all, it offered nearly no feedback. It was hard for me to tell I was even firing, let alone that it was having any kind of effect on my target.
Planet Explorers also has building tools for structures, vehicles, and weapons. These are very in-depth, and I had to learn how (or at least try) to use them like a dedicated piece of software.
The tutorials are not good (and could easily improve by time of release), but even if they were, the tools just aren't an interesting, fun way to create things. When I'm building my super-duper pillow fort in Minecraft, I'm building it as if I were living in that world. I climb ladders, lay everything down brick by brick like a virtual construction worker, and step back to admire my creation. When building a vehicle in Planet Explorers, it feels like I showed up unprepared for the final exam of my 3D modeling class. I did not enjoy tinkering with these tools—it feels more like work than play.
There are players out there with an appetite for such depth, and their dedication will be greatly appreciated by players like me when they share their designs, a feature Planet Explorers is smart to promote. Should the game be able to foster the right kind of community, it'll be fascinating to see what it could wring out of these powerful and flexible, if obtuse, tools.
Another benefit of Minecraft's simple, pixelated blocks, is that they create a lucid visual language. It allows me to easily recognize enemies and materials from a distance, and everything in the world feels like it belongs there. Planet Explorers is a confused mix of Second Life and Spore, where nothing looks like it belongs. Imagine a bargain bin filled with cheap, off-brand action figures and toy monsters. For all its scale and ambition, Planet Explorers is ultimately ugly, and I don't want to spend hundreds of hours exploring an ugly planet.
There are hundreds of hours of entertainment to be had with Planet Explorers if you want put in the time to extract them, but it's too unattractive to bear for that long, let alone bother with its current technical issues and sloppy user interface.
Uncertain. Even with all the crafting and exploration games out there, Planet Explorers is tapping into a very rich, not yet completely drained vein. Developer Panthea is updating the game regularly, but the question is if it can polish Planet Explorers to the point where it doesn't feel like it's trying and failing to do too much.
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