Fifteen minutes into my first excursion into Astroneer, a dust storm kicked up on the chunky little planet I'd been scurrying across. My tiny astronaut hunched over into the wind as he walked, holding up one hand in front of his visor to ward off the sudden clouds of whirling dust. I quickly discovered the storm wasn't simply an aesthetic one.
Debris, in the form of blocks, began sailing through the air and bouncing off the terrain around me. One collided with my spaceman's noggin. Instakill. As lovely and serene as Astroneer is, it can sometimes be pretty lethal, too.
I've been bumbling around the pre-alpha version of the adorable planetary survival crafting game for a few hours now. Bumbling because there's not a whole lot of explanation of how things work unless you dig into a wiki. Luckily, the interface is incredibly simple, all handled with a few minimalist prompts (though they're so minimal they can take a little while to figure out) and on-screen text.
As an astronaut who has landed on an unfamiliar planet, you begin with a small power and oxygen supply and you're armed with a terrain tool that lets you dig holes and harvest resources. As you suck up resources with your tool, they accumulate into a node and then pop onto your backpack. Collect ice crystals, for instance, and they'll give you an extra node of oxygen. Items can be dragged and dropped right from your pack and into the world, and vice-versa.
Beyond just keeping your suit powered and full of O2, you can craft items right on your backpack (I built some small, wearable solar power collectors) and begin building with the resources you gather, adding new modules to your base like a research lab, a giant 3D printer, a vehicle bay, and an ore smelter. Some resources are easy to find on the planet's surface, while others are hidden deep underground.
While inventory space on your backpack is very limited, I'm not feeling the same frustrations of, say, No Man's Sky's inventory system, mainly because there are relatively few different kinds of resources, and you never need an enormous pile of minerals to craft or build something. Plus, being able to drag stuff right off your pack means no farting around endlessly in menu screens. So far, at least, collecting and managing resources in Astroneer hasn't felt like the type of repetitive grind it can be in other crafting games.
Anytime you wander too far from your base, you begin consuming your suit's oxygen supply. Even if you find collectible bits of oxygen as you travel, it doesn't last long. You're warned when your supply is half-gone (you can also see the status bar on your shoulders), and soon after you smother to death.
That's where tethers come in. Gather enough of a compound called 'Compound' and you can craft oxygen tethers: essentially, a long breathing tube that keeps you connected with the oxygen supply at your base. Start laying them out and soon you'll have a network of oxygen stretching across the planet's surface and into caves and anywhere else you plan to spend a lot of time exploring or gathering. Below, you can see just one of my long O2 tethers (plus, a nice moonrise over the horizon).
Once I figured out how to build and place tethers, they allowed me to extend my range deep underground (wonderfully, the tether posts also function as light sources so I don't need to craft and plant torches beside each one), where I finally found the minerals to begin constructing bigger modules. I've even begun assembling my first land vehicle. Eventually, I'll be able to build a rocket and begin exploring the other planets in the solar system.
I appreciate that aside from managing power and oxygen, there's not (currently) a lot of tinkering that needs to be done. My modules don't seem to degrade or become damaged, my terrain tool doesn't require fixing, my spacesuit doesn't need to be patched or repaired. I sometimes enjoy when crafting games go all-in, requiring you to fix and repair every little item you own, but in Astroneer it's nice to not constantly be bogged down with a dozen little chores that get in the way of whatever you happen to be working on.
Astroneer's harvesting and exploring is all perfectly enjoyable, though as I said, for a serene little planetary exploration game, death can come quite quickly and horribly. Wander too far from your landing pod, and you'll very quickly run out of oxygen and suffocate. Venture into a cave and you may be attacked by the same sort of spore-spitting alien plant that snuffed my life out two or three times. Fall damage is pretty harsh, and I've died from what I thought was a small drop into a cavern. And storms really do get rough in a hurry. If one kicks up, either get into your pod or a cave (or dig your own).
Dying isn't really a big deal: if you find your sad little corpse you can loot it quickly and get right back to what you were doing. And, apart from the unforgiving fall damage, the deaths I've experienced haven't felt unfair. Besides, I think the feeling of risk is important, and even the most casual and carefree games can benefit from a little tension now and then. While Astroneer may brutally kill you from time to time, it really doesn't want to slow you down.