An hour with survival game Icarus: forest fires, terrifying storms, and 'freaked out' bears

(Image credit: RocketWerkz)

Dean Hall is on fire. That's not a metaphor—his character is literally engulfed in flames after standing too close to a small grass fire in the forest. As Hall runs around wildly looking for water (and laughing) I quickly craft a long-handled tool called a 'fire whacker' out of sticks, stones, and plant fiber. It's a broom, basically. I'm an astronaut holding a broom. Another player and I whomp Hall repeatedly with our brooms trying to smother the flames covering him.

Hall abruptly collapses and I stare down at his ragdoll corpse, wondering if we've just beaten him to death while trying to save him. "I think I burnt to death, actually," says Hall as he respawns. He explains that in Icarus small fires can quickly grow out of control and become full-on forest fires. "We should probably get away from here," he adds, as several more small fires begin to smolder near the trees.

Forest fires are just one of the many hazards in Icarus, the co-op survival game in development by RocketWerkz, the New Zealand-based studio Hall founded after leaving Bohemia Interactive (and DayZ) in 2014. As Hall describes it to me, in Icarus it's "you against the planet." I definitely got that feeling in the hour I spent playing.

Above: Playing survival game Icarus with Dean Hall and RocketWerkz, also on YouTube.

Hall's team has already built several small bases stocked with supplies and equipment on Icarus (that's the name of the planet, not just the game) by the time I log in for my session. I float around in the space station orbiting Icarus for a minute, then blast down to the surface in a dropship. Icarus is in the midst of a storm—rain, wind, thunder and lightning—and many of the structures Hall's team built have already been partially destroyed by falling trees and lightning strikes. The weather in Icarus isn't just for show, it can seriously mess up your mission and threaten your life.

As the storm lifts and the sun begins to shine, Hall walks me through the familiar early paces of the survival game. I collect sticks and stones from the ground, build a stone axe and a pickaxe, and start chopping down trees and chipping away at voxel rocks, which nicely deform with each swing of my pick. As with my fire-whacking broom, it feels a bit strange to be using primitive stone tools considering I'm wearing a spacesuit and I just stepped off a rocket. But this is just the first step of being a prospector on Icarus. You arrive with nothing, having spent every last penny just making the 30 trillion mile trip to the planet. Once you've mined valuable resources from Icarus, you'll be able to take them back up into orbit and start buying and crafting more advanced equipment that can be brought down on future missions. Progression is hard-earned.

Icarus, by the way, is stunning to look at, with crystal clear rivers and lakes, towering trees that sway in the wind, and snow-capped mountains looming on the horizon. Icarus takes place on an 8x8 km landmass, and just scrolling through through the map in the menu is intriguing. We're in a pleasant forest biome now, but on the map I can see massive mountain ranges, freezing arctic biomes, arid deserts and rocky canyons, and long rivers snaking through grassy plains.

Worlds apart

(Image credit: RocketWerkz)

It's not a procedurally generated world but a hand-crafted one, Hall says, though that doesn't mean it's the same each time you visit. "We have added some degree of procedural elements," says Hall. "So each time you do a prospect, different caves might be closed or open, the resources will be different, the challenges you'll face will be a little bit different. So we like to think we've got a good balance between procedural elements and a handcrafted map."

Wildlife abounds, much of it from Earth, transplanted here during the failed terraforming that Icarus underwent. Hall takes me out deer hunting with bows and arrows, where I take down a buck with a single bowshot (with a little help from the sneak attack damage bonus, which gives me a little Skyrim vibe) and we fend off a lone wolf attack near the cabin (with a lot of help from another member of RocketWerkz who is carrying a shotgun). The animals are enjoyable to watch, too. An adult deer walks through the woods with a tiny fawn following close behind. A group of deer abruptly scatter while a wolf hunts them. Animals will visit lakes and rivers when thirsty, look for food when hungry, and react to weather events, getting "freaked out" by storms, as Hall puts it. 

We see this a few minutes later when another storm rolls in and we scurry back toward the safety of the cabin. As Hall crafts a torch and leads us through the trees, an enormous black bear, probably searching for its own shelter from the storm, suddenly bursts from the woods and sends us backpedaling and firing wildly. Again, the Rocketwerkz team member with the shotgun saves the day. For a biome Hall describes as "the least dangerous" on Icarus, this small patch of forest feels pretty damn deadly.

Unlike most open-ended survival games, you play Icarus in sessions. Missions on Icarus can last anywhere from hours to actual weeks, but they all have a timer, and when that timer expires, the mission is over. If you miss your ride back into orbit, you lose your character permanently, along with all the gear they've got with them—though if you've got gear stored in the space station, it will remain available to your replacement character.

Ticking clock

(Image credit: RocketWerkz)

Many missions are based around gathering the planet's valuable resources, which might take days of travel and survival, and even require the creation of roads, bridges, and vehicles, first to reach the precious minerals and then to mine them and transport them back to your dropship. But there are also faction missions, Hall says, where you might have a different sort of task, such as constructing a building for a client or finding and recovering a specific item on the planet that was left behind by a previous expedition.

While the session-based aspect of Icarus feels pretty novel to me, the crafting system is more traditional. As you play you gain XP (as well as earning the shared XP of your teammates), and these character levels give you access to higher tiers of crafting recipes, unlockable by spending points. At higher levels on the tech tree I can see advanced armor, camouflage, fishing gear, recipes for cooking, and weapons like rifles and shotguns. There are also electronics, furnaces, fabricators and material processors, concrete building pieces, and items like binoculars and a fire extinguisher (which is hopefully more efficient than my fire-whacking broom). What I don't get to see in this session, unfortunately, is the other side of Icarus, what happens up on the space station. There's a whole separate tech tree and progression system in space, spurred by the resources you gather from the planet.

So rather than building one core house, we're getting you to build many, with many different purposes.

Dean Hall

For those with dreams of settling down on Icarus, building a permanent base, and living off the land—and I'm sure many will want to do just that—it doesn't sound like it's an option. When the mission clock expires, you'll have to leave the planet behind and you won't be able to return to that same spot again, no matter how cozy the cabin you've built there.

I mention to Hall that a lot of players love to build permanent bases and live in them indefinitely in survival games. "If you think about in Valheim, how you sort of progress through your different bases, we're trying to put a good structure around that," says Hall. "And so I think while yes, the session-based nature takes you away from that, rather than investing in that one place, we see players going into the different sessions and having reasons to build these structures each time. And that gives you a really good sense of progression, clear direction, you know what you're going to go do. So rather than building one core house, we're getting you to build many, with many different purposes."

I'm curious to see how players react to that. While the mission system sounds like it could add a lot of tension and urgency to everything you do, survival game players also love comfort and the concept of building a home and settling down, even in the harshest environments. Just look at No Man's Sky: it was intended to be a game of restless, endless exploration, where you visit a planet to collect resources and then blast off again, never to return. And now, after a few years of player feedback, No Man's Sky has extensive base-building and teleporters, so no matter how far you go you can always get back to your beloved base quickly and easily. Players love establishing a home, getting familiar with their surroundings, and just living in games. I won't be surprised if players want to do the same on Icarus (especially considering how beautiful the world is) and request some sort of sandbox or creative mode that doesn't have mission timers. Even a game like Hardspace: Shipbreaker was quick to add a mode with no mission timer so players could work at their own pace.

(Image credit: RocketWerkz)

Near the end of my session I craft a little cabin of my own (for the record, it sucks to build something while a bunch of developers are standing around watching you put the walls on facing the wrong way and forgetting to add windows). But it's an intuitive building system with snappable pieces (similar to Rust or Fallout 4) and lots of attractive wooden beams (some nice Valheim vibes). My own cabin winds up looking like a basic box but the one RocketWerkz built looks more like a cozy ski chalet, suitable for relaxing after a long day of deer hunting and bear attacks.

It's only a slim slice of Icarus I got to experience, a tiny excursion into a small portion of one biome among many, and I didn't even get to see the portion of the game that takes place on the space station. But I'm still eager to go back for more. Even if I can't build a permanent, persistent base and live peacefully next to a river in the woods forever, the promise of exploration and adventure in the beautiful but dangerous world feels strong. And Hall says Icarus is playable solo, too, though it seems like it'd be extra difficult to survive without a friend close by to fend off bears with a shotgun and whack you with a broom when you catch on fire.

Final note: when Icarus was first revealed at The PC Gaming Show in 2020, we were told it was going to be a free-to-play game, but when I asked for confirmation during our session I was told RocketWerkz wasn't announcing any release date or pricing details at the moment. So I'm genuinely not sure if those free-to-play plans have changed. If you're interested in seeing more of Icarus soon, RocketWerkz will be streaming gameplay live on its Twitch channel on Thursday, April 8, at 5 pm PST / 8 pm EST.

Christopher Livingston
Senior Editor

Chris started playing PC games in the 1980s, started writing about them in the early 2000s, and (finally) started getting paid to write about them in the late 2000s. Following a few years as a regular freelancer, PC Gamer hired him in 2014, probably so he'd stop emailing them asking for more work. Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring storylines in RPGs so he can make up his own.