I was lucky. I really was. As a space nerd, that is. See, I grew up reading space stories – real ones. Underneath the Star Trek and the video games like Lightspeed and Frontier: Elite II I read book after book about space programmes, both manned and robotic. On my wall was a huge poster showing the sun, the orbits of the planets and – most importantly – the paths taken by the space craft which had explored or were still exploring the solar system.
I was lucky for this reason – I’d somehow failed to learn that NASA was putting money into developing a series of free, educational space games until the release of the first game was upon us. Moonbase: Alpha is a rather strange game. Based on the unreal engine, it’s a first/third person action/strategy game where you and up to 5 other players work to repair the life support systems of a semi-permanent base on the moon, based on the original plans to do so by NASA under George W Bush.
Things have been shaken up a bit now – Obama’s government has increased NASA’s budget and changed their goals, meaning the NASA games will likely remain the only glimpse at this particular moon base. But still, this game remains as a fun, interesting, semi-hard-scifi game which shows what that base might have been like, at least from the outside.
The actual game itself involves you and your fellow astronauts, fresh from some kind of long-distance EVA, desperately attempting to repair or replace enough of the life support systems to bring the O2 tanks back up to safe levels before your 25 minutes of remaining air are all used up.
This is accomplished by walking, jumping, driving rovers and piloting remote-controlled robots around the various damaged areas to repair and replace these parts. If you want a rough idea of the gameplay, imagine a large puzzle game much like the engineering mini-game in the Lightspeed/Hyperspeed series, but where you have to move from place to place in order to make changes to the system itself.
The gameplay is actually, if we’re being totally honest, a shade simple and even quite repetitive at times. After a meteor strike, various components of the complex life-support has been damaged. Just which parts vary from instance to instance, but generally you’ll have to fix or replace one or two solar dishes, re-attach at least one broken power cable and fix up the circuits, filters and generators on the life support system itself. With dangerous coolant leaking from the latter stuff, you’re not going to be able to just walk up there with a welding torch to fix it, either – you’ll be remotely piloting robots of two different kinds to get the job done in time.
Once you decide whether to repair or replace each unit, you’ll either be dragging a replacement part out from the engineering module across the other side of the base, or playing a ‘soldering’ mini-game not too different from the kind you’d expect in System Shock or Bioshock to get the component back up and running again.
In short, it’s a sort of strategy/puzzle affair which probably wouldn’t keep your interest for more than a half hour, except for one small detail: nothing about the gameplay changes the fact it’s hard-enough sci-fi to give you a feeling that no other game I’ve ever seen has truly managed: you get to be on the frickin’ moon.
Unlike other games, this one shows quite a realistic depiction of a low-gravity, no-atmosphere environment. Hell, you can’t even see the obligatory “Hollywood Star Field” above you by default, nor hear sounds. (Because, you see, sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum)
Actually finishing each “level” (there are three, and they simply scale up the difficulty and size of the base to better work with larger or more experienced players) is quite easy. After one or two failures (almost guaranteed) you’ll get the hang, and find that the real trick is getting faster at the game. The developers certainly know this, and they’ve made a big show of the end-of-mission leaderboards. How did your best scores compare with others around the world?
Teamplay is important. Just wandering around fixing things on your own, and things are bound to go awry. Really, in order to get the most out of this game you need to be working with a team with a designated (and experienced) leader, who can keep an eye on every team-member either through voice coms or through the commander’s station.
If you have a team like this – a few friends who get excited every time the space shuttle or a soyuz capsule take off – then this maybe the game for you. But hell – it’s worth a try, right? After all, it’s free.
Finally, it’s worth noting that, like I mentioned earlier, this is the first game from the NASA ‘Learning Technologies’ project. The main title is going to be an MMO which, presumably will includes gameplay elements like this.
I only wish I could have played this when I was a kid – maybe I’d have stayed at school and kept studying astrophysics, after all!