Reviews

Spacebase DF-9 Review – Build Your Own Deep Space Nine, Minus Quark

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Double Fine
Publisher: Double Fine
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Though you won’t read about it on the big websites Spacebase’s developer Double Fine has courted controversy with this new game. Having originally been funded on Kickstarter Spacebase DF-9 has angered many of its backers who feel development has been sporadic and short, equating to what is said to be hasty launch and a product that doesn’t have many of the promised features.

If you’ve come to this review expecting a damning report of the developers and the entire Kickstarter saga then simply stop reading now. Not only did I not follow the game’s development nor help fund the game, I firmly believe that such things don’t belong in a review. No, such issues are the topics of other types of article, and what I’m going to try to do here, to the very best of my admittedly limited abilities, is assess the game as it is.

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So, the idea is that you take control of a small group of humans looking to populate some distance part of the galaxy for entirely unknown reasons. As the benevolent and unseen force guiding their puny lives you must keep them alive long enough to craft a thriving home for them among the stars. Although the game includes goals, there’s no true end-state or final objective here, you just play until either boredom strikes or everybody is dead.

With playing must come an acceptance that you will fail quite a bit. Spacebase isn’t big on explaining many of its ideas or guiding players, and thus you’ll run out of oxygen, get everyone massacred by raiders, have your base burnt to a crisp by a ravenous fire and succumb to infection many times, gleaning a small amount of information each time. Well, sometimes. Occasionally. While failing often teaches you something, it equally often doesn’t because as fun as Spacebase can be, it has some serious problems.

You begin with just a few people in spacesuits floating in the mighty black void of space along with a Seed Pod, which acts as a generator for your first forays into base construction. First thing to do is construct a room around the pod, then a working airlock followed by some oxygen recyclers so that nobody dies as soon as they take off their helmets. From their you can begin building up your new home; a refinery must be created so you can mine the nearby asteroids for the resources needed to build your new home, while residences must be added so your minions can sleep and reactors constructed for power.

As you work on your base ships will appear from time to time. Occasionally they’ll contain raiding parties, but most often they have people who simply wish to come aboard, an offer you can accept or refuse depending on whether you have the resources to handle the increase, although sometimes a ship will ignore your refusal and dock anyway. Every person in the base needs to be assigned a duty via the roster, a menu which displays how good they are at any given task. There’s a catch, though: just because a person is good at a job doesn’t mean it will make them happy. A happiness indicator shows just how much joy any given individual will garner from a job, and thus you might find a brilliant engineer who hates constructing things but loves tending bars, despite being naff at it. Regardless your little minions will become better at their assigned tasks, so it’s sometimes worth assigning somebody with little talent to a job they love in the long-term.

All of this feeds into a Sims style system where your crew will chat to each other, play games, move around and more. By clicking on them you can bring up a panel showing their often hilarious thoughts and feelings. If they are happy with their frankly actually pretty bleak lives then all is well, but if they get too unhappy they’ll rebel by setting fire to stuff and punching people. A harsh player may opt to execute the offender, but brigs can also be built into which morons can be tossed and forgotten about. It’s a lightweight system, though, as there’s no a whole lot that can actually bump up the happiness of your crew, and their emotional well being isn’t really felt in gameplay terms until they are quite literally wrecking your stuff. Indeed, it feels like what exists here was the groundwork for more complex systems.

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It’s ultimately these clueless space idiots that provide most of the frustration factor. Take one of my early attempts at constructing a base; mere moments into the task I had managed to create an airlock, but my engineers were unable to enter because one pillock had decided to sit down and play videogames in the bloody airlock. A few minutes later the engineer ran out of air and died. Other examples of stupidity include construction work. There’s no way to prioritize what gets built first, which is quite a problem when you’re aggressively expanding your home. If you plan out several projects at once your builders won’t complete one room at a time,  they’ll leap from area to area rather than focusing their efforts. At other times build orders will simply sit there, seemingly forgotten by your crew. Both these problems can lead to incredibly frustrating moments where you need to quickly build something important and are left staring helplessly at the screen while your builders cock around. Existing build orders can be cancelled, at least, but that’s an inelegant solution to the problem.

At least ordering construction work is easy enough. Creating rooms is just of picking the option from the left hand menu and then clicking and dragging, or you can build them piece by piece for more complex designs. Likewise objects are easy: grab them from the menu and simply throw them down where you want them, provided there’s enough space to do so. A tap of the F key will rotate the object as well. As you slowly grow your base you’ll add a pub, create separate rooms for your people, construct a research area, add in safety alarms, throw in some gardens for better food, build turrets for defense  and dabble in dark matter reactors.

The range of things you can build, sadly, is a bit limited. Entertainment for your crew of misfits only comes in  the form of a pub, unless you count placing a TV screen or weight bench, for example. Likewise decorations are small in number. Indeed, while you can throw down a bed and rug there’s no chairs or couches to be placed so your crew must simply stand around admiring the bleak view. The end result is that it doesn’t take very long to build pretty much everything, and any dreams of carefully putting together the perfect base filled with luxury are dashed. Research stations allow you to unlock a little bit more stuff by assigning some scientists to pottle around, but they are all upgrades of existing items rather than being new rooms or cool new. Thus you’re left to simple build the same things over and over as you grow to accommodate new personnel, leaving the late game feeling bland.

Infections and meteor showers may pose threats to you, but it’s attack by space pirates/raiders than tends to be the most dangerous aspect of living in space. These guys can pop up at any time and can even cut through the floor f your station, emerging in any area they want. To combat them you need to assign crew members to security duty, as well as maybe throw up some turrets. Yet actually battling the foe proves to be a frustrating experience. Upon being attacked your hapless crew will run around in circles, or more often directly into the line of fire. The only way to control them is to place emergency alarms around the base, but these have to be set off manually and only tell the rooms occupants to leave that specific area, thus trying to herd your crew into a single area for safety is incredibly awkward. A simple Rally beacon would have solved this problem, and indeed is actually a fairly standard control option in other games. As for your security team they can often feel a bit useless if left to their own devices. Thankfully you can place manual security beacons to muster your security force, but it would be nice to see an AI capable of handling at least basic security on its own.  The best way to tackle pirate situations is actually to head to the roster and assign every single person to security duty so that they won’t run around like morons. Of course after an attack this means having to re-assign everyone from memory.

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One of the biggest gripes to be had with the game is that its pretty sprite-based visuals come at the cost of being able to rotate the viewpoint, leaving you to gaze forever at just one side of your floating space station. This means that placing objects and constructing rooms toward the rear of the station is awkward, and indeed I often found myself avoiding doing so as much as possible in favor of throwing up new rooms toward the front. In a game of this nature the inability to manipulate the camera is just idiotic.

Other things serve only to remind you that Spacebase is quite lacking in many areas compared to its peers. IN order to keep an eye on the general well-being of your population you have to literally click on each member of your crew and examine their information, whereas most other titles have a menu you can quickly consult that provides a basic breakdown of such information. Take Tropico 5 and its almanac, for example, a handy tool for managing the needs and wants of your population. It gets worse when you consider unhappy crew have a horrible tendency to snap and start setting fire to things and hurting other people.

As for the random disasters that can befall you, they’re a little too random a times, a factor which some may appreciate, it must be said. Being attacked by space pirates is one thing, and is somewhat annoying in its own right given the problems mentioned earlier, but being attacked by a second or even third flurry of them shortly after is just plain bloody insulting. Likewise you might get hit by meteors followed by pirates followed by a course of parasites. Such things might be less annoying if there was some way of competently defending against these or a strategy to minimise losses, but there is not – you just take the beating. But then things can get worse; an attack can leave you with no technicians, so things begin to catch fire, which is followed by your few remaining crew being too damn stupid to grab an extinguisher and put them out, leaving you to watch helplessly as everything melts down around you. It’s not a learning experience. There’s nothing to take away from this failure, no lesson to be learned from your horrible demise. You simply got kicked in the teeth by a mixture of pure chance and questionable design.

Take this one example of a play session; having been frequently using the pause button to monitor the state of my people it turns out I had forgotten to check on a single person whose temper got the better of him, apparently due to a lack of shelving space. He promptly killed two people and then set fire to my reactor. My crew, being of sound mind and great experience, proceeded to ignore the nearby extinguisher in favor of beating the flames out. Unsurprisingly this just resulted in them catching fire and running away, only to return and repeat the experience. The loss of my reactor shut down some of my oxygen recyclers, nearly killing  chunk of crew.

Other stupid situations occur far too frequently. An incoming crew ignored my command to stay away and hopped onboard anyway, a bit of problem since I didn’t actually have enough life support systems to support them. Having just used my existing materials to order to the construction of a new room I found myself stuck. I cancelled the existing room order and took the material from that  and put it into the construction of a new Oxygen Recycler, but to my amazement the builders ignored the vital Recycler until it was too late. With no way of telling them to prioritize the life-giving piece of equipment everybody suffocated. Thanks, game.

At least some events are relatively free of problems. Derelicts pop up from time to time and can be investigated by planting a security beacon. Sometimes there are enemies and sometimes there’s stranded people just looking for a home. Other times entire ships will dock to your station, expanding your base in the process. And when raider events or parasites go well they can be a fun diversion from growing your population, although even when you have a high number of trained security a few raiders seem capable of decimating your base.

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AI lock-ups are also a frequent problem, one usually only solved by saving and exiting the game, otherwise you’ll find crew members stuck in airlocks or floating in space with seemingly no desire to get back to base for oxygen.

Playing Spacebase-DF9 it’s easy to see why those who chose to fund the game’s development have been left feeling jilted; it feels lacking in some many areas compared to its peers. It’s frustrating because there’s genuinely enjoyable time to be spent playing the game.  Whenever there was actually a decent gap between horrific random events slowly building a floating home is enjoyable, and indeed even being attacked or encountering a derelict is fun if there’s enough time between them. But a lack of things to build, bad design choices and a variety of stupid AI behavior, plus many other bugs I discovered along the way, all combine to severely tarnish the game.

The Good:
+ Operating a decent base.
+ Looks quite nice.

The Bad:
– AI isn’t up to the job.
– Not much to build.
– Being pummeled by events,

The Verdict: 2.5/5 – Okay, bordering on good.
With some updates could be really quite good, but as it is the game frustrates as much as it pleases.

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