Planetbase is the best 3D Colony Sim I have played so far on Steam or otherwise. My total playtime in its case should speak volumes by itself. I don’t play “test” a game I’m supposed to review, for that long unless I’m enjoying it thoroughly. A game dev which has had no previous experience (and sadly so far, no other new titles either) has finally created the game that surpasses Startopia in my eyes, as the most comprehensive “What if?” scenario about setting up a colony in an inhospitable place. Of course, Planetbase focuses entirely on humans, without even mentioning alien lifeforms.
Do not expect a storyline in the classical sense in which you may be introduced to certain characters and shall have to follow them throughout the duration of the gameplay and further discover and influence their actions. Planetbase’s campaign does feature randomly generated names for your colonists, but they never seem to stand out from one another. You should consider them as hardworking ants in your new proverbial ant farm. And you’re their Overseer, if the Fallout series strikes your fancy. Instead of a story per se, you have open-ended scenarios in which you must accomplish a strict set of objectives which ensure promotion to more complex tasks and far more dangerous planetary environments to colonize.
I strongly suggest you first play the tutorial before attempting to kickstart a space colony by yourself in this game. I shall discuss the gameplay mechanics further below; just be prepared for concepts that weren’t used before in similar titles. Planetbase aims for low-Science Fiction, also called “soft” by some fans of the genre. It’s the type of Sci-Fi which isn’t that far-fetched from the technological capabilities humanity possesses already but still represents a leap we have yet to achieve and will likely remain in the realm of hypothesis for the next few decades. Imagine 2015’s movie, “The Martian”. That film’s release date coincides with that of Planetbase and both of them share more than a few common ideas.
Despite not clearly naming its graphics engine, and even if it wouldn’t be proprietary, Plantebase looks great. I’ve been running it maxed-out at 4K resolution and stable 60 fps without so much as a single framerate dip. Couple its stellar performance with so many intricate details, from structure objects or even the colonists themselves and you will agree Planetbase’s seemingly high price tag is justified. What you see in those official screenshots is also what you get to play for yourself. And it’s fully worth it.
All praise aside, there are a few pathfinding glitches in which the NPC’s bump into each other (or go right through), but as long as you avoid colony overcrowding and expand at a steady pace, the effect should be of minimal impact. Just as in Planetbase’s counterparts on Steam, the astronauts/colonists are also distinguished chromatically by their designated profession. Blue for workers, orange for engineers, green for biologists, red for medics and last but not least, grey for guards. Similar color schemes apply for the carrier, constructor, and driller robot types. Everything is neatly organized and shall run like clockwork if you keep your wits about you.
Sound effects and songs are few and far between. Also the complete lack of voice acting is disappointing to say the least. Earth Space Colonies even had vague attempts at humor with its dialogue between members of your staff and an Artificial Intelligence. Planetbase is far too silent for a game of its simulated complexity and sheer entertainment value. You’ll be forgiven if you mute its sounds altogether and listen to whatever tracks you prefer.
The corporation financing your colonial efforts may not be Weyland-Yutani, yet your hands shall get dirty anyways from genetic modification. Only vegetables so far; no alien life yet. Indeed, I’m talking of GMO (genetically modified organism) tomatoes and onions. It may seem harmless enough as you’re never thinking of long-term effects when your colonists need to eat now. So you compromise and allow “beefed-up” crops to replace the more natural yet slow-yielding ones. How about some lab-grown meat? Feel free to switch the example of those 100 colonists you’re trying to save from starvation, with 7.5 billion souls. If it sounds familiar, it might just be the case to worry for our not-so-bright future. Too many mouths to feed and a “Blue Rock” that won’t take the abuse forever.
Survival is your first priority and prospering is your second. You start your journey on a desert planet which resembles Mars and as you reach new objectives, you can attempt to colonize frozen or storm planets (no clear examples in our Solar System) and a gas giant moon (take your pick, Jupiter has 67 moons). In order to thrive in those hostile landscapes, you shall need to plan your first few resources very carefully. If you manage to pass three in-game days with zero fatalities, you’re on the path towards success.
Your initial crew of 7 astronaut & colonist hopefuls is accompanied by just two robots, and the Colony Ship shall have to be stripped for spare parts after you’ve built the first few essential structures (such as a solar panel, oxygen generator, water extractor and an airlock). Apart from a few buildings that are only accessed from the outside, most of your colonists shall remain “indoors” through the modular structures which shelter them from atmospheric conditions not suitable for life. I do appreciate the valuable lesson of recycling being taught by Planetbase. Everything you build can be scrapped efficiently with almost the complete recovery of materials used initially. The robots shall eventually become damaged beyond repair and you will need to assemble more, but the resources you recover from the old go straight to the new ones. Nothing is truly lost; everything can be re-purposed.
The Planetbase colonists are fairly safe compared to other colony sims I have played over the years. There are some looming threats such as asteroids or human invaders/saboteurs but both those issues can be cancelled by the implementation of laser turrets and sufficient security personnel. Every other type of sustained damage (from solar flares and sand/snow storms) can be repaired and healed. As you can see, there are surprisingly few deaths. This may not quite simulate the actual hardships of space colonization, but you can always screw things up if you expand chaotically or too fast. Human nature is humanity’s biggest enemy in the end.
While I understand perfectly that its price tag is reflected in Planetbase’s content and its quality, if you consider it overpriced, you can wait for a Steam Sale or bundle. Whenever you decide to buy it, I recommend you play it and allow those colonies to grow. It’s a game that deserves to be part of any Steam collection and it truly is the only 3D colony simulator you need for now. I would have rated it even higher if it had a soundtrack worthy of the overall picture.
All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.