When Atari CEO Fred Chesnais told me back at PAX 2014 that the company was rebooting arcade classic Asteroids into a DayZ-style survival game (titled Asteroids: Outpost), I was surprised and more than a little bit confused.
Now it's six months later and I've gotten the chance to see the game running in person. And I'm still a little confused, to be honest.
A hunk of rock
Part of the problem with demoing Asteroids: Outpost is it's, at the moment, just a lot of talk--despite a workable build and a bevy of mechanics the team was eager to show off. Base-building is present, as is crafting, as is combat, as is blasting asteroids out of the sky to gain rare ores and prevent your base from being destroyed. Atari wasn't lying--this is a DayZ-style game in space.
But that's also why it's incredibly hard to demo. DayZ, H1Z1, Rust--these games are basically a collection of disparate mechanics in an empty world. The key ingredient to the success of a survival game is player creativity. How do players take the systems the developers built and twist/break/modify them in ways nobody could predict?
It's this emergent behavior that makes something like DayZ so fun to read about even if you're not actively playing. Throw 100 people onto a server, remove all societal norms, and see what happens. Sure, you get a fair amount of "I killed this guy because I could," but that's not creative. The real creativity is the guy who makes people sing their national anthem--or else he executes them.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that my Asteroids demo felt lifeless, because it is lifeless at the moment. The team has built a massive (kilometers wide) map and it's populated by nobody. There were a few rudimentary bases so Atari could show me the game's crafting system. There was a dune buggy-style lunar rover that we used to jump off moon dunes--maybe this is also a Moon Patrol reboot?
And then there was a lot of speculation. "We imagine players might do this." "We think players will do that." "Some players will et cetera."
I will say I like some of the core conceits that come from "DayZ-in-space." Oxygen is a major factor, for instance--you can only stay outside your base for so long before you'll run out of air. You also can't refill your air supply in enemy bases, which is an interesting (albeit illogical) constraint.
There are also constant asteroid showers raining down from the sky--thus the name, even if it's still a bit of a stretch as far as reboots are concerned. Asteroids are a danger, destroying pieces of your base if you're not careful. However, they're also essential to your survival, full of valuable ores you'll need for crafting. The crafting system itself seems a bit limited at the moment, with only a dozen or so room-types and a handful of tools, but who knows how it'll look at release or even a month after release.
Oh, and that lunar buggy thing is a hell of a lot of fun to drive in moon gravity. It makes me a bit giddy to see eight tons of steel glide back down to the surface like a balsa-wood plane.
Like all these recent survival games, however, Atari's biggest challenge is going to be attracting players. I'll concede that Asteroids at least has the most unique premise in a genre chock full of backwoods-Americana clones--space provides a nice change of scenery from Pacific Northwest-style forest scenes. But it is, at its heart, yet another survival game. Will a semi-unique premise allow it to coexist alongside its more established brethren? We'll see.
And we won't have to wait long. Asteroids is slated for a full release in 2015. Hopefully next time we take a look, it's not so lonely out in space.