Starbase – PC (P)review

Starbase – PC (P)review
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Genre: Open world sci-fi MMO
Developer: Frozenbyte
Publisher: Frozenbyte
Release Date: July 29th, 2021
Edited by AlexKnight2005

Indie stalwart Frozenbyte has certainly been around for quite a while, with the general scope of their releases ranging from single-player experiences (Shadowgrounds, Shadwen, Has-Been Heroes) to games that have a potential multiplayer element to it (Trine series, Nine Parchments, Boreal Blade). None have been anywhere near the scale of this offering, however. Starbase, undoubtedly, is Frozenbyte’s most ambitious project thus far, with development having started around 2014, before an announcement in 2019, and then Early Access release at the end of July 2021. It is a space MMO with a combination of a voxel/vertex-based aesthetic that Frozenbyte fully stresses is in alpha state at the time of review. After playing it for a while, I firmly believe it, oh dear.

At launch, the servers were incredibly unstable. I’m happy to say this situation is now much better; a few weeks after launch, it is easy to fire up the game and jump into a server. Of course, one must be mindful of if the servers go down for maintenance. You load the game up, pick an origin point out of a pre-selected set, and then spawn into a base as a robot with a series of tutorials. Fans of previous Frozenbyte games, unfortunately, will likely find this incredibly jarring to play. The nature of this game is quite a culture shock to anyone that has played their past offerings. The first thing you notice is there are many systems in the game, from building to dismantling ships, mining, and piloting ships. I’ve not played a game of this scale before, I will admit, so speaking from a newbie-oriented experience, it is incredibly daunting to learn everything, up to the point where I have to take screenshots, so I don’t forget the keybinds.

This is further compounded by the tutorials (and the game in general) not being as helpful as they could possibly be. An early tutorial mission required mining a bunch of material, and it was quite possibly one of the most frustrating experiences I had in this game or any other game for that matter. You have to locate asteroids in the asteroid belt to mine, but because the depth perception in this game is pretty awful and there are no helpful indicators to show how far away is the nearest asteroid finding asteroids to mine proved to be an unreasonable chore. When that’s all said and done, the next objective suddenly requires you to have amassed two specific types of ore. Oh, you didn’t get it during your first mining trip? Too bad. Go out and struggle through the microscopic dots on your screen to hopefully find the asteroid you need, and pray it isn’t the wrong type of ore.

A lot of the stuff that you need to learn to get around the game is all based on external resources, like the Starbase wiki, which increases my frustration with the user-friendliness even further. Fuel rods have to be obtained by some rather convoluted method and then replaced manually into your ship by yet another complicated method. This is not conveyed to you via the tutorials in-game, and it’s disheartening to make a lot of wasted trips to the asteroid belt, find nothing (because of the aforementioned asteroid location issues), then have to fly back to the station before you run out of fuel. Add to this what appears to be bugs of varying degrees (I, for one, am unable to get shop terminals, of all things, to appear, and I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing wrong or how even to buy something. Other players also report a plethora of ship-building issues, which I didn’t experience because I can’t get enough credits to build my own ship!) and I sometimes wonder if the struggle is genuinely worth it.

It is kind of a shame that Starbase is so inaccessible to newbies because otherwise the concept is excellent. The basic fundamentals of an MMO are there — space travel, economy system, acquiring materials, even combat. Most of which, unfortunately, I was not quite able to test. Space travel is as expected — long periods of traveling in your ship with nothing much happening for thousands of kilometers. Definitely not the kind of game you want to be playing if you have an absolute lack of patience and time. The economy system is neat: farm all the ores, sell them off quickly, or at the auction house where you can earn more credits. Combat…couldn’t find any. I had no weapons, I found pretty much no hostile players, and I wouldn’t like it anyway.

The choice of the voxel/vertex-based graphics is an interesting one, with a glorious amount of detail in the stations and the poly-style look from mining asteroids. It is especially impressive considering that Starbase is built on Frozenbyte’s custom engine (not the standard Unity or Unreal). It can handle a lot of things well enough, graphical-wise, with my RTX 2060 SUPER rendering things decently for the most part on the default settings, though there are some obvious points where the game stutters for a while, considering the ridiculous amount of things to render in the station. There’s also a somewhat ambient space-themed soundtrack that is mostly unobtrusive and nice to listen to, breaking up the whole ‘in space no one can hear you scream’ monotony (which is just as well because the text chats in-game at the station is strangely quiet).

Not just that, but Frozenbyte also has many content and features planned, all of which can be seen in their impressively large roadmap. With the game having sold a decent amount, it is likely to be around for the long haul to see out their vision, and I sorely hope that they also throw some improvements into everything.

Pros:

  • Vast scope and scale
  • Ambient and appropriately-themed soundtrack
  • Unique graphics style; sprawling station designs
  • Enormous roadmap of planned future features

Your mileage may vary:

  • Pricey buy-in

Cons:

  • Really, really early alpha state
  • Unstable
  • Incredibly daunting and frustrating for newbies
  • Requires an immense amount of patience

Starbase right now is in an unusual position of not having enough for space MMO veterans while at the same time being not easily accessible for newbies. On the one hand, it is rather pricey for what it contains ($34.99 on Steam and will further increase in price); on the other hand, there does not appear to be microtransactions, with the only possible (future) ones being purely cosmetic. Veterans could possibly give this a try at the current asking price.

Otherwise, I would strongly suggest that, if you aren’t particularly into this genre, wait for a year or two (as Starbase is planned to be in Early Access for at least that long) and check in on its development process later on, as it can be genuinely headache-inducing at times to play at the moment.