Better games than Cosmonautica have struggled with how to make commutes interesting. Flying across the reaches of empty space, which is pretty much what spaceships do, isn’t really a good thing to make a game about. Because what are you going to do when you’re not having a space battle? The same thing you do on a car trip? Listen to podcasts or books on tape? Chat with your buddy? Play “I Spy” with your kids? Zone out? Zone out is the answer provided by most games about flying through space.
Unfortunately, Cosmonautica doesn’t have a good answer, so zone out it is. Hit the fast forward button and wait. It didn’t seem like it was going to be that way when you first started Cosmonautica. You thought you would have a role to play when you first watched your crew scurry about in that precious cutaway view of your ship. Maybe you’d have to coordinate your crew the way you coordinate sims. But no such luck. They take care of themselves entirely. You’re just a spectator in a game where there’s nothing interesting to see. Just zone out until you get to the next space station.
After the jump, we’re still not there yet.
To its credit, Cosmonautica makes a great first impression. Here you are with your brand new ship and your brand new crew and a brand new galaxy, ready for your very own personal star trek. These are the voyages of the starship whatever this thing is called. The Thunamon? Where do I rename my ship? Okay, let’s go live the life cosmonautica with this adorable cutaway view, where I can see my crew do stuff like piloting, science, eating, sleeping, and, uh, “taking a dump”? Really? This is going to be that kind of game?
Wait, why is my captain “taking a dump” in her bunkbed?
Sometimes my crew does
Like many indie games with long early access periods, Cosmonautica can’t be bothered to teach you how to play. You should just know already. You have to figure out that hot bunking is the norm in space. You have to figure out that any efficient spaceship has two (2!) pilots in order to get where it’s going faster. Have fun figuring out the combat, in which you suddenly have a lot of finicky stuff to do. That’s the thing with space, with the divide between travel and combat. Long stretches of boredom interspersed by brief intense periods of confusion.
Why is my captain still “taking a dump” in her bunkbed? Which isn’t just her bunkbed. Sorry, ship janitor. You have to sleep here next. Oh, look, a random event.
I guess there are decisions to make in deep space.
Perhaps the most damning thing about Cosmonautica is that the bugs don’t make much difference. There’s really no meaningful challenge here and even less meaningful interaction among the systems. You’re just flying back and forth making money. The only way to screw up is to pay your crew more than you’re making. Which is possible. If you keep promoting them, which increases their salaries, you might find that you’ve outstripped the income you’re making doing inconsequential missions or buying and selling goods, which is simultaneously easy and a pain in the ass.
The gameplay is gated by research. You have to learn new ships components before you buy them and new places to fly before you fly there. But instead of researching specific ship components, you’re researching technologies common to several of them. To unlock a particular room or weapon, research all its components, which gets you a good bit of the way to other rooms and components. Not that it matters too much. This will all happen eventually. Like the flight to whatever space station you’re going to next, it’s just a matter of me zoning out until it happens.
The orbiting planets intersecting with the long curving trajectories of your spaceship on its intercept course is another nice touch that really doesn’t add much. I guess I can appreciate a game that tries to simulate the shifting layout of a solar system. Today’s two day trip is tomorrow’s five day trip. Realism! Annoying, but still. Realism! Why not throw your space commute a little Kerbal?
Crew management is pretty much non-existent after the act of hiring someone. He or she goes about her business. Maybe she gets sick and slacks off for a bit. Maybe she needs to workout at a gym, but you don’t have room for a gym on your ship yet because you’re still slogging through trading until you can afford a bigger ship. So you let the clock run while you’re docked because there’s a gym at every space station. There’s actually an everything at every space station. Just hang fire while your crew meets their needs, much like you hang fire while your ship gets where it’s going. The worst case scenario is that someone gives you plenty of warning he’s going to leave and then he leaves and you replace him at the next space station.
It all comes down to one burning question I have while I’m waiting for stuff to happen in Cosmonautica: why aren’t I just playing Space Colony?
Firefly’s classic (yes, I said classic!) sci-fi Sims-a-like has a similar sense of humor, more direct interaction with the characters, far more variety, interesting resource management, plenty of actual challenge, and even more sci-fi flavoring. You just have to resign yourself to a top-down isometric view of planetside gameplay instead of that fantastic Life Cosmonautica cutaway view of your spaceship. Furthermore Space Colony, which is superbly documented, does not have characters who take a dump in their beds. It’s currently available on Steam.