You know what’s kept me from playing nearly all the base building games out there? Early Access. Whilst I think the concept is good in principle there are far, far too many games that stay in it basically forever leaving reviewers like me, ones who prefer to play a game when it’s whole lest we get cries of “But it’s not even released yet!”, somewhat in the lurch. I have, of course, broken my rule on this from time to time (indeed the next review is very much in that vein) but more often than not I come away feeling like I probably should’ve waited longer. This isn’t the case with Hydroneer though, I’m kinda glad I played it now as it means I won’t waste any of future-me’s time on it because it’s honestly pretty terrible.
The premise is much like any of your other base-buildy kind of games: there’s a resource for you to mine which lets you buy better tools to mine more of that resource which gives you blah blah blah you get the idea. Hydroneer’s claim to fame is that it’s a kind of Minecraft hybrid with some automation stuff thrown in for good measure along with a bunch of ancillary mechanics which you can use to great effect if you’re so inclined. Like most of these games the simulation and base building aspects have come first with no story or anything really driving the game forward. Indeed the game doesn’t even give you the courtesy of a tutorial, instead flipping you out to YouTube to watch the developer give a high level overview of things before setting you free on your own. I get it, Early Access and what have you, but it would be nice to have something of a nudge in the right direction without bouncing out of the game every 10 minutes to look at what’s next or how things are supposed to work.
The graphics are simple in all respects, including the animations which are quite obviously hand done or simply left up to the physics engine to figure out. Strangely it’s not a Unity game, it comes to us via Unreal 4 although you wouldn’t really know it by looking at it given how simple everything is. There are some modern effects splashed around but it’s clear that art is secondary to the game’s main goal of digging, scrubbing and then selling whatever you dredge up to a unmanned table up in the nearest town. Of course this is probably deliberate as well given how these simulation games can get wildly out of hand as you build out bigger and better automations. I never got that far though so I can’t comment if it’s a problem or not.
You see for whatever reason the game has decided to opt out of having an inventory system, instead just letting you throw all your stuff over the floor like an animal. Worse still this also means carting all your shit that you’ve bought around everywhere, making even the smallest setups a right pain in the ass to get going. Sure, you can use the tractor or whatever it is to move bits and pieces around but you still have to go to it, pick that thing up, put it in its destination and then go back and do that all over again for every single item that you’ll need. Given that you’re going to need quite a few of these things to get even the simplest automation setup going just playing the game itself becomes quite the chore.
Worse still even getting to that point is a right pain in the ass as you have to mine up all your cash manually to begin with which takes way too long to do. You see the rudimentary steps are: dig dirt, put dirt in pail, dump dirt from pail into pan, dunk pail in water, scrub dirt, hope for something to pop out, repeat. Sure you can get a bit quicker at it over time but it’ll still take you a good few hours of doing that to get some basic bits and pieces up and even that won’t fully automate everything. There’s also the problem of the world not using a grid system or something similar which makes placing things a right chore as you have to keep moving them about to get them all properly lined up.
I honestly thought that it was just this style of game and that this was par for the course given that the game was seeing mostly positive reviews on Steam. However after playing another game in this genre I can say it’s definitely not and even slapping the Early Access asterisk on it doesn’t wash away all its sins. The game would have to be significantly redeveloped and streamlined for me to ever consider going back to it as in its current form it’s just a chore with no real redeeming features whatsoever. I can see why some enjoy it of course, it’s the same reason I used to play a ton of Call of Duty: to turn my brain off for a period of time. For me though this doesn’t do it; I just feel like I’m not getting anywhere fast and I can’t wait to stop playing.
Hydroneer is the kind of game I stay away from because they do nothing but annoy me. I can get that making you work for something makes it all worth it when you finally get the thing but there’s a difference between meaningful work and tedium. Did I perhaps get into the game too early? It’s quite possible but that’s always the problem with Early Access, when is the best time to play them? Some say it’s right at the start so you can follow the journey, others will say at some pivotal content drop whilst others, like me, usually prefer to wait until it’s fully baked. Maybe things could’ve been different between us Hydroneer, we’ll never know as what I saw from you left me wanting and I don’t think I’ll ever be back.
Hydroneer is available on PC right now for $14.50. Total play time was 84 minutes.