Moonbase Alpha

In partnership with NASA, Virtual Heroes has created a streamlined simulation and serious game which recently saw release on Steam under the title Moonbase Alpha.  Clearly part of a marketing campaign, Moonbase Alpha comes to us free of charge and endeavors to enthuse and educate gamers about the space program, albeit in a fictionalized future setting.
In ‘Moonbase Alpha’, players will step into the role of an exploration team member and will be immersed in a futuristic 3D lunar settlement. Their mission is to restore critical systems and oxygen flow after a nearby meteor strike cripples a solar array and life support equipment. Available resources include an interactive command center, a lunar rover, mobile robotic repair units and a fully stocked equipment shed. [via]
While the game lacks a proper tutorial, mechanics and objectives are rather easy to pick up within the first play-through of the mission.  A couple more tries, and further tricks to speed up the repair process can be learned, like the sequence of items to transport and repair.  As described above however, this is very much a multi-player oriented title.  While the first mission is supposed to be doable for 1-2 players, trying to get through it solo I found to be impossible within the 25 minute time limit.  Could be that someone more skilled out there might manage to do so, but I could not even get close.

Moonbase Alpha was quite enjoyable for me, with an attractive and clean interface, and the aforementioned ease of learning its mechanics.  Nothing jumped out at me as a glaring flaw right off the bat, yet a few minor issues did nag me after a little while.  As an artist and graphics professional I have this little peeve about skyboxes in games.  Here in particular it is glaringly obvious that the skybox could benefit from a little more love.  It is understandable that NASA probably wanted it to be realistic, but looking at the myriad of photographs they make available online I cannot help but think that there are other realistic options.

My other point of contention in Moonbase Alpha is the welding mini-game.  It feels very much like an afterthought that just did not see enough development time.  Taking a casual game mechanic and throwing it into a larger project has been done before, Bioshock's hacking mini-game comes to mind as a successful example, and doing so should at least be executed properly.  When it first came up during a repair I was rather surprised by it and had no idea what I was supposed to do.  That lack of warning, particularly given the time-sensitive nature of the mini-game, is the primary problem with it.

In terms of the overall enjoyment of playing Moonbase Alpha, the flaws I point out are probably not very significant.  Which is to say that the game is rather fun and more so in multi-player.  What does get in the way of overall enjoyment in the long run is the lack of replay value.  This is a game that I find to be interesting for a few missions only, after which it quickly becomes repetitive.  There is, after all, only one actual mission.  As such, Moonbase Alpha is a refreshing but short-lived sim that is worth its price.  I would recommend picking it up for something new to play, as a diversion, or for those of us who are busy and don't have long hours to devote to gaming.

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