Factorio: Early Access Preview
(Based on Alpha version 0.12.29 of the game. Purchased though Factorio Website. Factorio is exclusive to the PC.)
I love Factorio. Maybe it’s my love for 2D top down games, or maybe it’s my love for the resource management genre, but something about Factorio really ticks all the right boxes for me.
Factorio is also a play experience I sometimes struggle to describe to my fellow games. Some people have likened it to Minecraft, but that’s a very poor comparison in my view. Any game where you have to mine raw resources is compared to Mojang’s juggernaut, whether that comparison is apt or not. Factorio actually has a lot more in common with old isometric city or base building games such as Sierra classics like the Caesar series and Pharaoh. A lot of its logistical elements, such as railway building, invoke Transport Tycoon games such as OpenTTD. I guess the closest touchstone in recent memory are Minecraft mods like Tekkit, or the various Techni-packs that are geared towards automation and producing large factories.
Building factory production lines is what Factorio is really all about. You start out with simple coal-powered machinery and gradually work your way into establishing a self-sustaining electrical grid, and working to automate the production of many of the games items and researching new technologies. Research is probably the activity that will take up most of your mid-game resources. It feels like you can never produce enough of the game’s science vials that unlock more and more advanced ways to process resources, automate your factory, or combat the game’s hostile aliens.
Factorio warns you that “you are not alone,” and this is certainly true. The premise of the game is you’ve crashed on an alien world and have to gather resources, but throughout all of this you will find yourself under attack by the native population who are understandably angry you’re pillaging and polluting their home. The more you pollute, the more the aliens respond to your hostile production methods.
Launching a satellite from a rocket is now the "endgame" of Factorio, but it’s designed more as a cut-off point for players who need an end goal to work towards rather than the be all and end all of the game play. Factorio features a lot emergent game play, and its story mode really just functions as a tutorial. As you destroy nests of giant alien bugs, and watch raiding parties crash like waves against your heavily armed polluting fortress, you can’t help but feel you might be the villain of this tale. Factorio has no heavy handed environmental message though, as all of this is told through the games basic systems. Which is very impressive all said.
Due to this alien threat, a good chunk of the research tree is dedicated to more and more efficient ways to kill aliens and defend yourself. The combat in the game is surprisingly satisfying, and adds a very basic RTS element to base defence -- laser turrets especially chew through aliens as a disturbing rate. Factorio also allows you to build driveable armoured buggies, and even eventually a tank. You can equip your character with power armor, and weapons such as a flamethrower, automatic shotgun, and defensive drones.
You’ll spend the rest of your time in Factorio building factories to more efficiently make other factories and investing in researching new technologies. Creating new and more efficient production lines is much better than hard-headedly trying to keep an old system as it is. Production increases on somewhat of an exponential curve; having better factories makes it easier to get more machines to gather more resources to make more factories, etc, etc. This instills a very rewarding positive feedback loop where some smart planning will make something that would have taken you hours further down the tech tree now take mere minutes.
Some of the late game heavy lifting is done by robotic drones, and your factory will be abuzz with these little guys transporting materials to where they are needed. They can even copy and paste sections of your factory if you give them a schematic and enough resources, but doing this is almost as resource intensive as building the rocket Silo. Automation and defence happen to be very well fleshed out in this build of the game.
There is something incredibly compelling about playing Factorio. I’m not one of those people who describes games as “addicting” -- I find the practice annoying and unhelpful -- but Factorio is a game that is difficult to put down. And it accomplishes this without any tricks or gimmicks. You simply get caught up in the game play and think “one more improvement. One more optimisation. I’ll just add another line to this factory,” then you look up and it’s been two days and your friends and family have reported you missing.
Okay that’s an exaggeration (I don't have friends), but I did dedicate two whole days of my downtime to Factorio, and it did eat the hours up without me really noticing. Time files when you’re having fun I suppose, and for those with an engineering bend to their brain Factorio is like chocolate coated crack. Fellow site contributor Mike called this game an “Autism simulator,” and if you take pleasure in obsessively focusing on a single activity boy will you have a good time here. Factorio’s brand of very involved management isn’t for all players, as this is a game that really requires you to think about how you play it with no handholding. You die? That’s it, reload your save because you don’t respawn. There is graciously the option to make aliens never attack first, but if you don’t understand the game’s systems you will be stuck in the equivalent of the stone age for eternity.
The game, whist offering a very well made experience even in this Alpha build, does feature some limitations. The most apparent of these is power generation, which you stop gaining options for pretty early on. You either have steam-engines or solar panels. That’s it. Factorio mercifully does offer a way to store power with the accumulator, but this is mostly to get around the problem of your solar generation not working at night. With the late game requiring ludicrous amounts of power, this lack of options can lead to comically over-sized solar farms, banks of accumulators, and lines and lines of coal consuming steam engines.
It feels weird that you can build an Iron Man style portable fusion reactor for your power armour, but not a static one for your base. With all the futuristic robotics and military elements, the power systems are firmly stuck in the 20th century. Future builds of the game are in need of more advanced power options, as well as wireless ways to transport power. But, as I said, this is an early access game and as an early access game it is remarkably expansive and stable. The game hasn’t crashed on me once, and handles a lot of busy elements without chugging or stuttering. The screen can be filled with a ludicrous amount of stuff and the game engine simply shrugs.
So what’s the main takeaway from my time with Factorio? It’s already more compelling, more complete, and gives the player a lot more credit than most other games on the market. If the developers continue on the trajectory they’ve set (and don’t fuck the game up somehow) I can see Factorio becoming a beloved classic for enthusiasts of this genre.
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