Factorio: Early Access Preview

Factorio Header

(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.

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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.

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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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John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.