Unfinished Business is NME’s new column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access Games. This week, Rick Lane gets to be a space caveman.
Icarus is the new survival game from Dean ‘Rocket’ Hall, creator of the uncompromising zombie survival mod DayZ, and one of the most influential developers of the last decade. DayZ‘s player-driven survival sandbox, where you had to gather equipment from the ruined towns of a post-apocalyptic Eastern European country, all while avoiding zombies and unpredictable rival players, paved the way for the battle royale genre and some of the industry’s biggest games. Without DayZ there would be no PUBG, no Fortnite, and no Apex Legends.
I’ll say now that I’ll eat the hat I made out of a deer skull and rabbit guts should Icarus ever prove to be similarly groundbreaking. RocketWerkz‘s game has an interesting premise and is at launch more polished than DayZ ever was, although that isn’t exactly hard. But as a survival game it seems committed to being as uninteresting as it possibly can. It’s aesthetically uninspired, mechanically conservative, and seems downright uncertain about what kind of game it wants to be.
It also fundamentally doesn’t make much sense. The story is that you’re an interstellar pioneer committed to exploring the planet Icarus. Once considered a candidate for a new home for humanity, Icarus was abandoned after terraforming efforts went wrong. Abandoned for many years, interest has resurged in Icarus after exotic matter was discovered on its surface, and now teams of explorers are racing to colonise its hostile alien wilderness.
This is all well and good. What makes less sense is why said explorers descend to the planet’s surface without bringing so much as a penknife with them. While the planet Icarus is a large open world with many different biomes, the game itself is split into missions, each of which commences with you landing on the planet via a drop-pod. A drop-pod which your character presumably had to rush to catch, because apart from the EVA-suit they wear to protect them from the planet’s hostile atmosphere, they bring no other equipment with them.
From here, Icarus plots a familiar survivalist course, a mixture of resource-gathering, crafting, base-building, and hunting animals for food. All of this functions well enough. Mining stone and chopping down trees feels physical and satisfying, while sneaking through the brush as you hunt animals with spears and a bow-and-arrow is quietly thrilling. I also like how every action you do provides XP for levelling up, although it does mean that initially the quickest way to gain XP is to spam chopping down trees like you’re the President of Brazil.
Nonetheless, I found it hard to get past the fact that you’re playing as a spaceman while wielding prehistoric equipment. Your employers are clearly able to provide you with high-tech gear – the second mission involves scouting out locations with a ground-to-satellite radar. But apparently furnishing their scouts with a gun or a tent or a fucking cigarette lighter is beyond their purview. There’s something about Icarus‘ fiction here that simply doesn’t add up, and I found the gap in the logic difficult to bridge.
There are other issues too. The game’s ‘session-based’ concept seems fundamentally at odds with its system design and cooperative focus. The fact that all your progress, equipment, structures and so on are lost when you finish your objectives and leave the planet might seem like a good way to reset the game’s feedback loop, but one of the big draws of games like these is making the world your own – especially when you’re playing with friends and build something together. There is a separate area where built structures are permanent, but it’s far more limited in scope than the main game.
I think the biggest problem, though, is that Icarus‘ dearth of imagination, at least in the early game. While chopping down trees with a stone axe, as I’ve done before in Rust and The Forest and countless other survival games, my mind couldn’t help but drift toward Subnautica, another sci-fi survival sim that uses that premise to deliver a fundamentally different experience. Subnautica‘s alien world is truly alien, an aquatic planet where the biomes, creatures, resources, structures, vehicles and tech-trees are entirely removed from most other survival sims. It bakes mystery and discovery into every facet of its design, and this makes exploring and exploiting the world and its resources thrilling from the off.
There may well be stranger stuff lurking in Icarus‘ later game, weird alien species and more ambitious tech. But I’m not sure I want to spend 40 hours hunting rabbits with a bow and arrow to see it. What could have been a multiplayer Subnautica instead feels like Ark without the dinosaurs, or Rust without the sociopaths. Right now, Icarus is precisely the opposite of its namesake, safe, unambitious, and unable to fly.
Icarus is available to download on Steam.
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