Matt Damon ate poop potatoes to survive. Nick built a world. Nick wins.

Early Access Preview: Factorio

You’ve crash landed on a strange planet and need a plan to survive. There’s a couple different ways you can go. There’s the Mark Watney way—eking out an existence thanks to potatoes fertilized by your own feces. Alternatively, you could build a massive, sprawling, and fully interconnected factory complex using your off-the-charts engineering know how. Which do you choose?

If the giant-factory plan sounds awesome to you, you may enjoy Factorio. Factorio is a base-building resource-management game that was released on Steam early-access about a year ago. You start out as that crash-landed survivor with little more than a pickaxe and sidearm. You’ll gather resources by hand and craft some stone furnaces to smelt iron, running back and forth between coal and iron ore deposits, trees, and other natural resources. Things get better, however, and you will quickly graduate to automation like conveyer belts, storage containers, and robotic arms.

Continual advancement is central to the game and Factorio features a huge technology tree that you can research.

Fueling research guarantees your ascent to greater and greater levels of technological prowess and industrial power, which will give you a better chance to survive. Research requires two things—time and science packs. There are four different science packs represented by beakers filled with different colored liquids. Science packs, like everything else in the game, have a recipe. Science pack 1, for example, is pretty easy. You need a sheet of copper, an iron gear, and five seconds time for your research station to do its thing.

Before you can research, however, you need to gather the ingredients and transport them to the research station. The iron gear must first be fashioned at an assembling machine from an iron sheet. The iron sheet has to be created from iron ore in a furnace. The iron ore must be mined by either an electric or coal-fueled mining drill. You get the idea. The more advanced the item or component the more lengthily is the process to create it.

The trick of Factorio becomes how best to create and organize assembly lines that mine resources, refine them into usable materials, convert those into various intermediate products, which then can be turned into the necessary science packs to research ways to improve the factory. I cobbled together systems that got the job done, but showed their flaws—and my inexperience—as the game advanced. The second trick of Factorio is re-engineering your factory layout as you figure out better ways to do things, without shutting everything down.

Another big part of the game is how you power your factory. You start out with coal—and some serious deforestation to run your coal mining machines—before moving on to steam and oil. Solar power is available further down the technology tree and saves quite a bit of effort, not to mention pollution. The developers are currently working on an update to add nuclear energy to the mix as well, complete with uranium to mine and centrifuges to spin.

From hell’s heart I stab at thee!

At first, your factory is not going to be environmentally friendly. You know what else isn’t friendly? Native critters that take umbrage at what you’re doing to their planet. Their manner of protest is similar to my kids’ when the iPad gets taken away: attack everything. At first being attacked is frustrating. I’d be looking at a recipe to build something new and thinking, “Ok, I need two of these and one of those but to make that I first need to…OH DEAR GOD ITS GOT MY LEG HOW DO I GET OUT OF THIS MENU….WHAT BUTTON WAS IT TO SHOOT AGAIN….AHHHH, AHHHHHHHH!”

It’s a bit jarring, even if you’re coming from Minecraft where things are always trying to get you in the middle of a construction project. These suckers move fast. Sometimes too fast for someone with a slow trigger finger and a mind mired deep in its latest engineering project. Incursions get much easier with some practice, and by “practice” I mean learning to build submachine guns and turrets. There’s also an option via custom games where natives won’t attack unless you attack first, which is perfect for creative purists who don’t need the threat of evisceration intermixed with their complex simulation games.

And complex it is. There is a whole lot going on in Factorio and if you play you should be prepared to do some research. It isn’t difficult once you get the hang of it but it is far from intuitive. I play with the game’s wiki up on my iPad to help with ascending the learning curve. This is to be expected to a large extent in a game like this, and the developers are working on resources for new players. The game is still in early-access after all.

Factorio offers a few different ways to play. There are a couple campaigns where you start out in a relatively advanced position and are given a goal such as reaching a fellow survivor some distance away. The obvious direction is to research your way toward vehicles to cover the distance more quickly, but there are logistical and defensive demands that must be met to get there. The goal of the campaigns are to serve as an extended tutorial and introduce more of the concepts of Factorio.

Don’t forget to take your respirator.

I started out in a campaign but soon abandoned it. I really wanted to start from scratch and build my own factory. This is done with a custom game in free-play mode. You get to generate your own map and can set a lot of different variables including the frequency, size, and richness of the various natural resources and enemy bases. You still have a goal—build a rocket and launch a satellite into space. This is a very long-term goal, however, and will take a great many hours to achieve.

Finally, there is a multiplayer mode where you can build co-operative factories. You can also visit the factory of a friend and take a look around. I haven’t tried multiplayer and the developers have said it is still in the early stages. They intend to make it more user-friendly in the future.

I’m really enjoying Factorio and am impressed with the depth of gameplay and options for factory building. The game is already quite stable and full-featured for what the developers are still calling an alpha version. If you’ve ever lost hours of your life to games like SimCity, Factorio is for you. It has that similar I-just-want-to-finish-this-one-more-thing feel and, next thing you know, it’s two in the morning and you realize you’ve had to pee since about midnight but can’t pull yourself away. That’s not just me, right? [Just don’t tell us about your poopsock -ed.] This game is also for those of you who play Minecraft to exercise your creativity and release your inner-architect, especially if you’re really into all of the redstone shenanigans.

Factorio is $20 on Steam or GoG and will work on your Mac or Windows machine. There’s also a free demo if you want to try before you buy. Proceed with caution if you are prone to getting sucked into awesome simulator games and also averse to seeing conveyer belts in your sleep.

Notable Replies

    1. I am 100% against paying for Early Access
    2. Factorio and Rimworld were two of my top 5 games for 2016
    3. Statement 1 above, might be alternative truth
  1. Nick says:

    Rimworld is on my list too.

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