In the near future, mankind has exhausted Earth of its natural resources, leading to pollution, overpopulation, corruption and wars. Invention of a hyperdrive allows interstellar travel and with it comes hope to find a new home among stars. An expedition mission, project Genesis, is sent to Alpha One quadrant to terraform a habitable planet. Genesis Alpha One by German indie developer Radiation Blue and published by Team17 covers the star trek to a place where our DNA can prosper once again. Mostly on-board an extensible starship, the game is a mix of resource management and 1st person shooter that almost downplays its most exciting aspects.
At the start of the expedition, players choose their corporation to sponsor the trek and the starting crew, and then builds the basis of the starship from the basic modules available at the beginning. The ship you can name yourself is a network of cross-functional modules that all need each other. For example, you need a refinery to process raw material you have harvested from planets that first must be stored in a deposit. New crew members can be created in a clone lab but that needs building more living quarters and greenrooms to produce a suitable biosphere to support increasing life on-board. And so forth.
Soon, you need to expand facilities and for that you need to harvest more building materials. Tractor beam can suck usable resources from debris floating in a star system you’re currently in but to really get the expedition flying, you have to brave planet surfaces with an away team to gather not only raw ore but also plants, DNA samples and biomass from hostile aliens and scan scarce planetary sites for new schematics for weapons and ship modules and for tips about points of interest in star systems.
The harvester is sent on planets, either automated with an AI crew or you, the captain, joining the away team. And why not, because if you leave all the systems running at your crew’s hands, there’s not much to do apart from strolling around and checking everything’s functioning. You can also speed up different processes by typing away at the consoles at each module. Should the captain get killed on duty, he or she will be replaced, rather unglamorously, by another crew member. And when they run out, it’s a blunt game over. There’s only one auto-save slot so you can’t exploit reloading to escape crappy situations. On each new playthrough, Alpha One is randomly generated so there’s no need to keep notes or a star chart.
The game gives only a hazy goal of finding a suitable planet for Genesis and it doesn’t exactly feed information about how all things work. So, playing the tutorial is pretty mandatory but it fast-forwards things at such a pace you can’t keep up with it until it all ends in a disaster. Aliens carried on a tractor beam to the starship had spread all over the place and chewed away whole modules and it just happens you were inside one and got sucked into space. The first hours of real expedition are spent on learning the ropes; how the cause and effect works between all the departments and how to lay out your starship so that you won’t build accidental dead-ends that would mean deconstructing parts, resulting a loss of precious materials.
The expedition advances in baby steps, mainly after resources you need to expand the ship and its facilities, until you get a clue from a planetary dig site about a possible Genesis planet and start making your way there, sector by sector, system by system. If you play well and keep things strictly under control, there’s not much chances anything unexpected happening. In addition to placing gun turrets in the crucial areas, you want to watch yourself the tractor beam room and shoot all unwanted visitors before they slip under floor structures. There can be long spells when nothing interesting happens, so even a sudden appearance of alien fungi is more exciting than it should be.
Everything in the game takes so much time. I had collected enough DNA samples to create a new humanoid lifeform to join the crew (an insectoid species) but my biosphere lacked crucial compound the new race would need to able to live on-board. It took a week’s worth of playing and visiting countless planets until I finally found a plant that provided the needed compound. When it was planted to the safety of a greenhouse, it felt like a huge achievement! Then it probably takes another week of playing for something as sufficient happening again. In principle, Genesis Alpha One has exciting concepts at play, such as creating new humanoid lifeforms, but the game treats them with trivial torpor.
However, in all this long-winded and solemn progress, even slightest mistake can cost the whole expedition. When shit hits the fan, it hits it real fast. It was classified as a high danger planet, sure, but I landed it anyway. Seeing rich resources all over the place, I got blinded and aimed mining beam at node after node. The place was crawling with hostile, clumping humanoids but I thought I can keep them at bay. Harvester’s automatic turrets and two other crew members were busy shooting at aliens while I was still stupidly harvesting ore. When I finally decided to run back to the harvester, it was too late. Aliens rushed inside in numbers, killed my captain and those two unfortunate souls who got promoted for a few remaining seconds of their lives. The harvester automatically returned to the starship, loaded with all the resources I had greedily scraped together, but it wasn’t entirely devoid of life. What happened next was all over in a few minutes. The invading aliens killed everyone on-board until I was staring at the game over screen and an evaluation of my journey. Two week’s expedition got sucked into cold void of space. There never was an episode in Star Trek where Kirk and co. would get killed for good due to one careless act - and boy did they do them a lot in the original series!
There’s German pragmatism in how the game works and looks. Scientific paths have been streamlined so you don’t need a high degree in physics to manage a spaceship. Of course, it leads to some inconsistencies when the game’s own logic doesn’t add up. When everything else takes time - from unloading the harvester to materials being carried to the deposit and then to the refinery - modules you decide to build appear instantly. Who builds them in the middle of space? There are only a few crew members around and they’re busy at their work stations. Maybe there’s some nanotechnology thing going on but the game doesn’t bother explaining it.
Genesis Alpha One owes a lot to its visual design to keep player’s attention up even at the most mundane moments. Ship designs have a nice retro-futuristic look reminiscent of 70’s sci-fi movies. For example, the game’s greenhouse modules are lifted straight from the cult classic Silent Running (1972). Bonus points for Commodore 64 among exhibition items in the gallery module! Luminous lighting effects make the planetary visits more exciting than they really are while monotonous electronic music beats in the background like in a European disco, until it suddenly escalates to alert about events on-board.
The game works within its microverse but it has a tendency to get locked up in its gameplay loop. When nothing is happening apart from routinely harvesting ore, it takes persistence to keep the expedition going on. I can imagine a real space travel Genesis Alpha One portrays in its video game terms being rather uneventful. Heck, you wouldn’t even want anything unexpected happening but being safe and sound even at the risk of getting bored. So, as odd as it may sound, uneventfulness is the game’s biggest virtue. Otherwise, you’d be desperately running and gunning around corridors until you run out of ammunition and crew members and start your trek all over again.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.