The Sandbox

One of my favorite time wasters is a quaint Flash game called Hell of Sand. A simple thing, the game - if you could call it that - was a black space marked by four infinitely spilling columns of water, oil, salt and sand. Armed with a unique set of elements, the screen ultimately becomes a space to create, to create designs that would disrupt the flow of the four elements, to see how they react as ramps and hills guided, pooled and spilled sand and fluids across the screen. Hell of Sand is always a great treat for the brain, an opportunity to briefly rest and recharge in between work projects and other obligations. The Sandbox operates on the same premise and principle of Hell of Sand but on a much larger and intelligent scale. Equipped with a staggering toolset made up of various mechanics, elements, gizmos and other whats-its, the game offers a level of complexity and creative potential I have yet to see in any open world sandbox game before it.

The Sandbox isn’t a “game” in the traditional sense but rather a creative platform. Armed with practically any element or tool you could possibly imagine, the goal of the experience is to just create something, be it from mammoth active volcanoes or lush, serene forests. Making stuff is fun but I find destruction just as entertaining and The Sandbox offers a lovely collection of devastating implements such as meteors, lava, and dynamite. You can even command an army of deadly, vengeful robots or hungry zombies that will attack anything that moves.

An unstructured Create mode is available right from the start though new players are encouraged to play through the game’s campaigns in order to develop a firm understanding of what makes things tick in The Sandbox. Beyond unlocking new things to play with, the purpose of each campaign is to demonstrate how elements work together to make something new or affect some sort of change. The campaigns in The Sandbox are a journey through the sciences - chemistry, basic electronics, meteorology and, of all things, the water cycle. You cannot expect to drop something into the world and expect it to work without putting together the correct technology. For example, let’s say you want to create a lighthouse. You will have to build the lighthouse from the ground up as there are no pre-fabricated versions tucked away in the inventory. Using the Wall element, you’ll shape the design of the lighthouse before filling it in with the necessary wiring, lightbulbs and power supply before throwing an electrical current into the works. This is just one of many, many examples in which your creations are governed by order. Want to create a lightning? Make sure the world temperature is normal before using steam to create rain clouds. Pass an electric current through the clouds and you’ll have yourself a happy little storm.

The Sandbox is bursting at the seams with genuinely fantastic elements that open the floodgates for some pretty amazing and advanced creations. Variety is the biggest draw in The Sandbox. The campaigns make the experience feel less of a game and more like a fun, interactive science lesson. If I had this sort of software running in my elementary school’s computer lab instead of The Oregon Trail, I might have been a better student.

Each stage in the game’s seven campaigns are designed to impart a detailed knowledge of what can power your Rube Goldberg-style civilizations. Completing a stage rewards Mana which acts as the game’s currency and primary means to unlock objects, items and elements in Create mode. Most of the tasks set upon you are quite elementary and require little brainpower to solve. Others prove to be considerable mind teasers. In the Contraptions campaign, where the emphasis of each stage is create a better understanding of electronics and wiring, I had a difficult time getting my mind around the tasks asked of me. This is where the game’s hint system comes into play. Up to three hints can be unlocked using a miniscule amount of Mana, each offering clues of varying strength - just like an adventure game. The first two hints are usually broad enough to shed some insight on the task at hand without spoiling the solution outright. There have been a few instances where these hints have been too vague and made the task all the more obtuse. Should you get really stuck, you are allowed to skip the stage with mild admonishment from the game’s god-like mascot.

The Sandbox employs a retro, pixelated style that doesn’t quite work on the PC platform. The game originally saw life as a mobile game for phones and tablets and the smaller display does better service to the visuals. Blown up to fill my 17” monitor, however, the artwork loses clarity and ends up looking muddled and rather ugly. Windowed Mode used to be helpful until an update made that option mysteriously disappear (or put it in a nonsensical place). The Create mode received the HD treatment specifically for the PC release and the visual are noticeably clearer and refined. Its a shame this couldn’t be extended to the campaigns.  The game is currently in Early Access, so it is possible this could change in the future (I hope so!).

The Sandbox is not exactly a game. It is a space that allows players to use their imagination to create great things. With so many creative tools available, The Sandbox aims to foster a rich, active community replete with a library of the best user creations. Be it artwork, puzzles or games, the developers encourage people to submit their work to the community where the best will be placed within a special User Submission campaign. The workspace and dimensions may be smaller than most games of this genre, but the sheer number of available tools is second to none.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.