the artistry and psychology of gaming


Moonbase Alpha

Moonbase Alpha

Welcome to Gaming on the House; don’t look down and and mind your step! Each week, we’ll be climbing the rooftops of the gaming industry to seek out great experiences that everyone can track down and play, and the best part is they’ll all be free! That’s right; FREE! Gratis. Comp’d. Unbound. Unrestricted. Zero-down. On the House!… we talk about free games here, is my point.

Many may be surprised at how many fantastic games are really out there that everyone can legally enjoy with no monetary commitment. Taking together all the flash and browser games, freeware downloads from the independent scene, speed programming archives, free-to-play business modules, and even promotional re-releases from big name publishers, there’s a never ending supply of great games new and old waiting to be played, and it’s our goal to play them all! So, if you’re strapped for cash or just waiting around for that next big release to hit retail, why not give these games a try? After all, they’re free; what have you got to lose!

August 2012 is the final month of NASA’s Year of the Solar System, a public outreach initiative that first began in October 2010 (lasting one Martian Year in full). Each month, YSS has offered a new theme for educational projects, and to celebrate the successful completion of the program, Gaming on the House will be joining in on its final recorded theme “Discovering New Worlds,” focusing on freeware games that look to the stars, and warm the hearts of explorers everywhere, starting with one of NASA’s own!

Moonbase Alpha

Welcome to the Shackleton Crater!

Genre: Lunar Colony Simulator
Link to Game:
Game Info: Developed by The Army Game Studio and Virtual Heroes through the collaboration between NASA and the Army’s Aviation Missile Research Development and Engineering Center using the Unreal 3 Engine and released in July 2010 on steam

The last recorded footsteps on the surface of the moon are from December 13th, 1972, made by the crewmembers of Apollo 17 during their third and final moonwalk before launching back into orbit the following day. Upon entering the Lunar Module, Mission Commander Eugene Cernan (the last man on the moon) is credited with saying the following:

“I’m on the surface; and, as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.” 

That “return” the Commander spoke of may still be a ways off in reality, however the moon has been revisited many times since then in movies, literature, and of course in video games, albeit with a penchant for innaccuracies and sensationalism. To counter this, NASA has offered its own interactive experience on the lunar surface, coupled with accurate moonscapes (who better than the actual group that’s been there?!), factual technologies, and theoretical constructs that are conceptually logical and perceivable for an experience that’s as close to reality as a lunar colony could truly become. With Moonbase Alpha, everyone can enjoy the surface of the moon for free. Contrary to what Dennis Hope or Mary Bailey would have you believe, the moon belongs to everyone, so kudos to NASA for releasing the game for all to enjoy.

Moonbase Alpha takes place in the year 2025, where humans have returned to the moon and have created a small outpost on the moon’s south pole. Following a recent meteor strike, it is your job to provide repairs in order to restore the flow of oxygen (one of those “yeah, we kinda need that” components of space travel) to the living quarters. In 25 minute rounds of single or multiplayer (up to 6 at once), you will move around the surface of the moon utilizing power couplings, wrenches, welders, robots, and even a lunar rover to get the job done as quickly as possible (hey, your own suit’s got its own oxygen meter after all!). If timing constraints bother you (or if you want to just play around on the moon for a while) freeplay mode is available as well, which removes the countdown to have the base saved at your leisure (admittedly not as realistic, but a welcome feature nonetheless).

The Primary tool at your disposal is the welder, which provides repairs to each of the broken components. Once you have a welder in hand, you can walk up to a broken part of the base to initiate a timed sequence for repairing, based on how broken that particular part is. Broken parts are color coded for damage; yellow is minimal, orange is medium, and red is heavy damage taking the longest amount of time to repair. Shaving seconds off the repair times is a welding minigame of sorts, where you need to connect lines on a pop-in panel without touching the sides (a bit like “Operation”). The minigame varies in difficulty and is one of the biggest competetive aspects of the game, as it is one of the largest factors to completing the levels with reduced times.

The second tool you wield yourself is the wrench, which while not as frequently used as the welder, it will be required at least once, and possibly more, depending on your strategy. Instead of repairing broken parts, you also have the option of replacing them with new ones, using the wrench to pull the broken part off and add the new one on; not a bad option if you have many parts that have sustained heavy damage. At some point, the game does throw a curve ball at you by having some parts go critical, to which you will need to repair them quickly, or face having to backtrack to remove and replace them, and if that’s the case, the wrench will be required yet again.

Self-sustaining space station my foot…

Sensible to the flow of the game, but frustrating nonetheless, is the fact that you can’t carry more than one thing at once. Despite the fact that you have two capable hands, you won’t wield the wrench and welder (alliteration unintended) at the same time, and you can’t carry the a replacement part and the wrench at once either. While mostly a non-issue, as it certainly aids in furthering multiplayer strategies, it can be frustrating in single player; the above mentioned part replacement for example would involve disconnecting the old part, dropping the wrench, carrying over the replacement, dropping the replacement, connecting the replacement, picking up the wrench, and locking everything in place; quite the ordeal if you ask me.

Parts and all tools are located in the supply shed, however there are also tool boxes to be found and set up around the map; these boxes can be used for quicker access to suit inventory changes without needing to backtrack. Further aiding in your capable reach is your lunar rover, which can be used to transport you, a teammate, and some supplies across large distances on the map in quicker times than if you were to moonwalk over there.

Perhaps the most enjoyable addition to the game are the robots to control manually, which come in two varieties (welder and arm, substituting for the human tools), and travel at faster speeds. Robots can also go in places deemed hazardous for humans (near the coolant leaks at the life support system) to repair when necessary. Balancing out human and robot gameplay, however, is that they have limited range (if they get too far away from where you set up your controls they will become inoperable), don’t turn as easily, and can not jump over hoses, requiring less direct routes to certain damaged parts.

Robots are adorable

While any single action (outside of the harder welding minigame panels) does not pose a significant challenge to the player, it is the combination of these actions that require the development of strategies to overcome in the most effective ways possible. Through coordination and an understanding of the resources at your disposal, your team of astronauts can successfully restore power in an impressive amount of time, which is perhaps why the game has remained so successful on Steam. Leaderboards and multiplayer capabilities associated with the distribution service have given the relatively slow-paced game a competitive edge that otherwise would not have earned the same success as if NASA published the game on its own, so it was a great move to launch the game in a place where an audience had already been established.

The game itself is not without its additional developmental merits. Visually, the game looks clean, making good use of the Unreal 3 engine. Mechanical aspects also have their clever moments: the rover, for example, runs on solar power, and slows down if you end up driving it into the shadows, and the screen moves to static as the robots get further out of reach. Maybe the most enjoyable “extra” feature for me, is the way your astronaut can move around on the moon; jumping resembling those lunar hops you see in footage from old Apollo missions, and while I know other games have provided this for some time now, considering the subject matter this is one of the coolest games to look back and see your footprints in.

Moonbase Alpha is not an action game, nor an entirely casual experience, as certain moments (say, having your robot fall off a rampway en route to repairing the last connector with little over a minute to go) can provide a fair amount of tension, and despite having other colleagues along with you the isolating experience of space is ever present, seeing the Earth (with all that delicious oxygen) far off in the distance. It’s a free walk on the moon, something very few people have done, and very few will get to do any time soon. While we currently have our sights set on Mars (be sure to check out the Mars landing of the “Curiosity” rover this Monday 8/6 at 6:00 am Greenwich Mean Time!) the moon will always be our first giant step, and this game’s a terrific simulation for anyone who’s ever wanted to touch down on a surface other than the Earth’s.

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